The greatest lesson from New Labour is that winners have no time for nostalgia

by Tom Watson

It is not true, as some uncharitable colleagues have said, that the people who run Progress are a defeated faction in need of a cause. I think, though, it’s fair to say they belong to a very different organisation to the one that Derek Draper, through sheer willpower, fused into a powerful force at the heart of the Labour party, whose influence endured for more than a decade.

I am one of the few people who has seen the confidential strategy document presented in 1995 to Tony Blair, John Prescott and funder David Sainsbury that led to the creation of the organisation.

I remember the day when Derek took the bus from South London up to Islington so that he could pitch the idea to Tony Blair. While the kids were knocking a football around, Derek sat in the future prime minister’s back garden outlining his plans for the organisation. Tony gave his approval on the express condition that Progress centred itself around the party leader and was not in any way to be seen as, or develop into, a faction. He laid down one more condition – it had to have the approval of John Prescott.

When he got the agreement to go ahead, Draper, brilliantly, brought together party activists from the Kinnockite left, Labour’s old right, the Labour co-ordinating committee’s uber-modernisers as well as grassroots activists who just wanted Tony Blair to win. With sheer force of will, he turned them into an organisation that convinced many that Labour had changed. I remember turning up to one of the many stakeholder management events – cunningly described as an inaugural meeting – to be impressed by the array of talent that had been persuaded, cajoled and flattered into signing up.

As a privately funded organisation within the Labour party, Progress warrants more scrutiny. It doesn’t quite possess a central command structure, but its leadership is never backwards in staking out positions on most areas of policy and party reform.

The members formed a group with unstoppable energy, relentlessly pro-reform in all its guises. They became the shock troops for a young, energetic leader challenging past orthodoxies in order to make us the electable party of the future.

Even the choice of logo – a mod target – was stylish, challenging and unashamedly futuristic. I may be doing the founding members of Progress a disservice when I say that the organisation understood branding, media positioning and triangulation more than any other think tank. Social events were often gatherings of creative advertising and PR people. They were interesting and stimulating and mildly irritating in the way that clever people who know they’re smart can sometimes be.

And as Jim Murphy succinctly observed at the recent, invitation-only, progress weekend conference, the big mistake of new labour – a key component of this being Progress activists – was to define itself against the party. But we shouldn’t define ourselves against New Labour now, said Jim.

We shouldn’t also define ourselves against the leader. Jim will know this too. He’s been around a long while.

Jim’s clever line was the one that got picked up in the papers:

“The quicksand of continual apology does not benefit us or those we aim to serve”.

Had I not had a surprising conversation in the House of Commons tea room with a respected colleague, I would have had no idea what Jim meant by this statement. I obviously know what the words mean, but why on earth would he use them?

“Why are we saying sorry on a weekly basis”? said my friend, a former whip. “We should be proud of our record on crime – it fell 40% when we were in power”, continued my indignant pal.

It turns out that he was irritated with Sadiq Khan. Sadiq gave a speech. It said a lot but was reported in the press as rejecting Labour’s past record on crime. It doesn’t, by the way. I’m not sure how the speech was spun, but the content is interesting. I’ve read it in full. He made a cogent case for an increasing focus on rehabilitation, or in New Labour speak “the causes of crime”. There is nothing wrong with that.

Poor Sadiq. He’s on a difficult pitch. He’s never going to sound as authoritarian as former Sun columnist, David Blunkett, or have-a-go-hero, John Reid. And because he’s the new kid in the shadow cabinet, he’s going to feel the sharp elbows of jostling colleagues for a few more months. He’s also lacking a deep political base from which he can defend himself and his position. He should work on that a little if he wants to triumph over the hurdles that are thrown in the way of people who hold high office.

And let’s be honest: even if Sadiq was being all trendy liberal and denying the past, which he wasn’t – much – then it strikes me that he is fulfilling an important part of our quintessential task of reconnecting. We lost a lot of broadsheet reading, open-minded, non-party affiliated city dwellers partly because of our tough-on-crime rhetoric. We lost more than a few blue-collar workers when we failed to deliver on it.

Surely the lesson of our law and order policy is don’t oversell? Be straight. Be tough. Be fair. Don’t bullshit. Don’t cut the police. It’s not rocket science.

Jim’s impressive contribution was undermined because it was perceived as a reaction to Sadiq’s speech. That’s a shame and I hope that it doesn’t deter the two of them from working together. They’re both very agile, pragmatic characters who know how to seize an opportunity. Working together they could become a formidable duo in our new leader’s team.

Also joining Jim at the private gathering was Caroline Flint. Caroline gave a speech on how Labour needed to be the party of hopes and dreams once again.

I admire the indefatigability of my colleagues. They gave their all to spice up the weekend of activities for Progress supporters. I admire them particularly because, and I feel cruel saying this, Progress is looking tired.

Where once they captured the future, they now seem to be protecting the past. Even the branding looks old. They’re the Heinz salad cream of the progressive left – everyone remembers the brand with great affection, but it doesn’t quite suit modern tastes.

Even my generation’s new Labour pin-up big-boy, old pal Paul Richards, wearily tweeted mild stupefaction during Andrew Adonis’s late night after dinner speech on the merits of high speed rail two. If Paul is weary, then Progress has a problem.

