Jon Cruddas and Jon Trickett: How New Labour turned toxic

Both party and unions have stayed silent for too long, for fear of letting in the Tories. But as politics drifts further to the right and Labour's essential identity is in real danger, there is more risk in not speaking up.

Looking at the government's nightmarish predicament, one thought occurs time and again: that New Labour's chickens are coming home to roost. The travails over donations link in turn to the cash-for-honours episode, but the origins of the current crisis go much further back - to the early to mid-1990s, when understandable optimism about Labour's skyrocketing prospects served to obscure a mess of factors that were probably always going to turn toxic.

More than a decade on, we're faced with crises of both substance and style, and these are coming together to create a perfect storm of political havoc. Ultimately the two are linked, because the political substance of new Labour has always demanded the centralised model of politics that long ago left the party floundering, and led in turn to the current funding crisis. The upshot is simple: in order to navigate through a Westminster soap opera that seems to lie somewhere between Our Friends in the North and House of Cards and draw hardened political conclusions, we have to examine what went wrong with the new Labour project.

After years in opposition and with the political and economic dominance of neoliberalism, new Labour essentially raised the white flag and inverted the principle of social democracy. Society was no longer to be master of the market, but its servant. Labour was to offer a more humane version of Thatcherism, in that the state would be actively used to help people survive as individuals in the global economy - but economic interests would always call all the shots. Once the Blair government took power, the essentials of its approach became clear: from the commercialisation of public services to flexible labour markets, on through soaring executive pay and on in turn to party funding, big business and the politics of the market had taken pole position.


Social insecurity


This primacy of the economic over the social has created some winners but many losers. The market is contaminating society as inequality grows and anxiety spreads. The credit crunch, falling house prices and the failure of Northern Rock are straws in the wind of an economy on the turn. Nothing exemplifies the UK's snowballing social insecurity more than the march that the Tories stole on inheritance tax. Polling has shown that the political sensitivity of inheritance tax is rooted in our homes being the only source of security we have. Jobs are lost or outsourced; company pensions collapse; long-term care bills loom, as do university tuition fees. Bricks and mortar are all we have to cling to.

So much for New Labour's substance. When it comes to its operating style, decision-making has always had to be controlled. The activists and the unions cannot be trusted: not only do they not understand the nature of the drive to reposition Labour as a party that continues the neoliberal revolution - albeit in a more humane form - but they must not ever be allowed to understand it. Thus, the life of the party has been purposefully sucked from it. The post of general secretary of the party - a once-mighty position - goes to administrators; the NEC is kept permanently in the dark; and the role of conference as a decision-making body has recently been brought to an end. Talk to the members Labour has remaining, and it becomes clear: the notion of an engaged, democratic party looks either dead or on life support. Where is the million-member party that was promised? Where is any notion of pluralism with independent centres of power that provide checks and balances on the parliamentary leadership? In their place, control has been handed to an elite few to force the party to change beyond recognition.

New Labour has left the party without the oxygen of modern social democracy to sustain it, while imposing a political culture that actually serves to leave the new leadership horribly exposed. To use a military analogy, it is the supply lines back to the roots that sustain and feed you. Without them, things always come unstuck. In short, Blairism has stretched the Labour Party to breaking point.

And so, to a note of qualified optimism. All this presents us with a pivotal moment. Will New Labour now be entrenched or replaced? The shape of Gordon Brown's response remains unclear, but it should be judged according to clear criteria. First, there has to be an end to triangulation and a lasting move towards more progressive politics. Just as Compass did a few weeks ago, we can only remind the Prime Minister that the kind of sentiments contained in his 2004 speech on the progressive consensus have the potential to push the party into territory where it can effectively mix power with principle.

The first aspects of this progressive approach must be symbolised by the way we fund and conduct politics within the Labour movement. The party and the country must witness a determination to identify and reject anyone who has behaved illegally or inappropriately in relation to the funding of the party. This, in turn, has to be accompanied by a drive to diminish the penetration of British politics by the power of wealth.

These steps will be necessary, but insufficient. In tandem, we need to begin the renewal of the party's federal structures and a renaissance of an engaged, meaningful conception of democracy. Both the Blairites and the Tories want the link with the unions broken for ever. If that happens, Labour will be finished as a party that can speak to working people's authentic concerns, and will stand revealed as a flimsy electoral machine built to chase the votes of a mythic Middle England - just as the same insecurities that affect Labour's core vote eat into the lives of those people concentrated in the more affluent marginals.

The point needs to be made at every available opportunity: the retention of the union link is a red line that cannot be crossed - not for reasons of factional interest, but to ensure that Labour remains in touch with the kinds of concerns that Westminster can all too easily forget.


Equality and democracy


Moreover, the senior officers of the Labour Party must become independent of the parliamentary leadership, starting with the appointment of a new general secretary with real operating autonomy. We should also demand the separation of the deputy leadership from a properly elected party chair.

To sound a slightly more ideological note, the aim of our politics is to put people in control of their lives and their world. We know we can't do this as individuals or consumers - only as citizens. For that to happen, we need a truly democratic politics, a thriving public realm and a more equal distribution of resources to ensure everyone fulfils their potential. All of this is anathema to the world of profit and the market. The means of creating the good society - greater equality and more democracy - have to become the ends. Means and ends are thus reconciled.

There is still no strong turn to the Tories. It remains true that it is governments that lose elections, and the next election is hardly a foregone conclusion. With more than two years until the end of this parliamentary term, there is still time to turn our fortunes around. But if that is to happen, the party leadership has to come down heavily on the side of change over continuity.

Both party and unions have stayed silent for too long, for fear of letting in the Tories. But as politics drifts further to the right and Labour's essential identity is in real danger, there is more risk in not speaking up. To encourage debate and renewal in Sweden's Social Democratic Party, its new leader coined a phrase for dissident voices - she calls them "loving critics". There is still time for Labour's leadership to listen to such voices and alter its course. But we don't have long.

Jon Cruddas is MP for Dagenham and was a candidate in the recent deputy leadership contest. Jon Trickett is MP for Hemsworth.

This article first appeared in the 10 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, How New Labour turned toxic