by Will Straw
With Labour still recovering from its second worst defeat in 90 years, now is the time for a thorough reassessment of what the left stands for. The policy review and reforms to party structures that Ed Miliband has announced should be welcomed. Before ink is spilled on the “blank sheet of paper”, time should be taken to debate and consider a range of different perspectives on the future direction of the left.
The five-point plan set out in Neal Lawson and John Harris’ essay in this week’s New Statesman should therefore be welcomed. But by trashing new Labour’s record with little consideration of the many achievements that 13 years in power delivered, Lawson and Harris risk alienating a group of reformers who could, in other circumstances, find common cause with their mission. The Labour party could easily unite around a programme dedicated to defeating inequality, building a new model of capitalism, localising public services, tackling climate change, and creating a more pluralistic politics – as Lawson and Harris suggest. But their approach is not the way to get there.
In their essay, Lawson and Harris write:
“New Labour stayed in office for 13 years because the world economy was so strong and the Tories were so weak. But even in such benign circumstances, the poor got poorer and the planet burned … The only plan they had was to stoke a finance-driven, lightly regulated economy, and then surreptitiously take the tax skim to fund social programmes”.
What a simplistic view of Labour’s time in office. Few saw the financial crash coming; even fewer set out the remedies in advance of the Lehman’s collapse. Adverse criticism of new Labour around 2003 was primarily concerned with the war in Iraq and the marketisation of public services; not the reregulation of the City. Basel I and II passed without a murmur. Where was the compass paper in 2005 calling for a ban on short selling or a British uptick rule prior to 2007? Twenty-twenty hindsight is a fine thing but those who call now for a new form of capitalism should be more realistic about the collective hubris of the boom years.
Lawson and Harris continue:
“Yet it was clear even before the financial crash wrecked it that this model was severely flawed. It never talked up the morality of redistribution, and so was doomed to be the politics of ever-decreasing circles. Damning proof of the project’s failure was contained in the British Social Attitudes survey of January 2010: among other findings, it showed that, in 1994, 51 per cent of the population believed the government should create a more equal society; by 2010, the figure had fallen to only 38 per cent”.
But Labour was swimming against a tide of globalisation and technological change which pushed up inequality around the world. Yet through the explicit focus on child and pensioner poverty, Labour looked out for the most vulnerable. In 2008, the OECD showed that, since 2000, poverty and inequality had fallen faster than in any other OECD country. Labour’s record of redistribution was demonstrably better than that of the Thatcher/Major governments. And what was the 2002 increase in national insurance for the NHS if not an example of the “morality of redistribution”?
Lawson and Harris’ analysis also glosses over the many achievements of Labour’s time in office. It’s worth rehearsing the list of achievements that I can only assume they forgot: huge increases in spending on health and education including to the salaries of teachers, nurses, and police officers. The creation of sure start, which shows early signs of kick-starting a 30 year stagnation in social mobility. An extension in labour rights and the adoption of the social chapter. Expansion in citizens’ rights through the human rights act and freedom of information. According to the independent institute for government, four of the top five policies of the 30 years and 11 of the top 15 were brought in by the Labour government.
There are many people who toiled away as ministers, special advisers, or party workers to design, advocate, and implement these policies. Publically, they will admit that not everything was right and might even share Lawson and Harris’ analysis of Labour’s timidity in standing up to big business and the City. They call now for many of the ideas that Lawson and Harris would support. David Miliband’s campaign, supported by compass’ torch bearer, Jon Cruddas, said in his Keir Hardie lecture:
“Distinctive labour values are built on relationships, in practices that strengthen an ethical life. Practices like solidarity, where we actively share our fate with other people. Reciprocity, which combines equality and freedom. Mutuality, where we share the benefits and burdens of association”.
James Purnell, in a lecture at the LSE in February, said:
“Following the credit crunch, we clearly need to learn lessons about financial regulation. But we also need to expand those insights to other parts of the economy, and rediscover the cartel-busting credentials of our first term, when we introduced the competition act and created OFCOM.
And we need to revive our attack on concentrations of economic power – in relation to patterns of ownership, corporate governance and the distribution of power and rewards within the British workplace.”
David Lammy,, writing for the Evening Standard in the same month, called for local communities to be given powers to control the number and influence of betting shops.
And alongside the politicians and policy makers, hundreds of activists gave up weekends and evenings in the cold to knock on doors, leaflet their local area, and call voters. Over the years – though they may not have believed in everything that Labour did – they defended the record and argued for another Labour government. What good is a reform programme without bringing on board those who gave so much?
By the time a Blairite reader has waded through the jaundiced and acerbic assessment of Labour’s time in office, they may mischaracterise the ideas in the New Statesman essay as the same old remedies of the left that consigned Labour to opposition in the 1950s and 1980s. But they deserve greater thought and reflection. The work-life balance theme, begun by Alan Milburn, should be revived and used as Labour’s policy response to Cameron’s well-being commission. A return to the New Labour zeal on monopoly power that James Purnell advocated and an end to the race to the bottom on corporation tax (evidenced by Ireland’s refusal to tackle the deficit by raising their rate above 12.5%) can only be tackled through the greater European integration that Blair supported.
Giving parents more “meaningful input in their child’s education” and patient care “based on dialogue” can be achieved by marrying Andrew Adonis’ insights on personalisation with the more localist approach advocated by David Miliband. Tackling climate change does need a new approach to growth – one that factors in wellbeing and the sustainability of inputs – but this was something that Gordon Brown belatedly supported.
And properly embracing pluralism means electoral reform and opening up of the party – an ambition supported in equal measure by the competing factions of progress, the fabian society, and compass. The party will also need to address Britain’s chronic housing shortage and debt culture, but these are issues on which compass has campaigned in the past so we must assume that space prevented their inclusion.
Call it what you will, the “New Socialism” prospectus articulated by Lawson and Harris deserves serious consideration. There is much in it which can unite the Labour party. But a more responsible assessment of Labour’s time in office is critical to garnering that consensus.
Will Straw founded Left Foot Forward and starts a new job in January at IPPR.