You don’t build the future by trashing the past

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.

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19 Responses to “You don’t build the future by trashing the past”

  1. David says:

    I read John Harris’ excellent book on Britpop a few years back. He is a top pop culture writer.

    Why is he advising political parties? He seems to be writing more and more of these sorts of things at the Guardian. No reason why he shouldn’t – except that he doesn’t have anything particularly interesting or original to say.

    I wouldn’t want to read Michael White’s take on Suede, or Andrew Rawnsley on Lady Gaga. Best to stick to what you’re good at.

  2. oldpolitics says:

    Are you suggesting that a ban on short-selling in 2005 would have helped mitigate the financial crash? If so, how? It seems to me that short sellers perform a very useful function in a bubble – if anything our problem is down to the fact that you can’t short-sell housing, since the market is physical, needs-related, and illiquid, so the only people who could say “prices are crazy” were commentators, not market players.

  3. Chris says:


    Couldn’t disagree more about John Harris’ political writings, he is one of the most interesting and thoughtful thinkers writing in the guardian and his short films are excellent.

  4. U Nimpressed says:

    “You don’t build the future by trashing the past”

    new Labour did … and the result…

    “Labour’s record of redistribution was demonstrably better than that of the Thatcher/Major governments.”

    Leaving aside this being one of the greatest examples of damning with faint paise I’ve ever read, it isn’t true – as I’d expect an evidence based blogger/ think type chap to be aware.

    Wealth was redistributed from poor to rich considerably faster and in greater quantities under the Tories than new Labour managed in the opposite direction.

  5. Neal says:

    It’s not a question of trashing the record Will. The record speaks for itself in different ways to different people. There is a balance between the minimum wage and Sure start for instance and the Iraq war and attempts at 90 day detention. Most made their choice and left. Thankfully some are coming back.

    Of course Labour did good things but did it build a sustainable basis for itself and social democracy? The answer to that is a categorical no. Unless we understand that it got fundamental things wrong then we cant move on. Its political economy was flawed and Compass was saying that for years before the crash. It inverted the principle of social democracy to make society operate in the interests of the market – that is about as fundamental flaw as you can get. It didn’t have a model of public service reform that entrenched the public realm – it had targets and markets. It was wrong and we have to say so. It had a way of doing politics that was often thuggish and controlling. The party was stripped as a democratic vehicle. We paved the way for Browne and tuition fees and cuts in benefits. We would have cut deeper than Thatcher. We have to face all this if we want to move on.

    Yes it did good things but the good things didn’t and don’t build a foundation for a more equal, democratic and sustainable future. Of course it is better than the Tories but its not just not good enough – it was heading in the wrong direction. Denying that doesn’t help.

  6. Matthew Cain says:

    I agree with most of the response Will.

    But surely one critical point for Labour’s recovery is that we must stop looking at “huge increases on spending in health and education” as an achievement in their own right. The investment should have been a means to an end – but too often turned out to be an end in itself as Brown acted as a deadweight against reforms.

    Against this backdrop, the party lacked political narrative and achievements the public could identify with. Now it’s all gone wrong, we look like we squandered hard working families’ taxes.

  7. Will Straw says:

    Thanks for the comments. A few responses.

    David – I have no problem at all with John Harris writing about politics. He is a fluent and interesting writer and a very passionate speaker to boot with a lot of interesting ideas.

    oldpolitics – there have been a number of remedies suggested after the crash including a ban on short-selling and, in the US at least, the restoration of the uptick rule. My point was just that these ideas were only suggested after the crash.

    U Nimpressed – New Labour trashed a past which had led to four election defeats. Now I’m no Blairite but the man delivered three election victories and we need to understand why that took place. Part of it was the work done in opposition from 1994-97 and the 97 manifesto but Blair was also a decisive and initially popular PM who implemented his manifesto and was given a 2nd and 3rd chance to lead. To suggest that this was solely down to the strength of the world economy and Tory incompetence is to ignore these successes.

