Goodbye to New Labour and What Comes After It?
The Scotsman, February 26th 2010
It has been a momentous few days in British politics, dominated by Andrew Rawnsley’s allegations of bullying by Gordon Brown, whose style of politics and behaviour was further put under the spotlight by Alistair Darling’s remarks that ‘the forces of hell’ had been unleashed upon him by No. 10.
At the same time an equally significant, if not more important political development went completely unnoticed in the firestorm of the last few days: the demise of New Labour.
Last Saturday, the Labour Party gathered for its major spring event to launch its new campaigning theme, ‘A future fair for all’, and did so with a variety of vacuous sub-themes from ‘securing the recovery’ to ‘protecting frontline services’ and ‘standing up for the many’.
Alongside this, gone from the election campaign website or Labour’s main website is any mention of New Labour, its logo, branding or straplines. Instead, it is plain, simple, good old-fashioned Labour.
New Labour has gone without any fanfare or burial, attention distracted by the Andrew Rawnsley allegations. Yet to complicate matters, Gordon Brown in his keynote Saturday speech did mention ‘New Labour’ several times. He concluded his speech with a plea to different groups of votes and their concerns, concluding each with ‘New Labour is your home’.
This ending of New Labour in the party’s ‘official’ message is an historic moment and the closing of an era. At the same time, Brown and Mandelson’s continued usage of it in speeches is clearly an attempt to maintain a delicate party unity, keep on board the few remaining Blairites, and navigate a course between the ‘core vote’ strategy and reaching out to aspirational voters in ‘Middle England’.
New Labour was born fifteen years ago at the 1994 Labour Conference when Tony Blair revealed ‘New Labour, New Britain’, and challenged the party to change, announcing that Clause Four was going to go, and a new party was born.
New Labour then had a spring in its step. It was young, modern, eager and impatient for change. It wanted to make Britain a ‘young country’ and stand up to ‘the forces of conservatism’.
Having rebranded and repositioned the party, Blair began to become frustrated about why he could not do the same to government, public services and the country. This gave birth to the Blair mantra that the aim of office was ‘to modernise Britain as we modernised the Labour Party’, a philosophy which contained within it the seeds of self-destruction and hubris.
New Labour has a positive set of stories to tell: three Labour election victories, the minimum wage, devolution, a decade of public spending and investment, and forcing the Tories on to Labour’s terrain on social justice and poverty.
Despite this the record of negatives is telling: the command and control politics, the blindness to the corporatisation of public life, the inexorable authoritarianism of so much of society This has resulted in the diminution of any sense of what Labour stands for and speaks for, and where it has placed Britain in a geo-political context, still not a ‘normal’ European country, and shaped by a fanatical Atlanticism.
New Labour in many respects outstayed its welcome. Instructively, the ‘New Democrats’ of the Clinton era, upon whom New Labour was originally modelled by Blair and Brown, never outlasted the Clinton Presidency.
The experience of the Democrats after Bill Clinton gives some insight into the post-New Labour party. The Democrats got into a mess in the 2000 Presidential elections working out whether Al Gore was the continuity candidate with Bill Clinton, or the change candidate. The result was he mixed his messages, confused voters, and even though he won the election in the popular vote and lost it because of the Florida ‘coup’, the confusion did not help him.
The forthcoming election will see Brown and Mandelson, the two main players in creating New Labour along with Blair, fight a populist, opportunist campaign against the Tories. They will invoke traditional Labour messages. But they will try to keep the door open to the reach of the New Labour coalition, and will be assisted in this by Tony Blair’s involvement in the campaign.
This will by its nature be a transitional Labour campaign as we shift from the age of New Labour to a future as yet uncertain. What comes after New Labour will in part depend on the election result. What can be said with certainty is that given the contours of the Cameroon Conservative project, setting themselves up as the ‘Heir to Blair’ and the continuation of modernisation, the values of New Labour will continue to find expression.
Labour’s choices are significantly constrained by where New Labour came from and what it did. Labour wasn’t exactly a successful social democratic party before Blair and Brown came along. This wasn’t just the matter of the four election defeats, but the party’s historic problem with pluralism and sense of tribalism, seeing the world in terms of ‘us’ versus ‘them’.
New Labour was borne out of Labour’s lack of confidence in making the political weather and giving voice to progressive values. What it created was success in the first, reshaping British politics, with a complete, humiliating failure in the second, marginalising any sense of radical social democracy, and instead positioning New Labour as the logical inheritors of Thatcherism with a human face.
This leaves Labour in a no man’s land, unable to go back to the future, considering the party’s previous failings and limited appeal, but knowing in its highest reaches, that any sense of a real, vibrant, collective ‘Labour movement’ has been long buried by the New Labour years.
The future of Labour matters to British politics considering it is likely to remain into the foreseeable future the main opposition to the Conservatives. The party has little monies, is massively in debt, has few members or activists, or a sense of what it is. Despite all of this it is not completely dead in the water in the forthcoming election against the Conservatives showing the limited appeal and transformation of the Tories.
If Labour moves into opposition, the party will as it always does ratchet up the radical rhetoric, but it will remain committed to the politics of the new establishment and our truncated, diminished democracy. For something more radical to happen, the party will need to wake up and realise just what it acquiesced to during the New Labour era, and that this wasn’t just down to that nasty Tony Blair (or Gordon Brown), but the absence of anything else in the party. And there is still little sign of such reflection.