Ed Miliband must, by now, be getting used to the rollercoaster ride that is the fate of the leader of the opposition party in British politics. Yet the address he delivers at the party’s annual conference this month needs to have only one eye on the soap opera, the sound bites, and the see-saws of day to day political life. For it offers a unique opportunity which may well not return during his tenure as leader to address matters of ideological substance.
The most obvious question, which the party continues to evade, concerns what Labour now stands for after 13 years in office, having introduced an unprecedented volume of domestic legislation, implemented major, game-changing reforms to the state (notably devolution), and led Britain into a series of controversial, expensive and protracted wars.
One inhibiting factor is the debate at the top of the party, currently oscillating between the mirror-image impulses supplied by the “New” and “Blue” Labour camps. Both have merits, but neither recognises the complexity of the terrain on which Labour must plant its feet to undertake far-reaching renewal. Are the core propositions that have animated the historical development of social democracy — that it is possible to pursue social equity through a combination of economic growth, fiscal redistribution and centralised intervention — tenable in the 21st century? If so, does Labour honestly have the stomach for the kind of root-and-branch revisionism that has provided the spark for its revival in previous periods of opposition – but which also involves facing hard truths and rethinking entrenched orthodoxies? In broad terms, centre-left governments since 1945 have sought to broker a new compact between the working and middle class. This rested on the assumption that the rising tide of growth generated by a managed capitalist economy would lift all boats.
That historical project is now in tatters. In the UK, median income earners are struggling as never before. The incomes of working families had stopped rising by 2002, and went quickly into reverse thereafter. Closing the yawning chasm in incomes and life chances was a central focus of New Labour’s cautious version of social democracy, but it proved frustratingly elusive: disparities in wealth, assets and income all grew during its years in government. Financial insecurity and fear of unemployment are once again pervasive. And the global financial crisis has triggered a collapse of confidence in the left as economic manager, creating a reputational void for Labour which it seems oddly unwilling to confront. To complete this salutary picture, politics itself has fallen into unprecedented disrepute in the wake of the MPs’ expenses scandal.
While Murdochgate may have raised the spirits of the left, the trend towards anti-politics is distinctly bad news. Social democrats are heavily reliant on collective agreements and institutions that aim to promote the public interest: if those institutions sink into abeyance, progressive politics is the loser.
Yet the temptation to see this moment as terminal for centre-left politics ought to be resisted. There are grounds — as yet politically untapped — to position social democracy as a force for the future, as well as the past.
Some of the most significant challenges of public provision require a new politics of burden-sharing. The debate about the funding of social care triggered by the Dilnot Commission exemplifies this. The question of how to redress the clear imbalance of wealth and opportunities between generations, and how to unlock the assets of the middle classes reaching retirement should be a central feature of policy debate and ought to be natural centre-left territory. So too is the need to develop socially sustainable answers to the appropriate balance of responsibility between state, communities and citizens when it comes to pre-school care and pensions. Within the coalition, a fetishistic obsession with choice and a dogmatic devotion to the doctrines of “new public management” has generated reforms that lack public resonance and legitimacy.
The centre left also has strong grounds to exploit a consistent weakness of the coalition, namely their inability to convince the public that proposed reforms are in the public interest. Plans for education, health and housing benefit have met fierce resistance. The opportunity for Labour lies in reframing debate about collective provision more than 60 years after Beveridge, forging institutions that both enrich the public good while permitting innovation in the light of technological and demographic challenges.
By signalling to his party, and a sceptical public, that Labour is capable of addressing the governing dilemmas that will shape Britain’s future, Miliband can send an important message. He must be clear that his party’s task is to develop a new project for the country, evolving dynamic models of capitalism, welfare and a more pluralist politics that provide an echo of the historic progressive credo of “conscience and reform”. Of course, he cannot do all this alone. But without a guiding ideological thread anchored in a renewed conception of British social democracy, Labour risks drifting towards political irrelevance.
“Reassessing New Labour: Market, State and Society Under Blair and Brown” edited by Patrick Diamond and Mike Kenny is published by Wiley (£17.99)