We were elected as New Labour, we will govern again as New Labour, argues Peter Mandelson

In London, Manchester, Leeds and Newcastle (and Hartlepool) this week,  thousands of party members and the public have heard or will hear the third man speak about his book.  They were interested and most bought copies. It seems a far cry from the condemnatory statements made by some of the Labour leadership contestants upon the book’s publication. They hadn’t read it, of course, but since then many others have.

After the party has suffered electoral defeat, it is timely to debate our past as well as our future. The two are linked. And we don’t have to dismiss  one in order to make progress in the other.

In The Third Man, I take the reader back over twenty five years of our party’s fall and rise, not simply the thirteen in government and not just that period after the Iraq war until  2006 when relations between our Prime Minister and Chancellor entered a trough and when their policy differences over NHS and schools reform, university financing and pension policy flared.

Political change on the scale we undertook it, in the creation of New Labour, required intense and sustained teamwork and partnership, trust and mutual support, over a long period of time.  Tony and Gordon were at the centre of this – in the main – productive and creative activity.  But in a truthful memoir and autobiography, when I was personally a part of this relationship over so many years, you cannot explain the good and the bad times without describing what the participants said and did, to as well as with each other. And it is better to tell the story earlier rather than later, before preparing for the next election.

If I have one abiding memory of the period when we were creating New Labour it is the friendship and comradeship amongst all those who made it happen. And that friendship endures, including in the election campaign this year. It has been a happy time and a very successful one. We must have been doing a lot right, although you might not think so to listen to those hastily announcing the ending of New Labour as if you can turn its principles and precepts on and off like a tap.

Millions of voters didn’t think this way and we have to ask – as my book does – why so many of them decided not to support us in this year’s election. Was it because they thought all of a sudden that we were too New Labour? I think not. And that is the central message of The Third Man.

Peter Mandelson is a Labour peer, a former cabinet minister, and author of The Third Man: Life at the heart of New Labour.


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5 Responses to “We were elected as New Labour, we will govern again as New Labour, argues Peter Mandelson”

  1. Guido Fawkes says:

    Err, you were defeated as New Labour.

  2. It’s difficult to argue too much with this, because it’s a book plug, not an argument. What argument there is, however, is bollocks, to put it frankly and as politely as I’m capable of.

    I don’t agree with Guido Fawkes on much, but he has hit the nub of it. It doesn’t really matter that the electorate in 2010 would have rejected Michael Foot. They also rejected Gordon Brown and would very likely have rejected Blair too.

    So just papering over the cracks and pretending nothing much needs to change isn’t going to cut it. Nor will insisting that the problem is that we weren’t New Labour enough and doubling down on public service ‘reform’. I’ve seen no evidence of public enthusiasm for outsourcing or PFI and in any case now is not the time to evangelise for cheap tricks to keep spending off-balance sheet.

    New Labour’s time was fifteen years ago. It was a method of making sure that the party was completely immunised from charges that it wanted to refight the 1970s. The 1997 election result pretty clearly established that it worked. And that style clearly continued to function reasonably well in terms of winning elections up until 2005 or so.

    But thinking of New Labour as a constant thing is a ridiculous straitjacket to place yourself in. The term is only used because its users continue to feel insecure in their position with the party, because they haven’t fully realised that it’s not 1988 any more.

    There is no groundswell of support in the party for a return to the 1980s. The opposition these days does not come from the hard left, it comes from the soft left. Compass is hardly the Militant Tendency and Brendan Barber is certainly no Arthur Scargill. There’s an acceptance that New Labour had a useful role to play, there’s just a wish to move slightly further to the left and rehabilitate ourselves with those we drove away over Iraq, public service ‘reform’, civil liberties, internal party democracy and all the rest.

    And that’s not an unreasonable position. Our losses since 1997 haven’t all been to the right. Not by a long shot. We dropped 14.2% since 1997. Only 5.4% of that was to the Tories. More than that went to the Lib Dems, whilst the Green vote has tripled. If we’d kept half the vote we lost to parties other than the Tories, UK Polling Report’s seat calculator says we’d have a majority of 12.