    On inequality, try this graph from the IFS showing how income inequality came down for most of the Blair years:

    Wealth inequalities did get worse but what evidence do you have to suggest that it was taking place “considerably faster and in greater quantities” than under the Tories. Measures like the Child Trust Fund and Savings Gateway (now abolished) were starting to turn the tide. I’d suggest a land value tax would be an even more radical way of tackling this problem.

    Neal – Thanks for taking the time to respond. A few thoughts:

    1) You over-state the number who left the party. While Labour did lose 5m people between 1997 and 2010, considerably more than half (63% or 8.5m) chose to stay throughout.

    2) Very fair point on Compass’ work on political economy which, as you know, I largely support. But this was from 2003 onwards. The paradigm that Blair and New Labour got caught in was fundamentally a mid-1990s response to four election defeats, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the undeniable decline of collectivism in British culture. The public were not in a place in 1997, 2001 and even arguably 2005 for many of the reforms that they would supprt today.

    3) It’s important, in my view, to separate what happened before 2003 with what happened afterwards when Blair prosecuted Iraq and began his public service reform agenda which, as you note, has resulted in the implementation of the Browne review. But that is a nuance that doesn’t appear in your article which throws the baby out with the bath water.

    4) Did Labour build a foundation for a more equal, democratic and sustainable future? I believe they were on there way to doing so and, had the financial crash not hit, more of the legacy would have been preserved. But we have to learn lessons from what has happened and that’s where I think your forward looking agenda has merit. I just caution on dismissing everything that came before. Context is important in politics as is giving credit where it’s due. After all, by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more together than we do alone!

  8. John Harris says:

    Thanks for the post will. Inevitably, I will echo NL – and point out that what we wrote was at least slightly more nuanced than you suggest. The requisite full quote is this:

    ***New Labour certainly attempted to ameliorate some of the symptoms of gross inequality***, but it never properly tackled the effects of untrammelled markets. In fact, doing so was ruled out by the very foundations of its thinking: the assumption that this is and will remain a Conservative country, and that there is no alternative to a capitalism of unrestrained markets in which the sphere of non-economic life is squeezed by more production and consumption. 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.

    Oh, and @David: I’d actually like to read M. White on Suede, and definitely Rawnsley on Lady Gaga. Or even M White on Lady Gaga. Sadly, I have nothing to say about her, and dependents to feed, so I’ll have to keep on keeping on. Just avert your eyes or something.

  9. Robert says:

    There is more to all of this than has yet been written. After all Compass advocated tactical voting for the Liberals and Lawson and Harris still seem to defend the tactic even though we now see the Lib Dems in coalition with the tories. On saturday they both argued that Compass should open up to LIB DEM members. They put Caroline Lucas on the platform in Brighton whilst refusing the labour candidate. They voted down a resolution which argued for the early re-election of a labour government. lawson said that he would play no part as a praetorian guard for Ed Miliband.
    These two cannot be allowed to get away with the idea that they have a serious relationship with the left of the Labour Party

  10. james says:

    Though I’m very sympathetic to Neal and John, I agree with Will in that reference to past disagreements isn’t a good opener to a debate.

    My problem with “New Socialism” is that it brings back the s-word but deprives it of content. A bit like our current Clause Four which though it firmly made us a “democratic socialist” party, it lacks reference to the divide between labour and capital that our movement has historically sought to close.

    Rather like when Ed used the phrase “a capitalism that works for everyone”, I feel like gouging my eyeballs out when I hear people talking about a “new model of capitalism”. Where’s the reference to ownership? Where’s the buy-in for people? I’ve suggested a detournement of Thatcher’s right to buy – the “right to own” –

  11. Alun says:

    ‘With Labour still recovering from its second worst defeat in 90 years’

    I know that pedantry can deeply irritating, but that’s not true. In 1931 Labour were reduced to either 46 or 52 seats (depending on whether various ILP and etc MPs are counted as Labour or not) out of 615. The ‘popular vote’ for that year cannot be compared to contemporary elections for two very important reasons; the first is that most constituencies saw only two candidates on the ballot, and the second is that a massive 61 National Government MPs (49 of them Tories) were returned unopposed.

