This is the true end of New Labour

Ed Miliband's political project was to bury New Labour. Today he succeeds, but not in the way he'd have wished.

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Be careful what you wish for. Ed Miliband wanted to turn the page on New Labour, and today he gets what he asked for: figures showing the first rise in poverty for a decade – part of a trajectory that the Institute for Fiscal Studies predicts will put child poverty back at the level it was in 1997.

“The era of New Labour has passed,” Miliband declared shortly after he was elected as Labour leader. How right he was. Over the last five years, the Educational Maintenance Allowance (introduced 2004, which gave 270,000 students from low income backgrounds £30 a week in sixth form) has been scrapped. The Health in Pregnancy Grant (designed to prevent malnourishment during pregnancy, introduced 2009), abolished. Building Schools for the Future (the clue is in the title, introduced 2004), mothballed.

The tide will continue to come in for New Labour over the next five years. In 1998, Tony Blair pledged to eliminate child poverty by 2020. By the time Labour left office, more than a million children had been lifted out of poverty. But, far from completing that mission in 2020, by that point, it will be as if New Labour had never existed, had never taken office. Now, tax credits – Gordon Brown’s biggest contribution to tackling the problem of working poverty – will be scaled back. SureStart (1998) may well be shuttered or, at the least, cut back to a point where it might as well never have opened to begin with.
This isn’t the prelude to one of those “the wicked Tories” articles, not least because the Internet – and, indeed, The Staggers – is well-stocked with those as it is. And if the Left proved anything over the last half-decade, it’s this: you cannot condemn your way to a parliamentary majority. Increasingly shrill warnings about the awfulness of Conservatism from Ed Miliband and Co. not only failed to prevent a Tory majority, but ushered in a defeat that has put Labour on its back, potentially at least another ten years.

It’s this: considering that today’s deprivation is largely the result in cuts to Blair-Brown era spending, perhaps those 13 years weren’t quite the busted flush that many on the Left seem to think. For all Clement Attlee lives on as the avatar of a better socialism, the British state, after a full decade of George Osborne at the Treasury, will still be significantly larger than Attlee’s. In 1951, when Attlee left office, the state consisted of a military desperately trying to secure a global status it could no longer afford, a ring-fenced NHS on the verge of crisis, and a welfare settlement that left many people, particularly women, out in the cold. Frankly, there are moderate members of David Cameron’s government who would look at the British state in 1951 and find it excessively cruel.

Does that matter? Well, as Labour is almost halfway through a debate about what it stands for and where it goes next, it’s probably worth remembering that the cuts that illustrate the consequences and the depth of its failure in May are largely to services implemented in their so-called “Tory-lite” phase.  Perhaps that should give some of the people suggesting that Liz Kendall, Yvette Cooper, or Andy Burnham “just join the Tories” pause for thought. 

Stephen Bush is political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.