    In other words, yes, we were too New Labour. Is it too much to ask you to shut up about your book and sod off to the backbenches of the Lords for a couple of years, and just let us be Labour? Not Anything-Labour, just Labour. A label that doesn’t suggest there’s something dreadfully wrong with the party that we need to vigorously scrub out. A label that suggests we don’t hold our membership in absolute contempt and can actually trust them to come to a reasonable decision on an issue. Is that OK?

    If it leaves you with too much spare time on your hands, you could always spend it knocking on some doors. We’ll need all the help we can get to win back the council seats New Labour’s control-freakery and stubborness managed to help us lose all over the country.

    New Labour wasn’t the worst thing in the world, but it is not some shining city on a hill. It was a slogan used to detoxify the party nearly two decades ago, and it’s not fairly toxic itself. Drop the label, stop insisting you know best and learn to win arguments by reasoned point-making, not by insisting that anything else is the road to 18 years in the wilderness all over again. Who knows, if they’re good points, we might even agree.

  3. Emma Burnell says:

    In 1992 the Labour Party lost an election we had expected to win. This was over half my lifetime ago, and the repercussions are still being felt even now.
    “New Labour” can be an amorphous phrase, and everyone who uses it does so with their own, very different, definition in mind, so I’ll try to expand on what I mean when I say “New Labour” and why I know that the time has come (and is overdue) to move beyond it.
    In 1992, when we lost the election, we didn’t lose because we were too confident (the Sheffield rally analysis) but because the public didn’t share our confidence. They didn’t think we could be trusted to keep the best of what had come out of the entrepreneurial boom in the 1980s and they didn’t trust us not to lose our nerve against what were seen as over-demanding unions. 1992 was also only just post-Cold War, and no one had really worked out what that meant yet. Certainly the majority were still wedded to Cold War ideas on national security, and Labour – with our anti-Trident stance (and remember that there was at the 1992 election a Bush in the White house whose re-election was expected) was seen as naive and damaging to our relationship with our strongest ally.
    New Labour was a sensible reaction to the 1992 loss (apart from calling it “New” Labour – one of the worst and most short-sighted branding decisions in history). The proponents of New Labour asked the party to have a conversation, and make a choice based on the grown up electoral understanding that the majority of voters in the UK did not agree with some of our flagship policies even if they did agree with our general policy gist. It was time to examine what we were willing to sacrifice in order to be elected to do the good that we could. New Labour was about an abandonment of outdated dogma, and an understanding that our attitude to this dogma defines us just as much as our actions.
    So the party gave up its historical commitment to renationalisation and opposition to Trident in to elect a party that would bring in a minimum wage and would rebuild and protect public services. That they did so at a time where the Conservative Government did its utmost to lose the election has made analysis of the 1997 victory harder and less clear cut, but certainly the number of seats that Labour won in the South East must be a strong indicator that this strategy worked and that Labour had been seen to change enough for people to give them a chance. Crucially though, Labour didn’t lose its own vote either, and had promises for the whole alliance of middle class Fabian socialists, unions and the working class that has been the makeup of the Labour party since its birth just over 100 years ago.
    Labour’s first term really delivered. The New Deal, the minimum wage, child tax credits, statutory four weeks holiday pay, banning handguns and landmines, starting the ball rolling on dropping Third World debt and gay equalities legislation; there was something in Labour’s first term for everyone. Of course there were complaints that it wasn’t enough – there always will be – but the fact is Labour did all this, and pumped money into our ailing public services, starting the turn around that we enjoy today- while convincing the public that of its case in doing so. So to my mind the 1997 – 2001 Government will go down in history as the most radical and reforming government since Attlee.