    Mind you, the frequency with which people make that bizarre (to me!) error is interesting. 1931 has clearly dropped out of our collective memories as a Party, which maybe isn’t so surprising given that there will now only be a handful of people alive that actually voted in that election.

  12. Rupert Read says:

    Will, re. your comment number 4: “Did Labour build a foundation for a more equal, democratic and sustainable future?” This is the 64 million vote question, and the answer that Neal and John rightly suggest is: not very much. The record on sustainability was really very poor, as I for one have pointed out here: . The record on equality is poor: a slightly _more_ unequal society in 2010 than in 1997: what a horrendous indictment of a supposedly Labour govt! And the record on democracy was at best mixed: Labour presided over the expenses scandal, failed to give us Lords reform, failed to deliver on any kind of progress on electoral reform…
    In that context, it seems to me that Neal and John are basically right. And they are surely right – and here I think you would agree, Will (though Robert would not! – and his comment shows that the power of blind Labour tribalism is still not to be underestimated) – that a genuine commitment to pluralism is part of the answer. What Labour has to do, surely, is to look at minimum to be compatible with / to assemble a governing coalition after 2015. If a ‘rainbow’ coalition ends up involving some (or all) of the Green Party, Respect, Plaid, the SNP, and ‘social liberals’, then the programme it puts forward had better be similar to what Neal and John recommend – because most of those Parties/MPs just won’t be interested in joining a new New Labourism. They (we) indeed want something like ‘New Socialism’. And anything new that comes out of Ed M.’s policy review process had better begin by acknowledgeing just how horribly wrong the last govt was on so many issues…

  13. Rupert Read says:

    p.s. You are wrong Will to argue that few saw the crisis of 2007- coming. Many of us in the Green movement – including, at book length, both Larry Elliott and Ann Pettifor, of the Green New Deal group – have been warning of it for years. Few in the charmed circle of govt advisers, New Labour thinktanks etc. saw it coming – so much the worse for them. This again just goes to show how a new pluralism and a willingness to look outside the box, starting with an acknowledgement of how feeble that box was, is essential. That again seems to be just what Lawson and Harris are offering.

  14. Ian Leslie says:

    I’m surprised that clever and thoughtful people like Will are taking this article so seriously. What’s in it other than a collection of impossible-to-disagree with vacuities and vapid generalisations? Where are the policy ideas? Where is the weighing up of difficult political choices? Where is the nuance? Where’s the beef?

    The analysis of the New Labour years doesn’t amount to much more than that some Really Bad people took over the party for fifteen years and didn’t do enough Good (and of course, Markets = Bad). Student stuff (with apologies to students).

    I do think it’s silly to say that because JH writes about music he shouldn’t write about politics. But whereas on music he’s a precise and trenchant writer, when it comes to politics he’s too easily satisfied with empty platitudes (combined with dark mutterings about imaginary “Blairites” under the bed).

  15. Rob says:

    Whatever Harris is “a fluent and interesting writer” is not one of them. This dire piece of vacuous rubbish in the New Statesman is exactly what I would expect from him. Read, for example, the insights brought to bear on the issue of climate change. We learn that it is a bad thing which a future Labour government should pledge to tackle. Most of it is so general that Cameron could happily sign up to it.

    the few specifics there are are either misguided (a european minimum wage) or incapable of assessment (what is meant by the ban on international capital flows?).

    It demonstrates the sorry state of the left that this kind of thing gets published in the New Statesman. Will Straw and Hopi Sen shouldn’t have dignified it with commentary.

  16. Martin says:

    @Ian Leslie

    Absolutely agree. “Vapid” is the word.

    @Will Straw

    I’m not sure this collective hubris stuff is good enough. And I remember a few dissenting voices.

    Why was there not more dissent at the time? It was obvious that we were living in a bubble economy, even if no one predicted the scale of the collapse. Everyone knows what happens when bubbles burst.

