Progress deputy director Richard Angell addressed the International Union of Socialist Youth in Austria yesterday on the legacy of New Labour and next steps for social democracy in an era of no money, and Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne’s work on the ‘new centre ground’.
New Labour as a political project was born out of the 1980s and a disastrous period of rejection by the British public. Labour presented the public with manifesto after manifesto packed with policies we liked and stood passionately against a government that looked to act with spite against many of those we sought to represent – trade unionists, the LGBT community, Scotland and the people of Liverpool – and failed on its own terms on a number of occasions – three million unemployed twice is a damning record, but we achieved no cut-through and symbolically missed out in 1992.
The Third Way project was not about the end of left verses right but about transcending Labour beyond its immediate history and engaging on a revisionist agenda to change our party and our politics for the new centre ground that had emerged.
New Labour – one of the most successful social demographic projects of the last two decades – was a success. It achieved the purpose of a political party,won three historic victories and was a success in social democratic terms. The record is strong and we should be reminded what progress we did make with 13 years in charge – introduced a national minimum wage and increased it eight times, brought one million pensioners and 400,000 children out of poverty, doubled spending on the NHS, sought to rebuild every school in the country, oversaw a massive expansion of civil and human rights – most notably hate crime legislation and civil partnership – to name but a few. This is a record any social democratic party would rightly be proud of.
But New Labour circa neither 1994 nor 2006-7 will do for the next generation’s challenges. The recent Progress editorial quotes Douglas Alexander’s speech at our annual conference – the continuing utility and relevance of New Labour is too often confused by a failure to distinguish between people, policies and position. While the people have moved on, and the policies were right for their time but the times have changed, the positions are right for where social democratic parties should go next. Alexander identifies these as: vigorously contest the centre ground; economic credibility is the foundation of electoral viability; that we are unhappy to accede to a history in which Labour has been a minority force, able to win only an occasional general election; and finally, that we aspire to change our society, the institutions of government and politics, and our economy and should thus seek to be more tolerant, diverse and pluralist.
To do a new generation of New Labour justice it must look to where our public are saying the new centre ground is emerging. Following one of the most extensive consultations of an opposition party – the feedback from New Politics, Fresh Ideas has led Ed Miliband and Liam Byrne to talk about the new centre ground that is emerging, on which Labour must have the rights answers to win the consent of the British public.
Firstly, the need for a new economy where responsibility to each other is strong, fairness is evident and the challenge of the ‘squeezed middle’ is resolved.
Secondly, a new welfare model with reciprocity at its heart, an identifiable ‘something for something’ exchange that rewards hard work, endeavour and responsibility.
Thirdly, that how people feel about their lives and opportunities is as important as any score card we might present them with about government-run schemes and manufactured opportunities. This ‘cultural’ dimension to our politics which should see some reconciliation on the left with ‘family, faith and flag’ is going to be important if people are going to see Labour represent them not just in what they say but also why they say it.
From other discussions at this conference and from what we see around Europe, a new British centre ground might not be miles away from the terrain on which our sister parties win future elections.
And finally, if we are to truly meet these challenges and be ready for government again, the European left must answer three big questions:
•How did a failure of financial capitalism transcend so quickly into a politics of state failure, public spending crises and a sovereign debt debate?
•If we are to genuinely tackle the wealth inequality in society we must look to assets not just incomes because those who own assets are worth more over time but those who don’t get left behind.
•Most importantly, what is point of social democrats when there is no money? We will need to demonstrate that we will not be spendthrift with people taxes and gung-ho with more government programme announcements. Even under the best scenarios – which took another hit yesterday when growth figures were yet again lower that predicted in the UK – any government that social democrats now enter will be with less money and little capacity to increase taxes – in fact great pressure to decrease them.
Richard Angell is deputy director of Progress