by Siôn Simon
Many and dreadful have been the proclamations of its end, but New Labour is not dead. Uncut, as much as any, has mourned its passing. But to do so was an emotional spasm. Recollected in tranquility, there is hope beneath the hyperbole.
It is true that “New Labour”, whatever that meant, is no longer a dominant doctrine. It had been the ascendant national ideology since Blair became Labour leader in apposition (sic) to a philosophically bankrupt Conservative government in 1994. And it had been dominant within Labour since before it was invented. When Neil Kinnock became leader, in 1985 he opened a philosophical furrow which all his successors have ploughed since.
One of its currencies was linguistic nuance. And only in that coin can one understand the immense significance of Ed Miliband’s conference speech. According to the fragile, case-sensitive lexicon of New Labour, it was the brutal evisceration of a 25 year project. The keepers of the New Labour flame – those of us who have been fighting the fight since the Kinnock years – were devastated. Far more so than has been widely reported or understood.
That was Ed’s intention. He said that he would put New Labour behind us, and that is what he did. He killed it. And he did so in the only way that would have been real: in the language that only we understand. It was a breathtakingly cruel and ruthless act. Which is becoming a hallmark. I respect him for it.
What he ended, though, was New Labour’s position as a dominant ideology. You cannot kill the tradition or the idea.
To add another layer of paradox, there was never really such a thing as New Labour. It was the modern manifestation of a pragmatic “old right” tradition which stretches back to Ernest Bevin; which came through Morrison, Dalton, Gaitskell, Jenkins and Smith, saw Robertson and Radice pushed through the enabling prism of the soft left Kinnock, culminating in Mandelson, Blair and Labour’s colonisation, at the turn of the 21st century, of the centre ground.
For most of the last decade, it has been fashionable to say that “the old distinctions between right and left are increasingly outmoded”. This has been applied as much within as between the parties. It is an equally vacuous platitude in all three cases.
Left and right still mean exactly what they always have. I am on the right of the Labour party and always have been (except for two or three years as a mid-teenaged Bennite). The leader’s speech to the conference was excessively left-wing. That is why I didn’t like it. And that is why he made it. And, as I say, I admire him for that.
In the New Labour tradition that I grew up in, business was not the enemy, bankers were not the enemy. Capitalism was not the problem. Capitalism is the morally neutral world as it is. Market failure is the problem. Market success is the solution.
And even if the rest of the world starts to think that bankers are the problem (they’re not); or that debt is the problem (it’s not – debt is the engine of growth); we in successful Labour resist the temptation to parse it that way.
And we do so for two reasons: first, because, in the long run, you do not make people trust you by saying things which are not true simply because they may presently resonate. And the most important thing is trust. And the next most important thing is the economy, about which it is commensurately important not to say facile things just to score easy points.
Second, our roots – to which we remain emotionally wedded and administratively connected – are as an anti-capitalist party. For this reason, we always – now and forever – start at a disadvantage on the economy. We live in a capitalist world. People know that and are comfortable with it. Yet only 15 years ago, Labour’s constitution was still pledged to overthrow the whole capitalist system. We have to prove ourselves over and over again on these issues. That we are not motivated by envy. That we value enterprise. That we are on the side of wealth creators.
That is why, even when everybody is blaming the bankers, when the bankers are bang out of order, when even the Tories are blaming the bankers, we don’t blame the bankers.
So where does all this leave us?
It leaves us without a leader. A leader of the Labour right, that is. Ed is the leader of the party and we support him without reservation. He made a brilliant start at PMQs last week. His potential is immense. With the right policy platform, he has the charm and the chutzpah to win the next election.
But if Ed is to have a chance of electoral success, he needs Labour’s right-wing tradition to be articulated. And quickly, loud and well. The compass-lite new tribunism which has set the tone so far cannot win elections. To believe it can is somewhere between naïve and perverse. You can write as many pamphlets as you like about new-sharingism or whatever this week’s cloak is called, but the British people have not voted for an underlyingly anti-capitalist programme for 65 years and they never will again.
That I say so, though, means almost nothing. It will not provide the ballast the new leader needs to help him reach the balanced position from which we might win an election. What Labour needs is a new leader for the old right.
The final paradox is that it can only be Ed Balls. David Miliband, sadly for him, is discredited by his defeat. It was an election which, on almost every count, he should have won. He had his chance. He blew it. There is no way back for Miliband aîné .
Balls, on the other hand, emerges from the leadership contest – and the domination by him, his wife and their allies of the shadow cabinet election – greatly strengthened. He needs to carve out a position for himself, though, which is philosophically distinctive from Ed Miliband’s. If he does not, he will soon find himself accused of chipping away at the new leader in the destructively personal way that he and Brown chipped at Blair. He has a chance now to wipe that slate clean and re-invent himself. But if he allows this charge seriously to be leveled at him during this parliament, he will have failed. And he will not get another.
The biggest mistake Balls could make would be to mis-identify the deficit as the ground between him and Miliband. For one thing, it is too central an issue for competing views to be afforded within the top team. Taking a distinctive line on the deficit would just undermine the leader and shadow chancellor and make Balls a splitter. Which he cannot afford to be.
A softer line on the deficit is also wrong in policy terms. It may be right if we were in government. But we are in opposition now, where it is messages that count, not outcomes. And it sends all the wrong messages. It says that we are intransigent, arrogant and careless of the public purse. Which is exactly what the Tory government and media constantly say. And which beliefs caused people to withhold their votes from us.
Whereas a more pro-business, pro-enterprise, pragmatic voice with the political clout that Alan Johnson now lacks is desperately needed around the shadow cabinet table. Balls has enough daft-left, statist, centralist form for it perhaps to seem unlikely to be his. But he is also the man who, during eight years at the treasury, almost single-handedly turned the City of London into the largest and most successful financial centre on the planet.
And, yes, this meant that, when it came, we were more exposed to the crash than less successful economies. But it was also the central driver of 15 years of extraordinary – and real – growth across the whole economy. And it didn’t happen by accident. Ed Balls did it on purpose. Through finely judged and skillful manipulation of the tax and regulatory systems. Inch by inch at obscure ECOFINs which nobody outside the City noticed, Ed made it happen. Ed more than Gordon.
So, now that the teachers and local government workers he’s been courting since 2005 have rebuffed him, perhaps Ed Balls might reflect that there’s nobody on the Labour front bench that understands money like he does. And money matters to people.
Once it became clear that he was not going to win, Balls should have used the leadership election as an opportunity to outflank David Miliband on the right. Even under the older Miliband’s leadership, there was never going to be truly fruitful ground for Balls on the left. Now that David is done and his brother has tacked left, there is nowhere sensible for Balls to go but right. As shadow home secretary, he is ideally placed to claim the ground.
The Blairite right is not filled with love for Ed Balls. But what works is more important than what hurts. The minute he starts to make the right noises, all his vile misdeeds won’t matter. Important things need saying, and a powerful voice is needed to say them. The right knows that you don’t choose a good leader. Real leaders choose themselves.