    Go back to 2005. Rocketing house prices and scary levels of consumer debt. “Is this a good idea? Can this go on forever?” Soft landing… blah blah… new paradigm… blah… That was bollocks at the time. And it was bollocks even without the benefit of hindsight.

    This is what someone on the left should be thinking in those circumstances: what does this do to inequality? What is the distribution of jobs, education and housing?

    And what was the biggest driver of inequality between 1997 and 2007? The housing market. That was also obvious pre-crash.

    If you want nice social-democratic things, you don’t build an economy on house prices, asset bubbles and debt and rely on generous tax returns to fund your public services.

    It was really very simple. It was avoidable. Why wasn’t this understood? Because people weren’t looking, they weren’t doing their jobs. “Political commentators” were producing vapid, abstract bullshit instead of engaging with what was right in front of their eyes.

  17. David Vinter says:

    But the Blair/ Brown government had the worst housing record since 1920. At the same time the UKpopulation increased by 3 million, no wonder house prices went atmospheric! The–credit-credit- credit Brown policies made those with housing assets think they were rich, witness all the adverts for remorgaging at crazy borrowing to apparent asset ratios, and the growth of the self valuation mortgages,
    how crazy can you get? It had to end in disaster!
    The best government for houses built was the 1930–39 national government that built 3 miilion houses over 10 years, next best was Harold Macmillan, equality is not much goodi if you don’t have a house!

  18. stephen ryan says:

    I think the problem for New Labour was that it was largely based on Thatcherite economics recycling the tax revenues into public services and easing poverty, but when the credit crunch came, and exploded the idea that the market always knows best, then it had very little left to say. And lets be honest, and I campaigned for Labour at the next election, rather than setting out a bold agenda, the campaign message was largely reduced to don’t let the Tories ruin it. It was very uninspiring.

    And the idea that no one could see it happening is nonsense. Labour coming into power in 1997 could have implemented the ideas from Will Hutton’s The State We’re In and become more socially democratic – it seems to be working for Germany at the moment. But the choice was made not to follow that route, and it all came crashing down with the credit crunch, and Labour must come up with an answer to it.

  19. Robin Thorpe says:

    I would also suggest that the current trend away from socialist politics towards the centre right is a consequence of bourgeois sentiments towards property. The encouragement from central government for people to ‘own’ their personal slice of debt, started by Thatcher in selling council houses and propagated by Blair and Brown in permitting the peddling of cheap mortgages, is not egalitarian, but instead removes liberty and increases the gap between those who have and who have not. People are resticted by debt, slaves to the bank (but free to choose which master, an important choice for the liberal economist), and slaves to capitalist politics in the race to control interest.
    The situation is heightened when people finally pay off their mortgage, by which time they need social care and Tory politicians agree with them that they should not have to sell their house that they worked so hard to pay off and that the care of them in their dotage should be shared by the taxpayer.
    The New Labour Government did make some achievements and if you are the son or daughter of middle class parents you would have benefited hugely. But by in large the reforms were tinkering with social inclusion not breaking down barriers. I was too young to vote in 1997 and by 2001 I had read Big Brother and was shocked by how similar the descriptions were to the nation state that Blair and Brown had created. Not only did they shackle themselves to Tory spending plans for the the first term (with some justification to promote themselves as economically viable), which meant that they could not deliver any tangible reforms in the first four years, but they were responsible for the gradual decline of our civil liberties. Liberties that David Blunkett dismissed as ‘airy fairy’. I am a believer in the Labour philosophy and I agree with many things that the two Miliband brothers have written and said in the last 6 months but I am not a Labour Party Member because I do not agree with the top-down method of government that has been evident in the last 13 years. I agree with Lawson and Harris that a new attitude to socialism is required. What Blair did do well was to teach the swing voters that a democratic socialist party is an excellent vehicle for aspiration. Education remains the key to alleviating poverty and facillitating aspiration; what is also required is delivering the core message of the Labour Party “Wealth, power and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few”.
    William Morris said in 1885 – “the real business of socialists is to impress on the worker the fact that they are a class, whereas they ought to be a society…The work that lies before us at present is to make socialists”

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