    It didn’t sound like it though. Labour talked tough, and Tony Blair led from the right, continuing to prefer to pick his fights with the left of the party. PPP/PFI were anathema to the more traditional left who saw these funding models as undermining the role of the state, and instead of making the argument that the private sector was being used to augment the public sector – and continue the fight for a strong government role – Blair continued to use these fights to define himself and the Labour leadership long after it was necessary to redefine Labour in the public imagination. A phrase I heard often in those times was “I’d rather have a leader who talks right and acts left than the other way round”. While I agree that is preferable to the Cameron’s attempt to present a progressive Toryism that has been revealed as a total sham, it was actually – in the same way that our failure to restore full regulation to the banking sector was doing for the economy – storing up trouble for the future.
    If we don’t make an argument we’ll never win an argument. The argument for better redistribution was never made while the actions were being taken. It was all “talk right and act left”, which was OK in the years of plenty, but set us up for a bad fall in the leaner years. We don’t have the foundations that we could have been building during that time. We don’t have a general understanding of what Socialism can be and can achieve when it states its case proudly.
    Labour’s second term was ruined by September 11th and the reaction of the Blair government. Going into Iraq – rather than focusing our efforts on Afghanistan – was a mistake before we went in and I know it was now. Essentially it’s been devastating to our coalition. The 1992 based fear that Labour would not be seen as able to as an ally to a Republican US Government (and apparently advice from Clinton) led to Blair backing Bush to the hilt. Unlike many who were against the war, I don’t doubt that Blair thought it was the right thing to do, but I think this 1992 fear played into it, and into the overly macho stance on issues like 42 day detention, curtailing of protest, ID cards and other civil liberties issues.
    Now don’t get me wrong, Labour has always had an authoritarian streak, but that was usually tempered by the liberal side of the party. However, after September 11th, it seemed that the Labour leadership took their most tried and tested tactic – arguing with the left of their own parties, and moved on from issues of funding and the boundaries of the public and private sectors and changed this to a supposed populism over issues of counter-terrorism. This lost huge swaths of the party that had fought so many civil rights issues in the 80s and joined the Labour Party over these issues in the first place. The coalition started to crumble as members despaired over a step too far. Those who were disquieted over the funding models were viscerally disgusted over civil rights issues, and weren’t willing to stay to fight for what remained good (and I believe that so much of what we have done – a vast majority – is good). While I have my personal issues with those who have abandoned the party in this way, politically I realise that the coalition is essential to maintaining a vibrant, electable Labour Party.
    I think the rise of the Lib Dems shows what I have been arguing for a while. That the Labour Party doesn’t have to be authoritarian on these issues. It’s another clear sign that we’re not in 1992 anymore Toto. It’s a sign that if Labour is to win back the voters it needs, it is going to have to win bank its whole coalition, which means understanding the success the Lib Dem have had is neither in spite nor because of its liberal policies on crime and drugs. It’s because people don’t think those policies are enough of an issue to be a deciding factor in their votes. We don’t need to over-compensate anymore, and we shouldn’t because it is damaging our electoral chances with all those who once voted for us. It’s time to once again be the party of the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act, while retaining what separates us from the Lib Dems, and continuing to be the party of workers rights and Child Tax Credits.
    New Labour had its time and place. But its current adherents have taken what was once a smart electoral strategy and in an Orwellian twist turned it into a dogma of their own. Refusing to understand or acknowledge the passing of New Labour’s usefulness will only result in the continued tarnishing of a legacy I want to continue to be proud of. It’s time for a new conversation so people can see we have got the message. Labour must make the argument and the policy now for a coherent Left of Centre party or risk failing for generations.

  4. Tilly T says:

    When the Coalition government are positively gloating over the depth and breadth of their cuts to public services, and have no coherent strategy for growth of the private sector, what we need from senior Labour figures is a bit of gumption, postive plans to resist, not a self-interested exploitation of your fall from power.

  5. Robert says:

    Sadly to have gumption you have to have lived the life of the poor….

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