The organisation that chided Labour for being inward-looking and too focussed on sectional interests rather than being outward-looking and supporting the leader seems guilty of ignoring it’s own founding deed of trust, which I have also read. It governs the organisation and says it must be in tune with the “ideals and policies of the Labour party”. To breach this would be illegal.

I may be wrong – I often am on party nuance these days – but some of the Progress people always seem to promulgate a political purism that reminds me of the hard left of the 1980s. They’re always testing credentials and measuring modernising zeal. Somebody should tell them that too many shibboleths spoil the broth.

Even poor Ed Balls felt the need, in a recent interview, to declare that “I’m neither a centralist statist nor a naive libertarian. I’m firmly New Labour”. I almost felt sorry for Ed, having to make such an undignified genuflection to the past.

As we begin to draft our prospectus for the next election, we should never forget that the greatest lesson from New Labour is that winners have no time for nostalgia.

Tom Watson is Labour MP for West Bromwich East.

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11 Responses to “The greatest lesson from New Labour is that winners have no time for nostalgia”

  1. Tacitus says:

    I always get very, very twitchy whenever I hear the term “New Labour” – it scares me. Blair tried with some brief success, but what came with it wasn’t the socialism we associate with the Labour Party. It was a Christian social democratic ideal devoid of any link with the working class movement.
    When Ed Balls said he was “New Labour” I, and perhaps others, felt he was trying to reclaim past ‘glory days’. Well thankfully, Blair has gone and there is a new kid on the street. He may be wet behind the ears and may still have a lot to learn (God knows I will probably cringe again today at PMQs), but right now, he’s all we’ve got.
    Progress are a part of those Blairite days and appears to have little relevance to the current political climate. Where are their pronouncements against the cuts? Where do their leaders stand on the TUC action on March 26th – will they be there?
    No, we need to move beyond the likes of centrist Blairite groups like Progress and move forward to develop a solid and socialist movement that can reclaim the loyalty of working class people in this country.

  2. Emma Burnell says:

    Great piece Tom and sadly very true about the stagnation of certain elements of Progress.

    I was pleased recently to win the Fabian Society’s Democracy Den, with the idea of imposing a windfall tax on bank profits ringfenced to kick start a new social housing revolution. Support in the hall was overwhelming. The idea looked back to one of the first acts of New Labour, the windfall tax on energy companies.

    So I was flabbergasted when a senior Progress person (who will remain nameless) came up to me afterwards to ask if I wasn’t just “punishing success”? There are arguments to be had about different levels of taxation & how we retain the financial sector while diversifying to ensure a broader, more stable economy. But to so abjectly fail to learn the lessons of the crash in order to cling on to what has become a twisted version of the New Labour message (I’m not Mandelson’s biggest fan, but both his critics – and seemingly this character – forget the more important second part of his most famous quote “as long as they pay their taxes”).

    The New Labour of 1995 was about challenging dogmas, not creating and wallowing in them. That’s why it was successful, and that’s the lesson we need to take on.

  3. So you can do a couple of obvious things, one of the most important of which is for Progress to look at itself and determine if it has a role any longer and, if it does, whether it is functioning as well as it could be? It may be painful for it to look into the mirror and assess itself but such selflessness is necessary if there’s a problem.

    If it isn’t working particularly well but the conclusion is that it still has a significant contribution to make, and has value, then recognise this and do something to reinvigorate the brand to make it popular enough to be at the heart of party thinking once more.  Bring in new faces with fresh thinking, creative ideas, bags of energy, determination and belief….the very same set of criteria that created Progress.

    Alternatively,  build on those aspects of Progress that were a success and bin the rest. Come up with something entirely fresh to meet those new challenges being faced by the party.

    The piece seems to be as much about the search for the ‘new Derek Draper idea’ as it is about the apparent demise of a successful brand within the party while recognising that inertia, not identifying and acting on a problem, can be a silent killer of it!

  4. Tom,

    this would have been an accurate and fair critique of Progress before the General Election.

    It doesn’t reflect the reality of the organisation’s current stance or activity, which I talked about a bit in my Labourlist piece on Monday. I was at the event this weekend and as someone who shares most if not all of your politics, and is usually described as Old Labour Right rather than New Labour, I felt welcome and comfortable.

    I’m fascinated that Tony Blair banned them from being a faction, it helps explain the longstanding critcism that we in Labour First had of Progress that it was wasting too much time on think-tankish activities and not doing enough factional organising!


  5. william says:

    Utter irrelevance.Tony Blair, John Prescott,David Sainsbury,Derek Draper,Caroline Flint ,Tom Watson,Jim Murphy,Paul Richards, Andrew Adonis,Sadiq Khan,and David Blunkett all contributed to the non election of the worst PM since Lord North and the subsequent 2010 election fiasco.I doubt that the electorate will forget.Nostalgia?Do you think in 2014 the electorate will buy Miliband and Balls(the Tories will announce future tax cuts,and remind everybody of their track record).It is time to cleanse the Augean stables.

  6. Edward Carlsson Browne says:

    Luke – I can’t say that seems like one of Blair’s worst ideas. ‘Party within a party’ activities don’t exactly scream ‘Labour has changed from the 1980s’…

  7. Éoin Clarke says:

    At long last. Someone, somewhere at the top of our party talks some sense. Excellent article.

    Ed Miliband is the leader of our party, he is trying to guide a new generation of Labourites through 21st century Britain.

    the 3rd way matched the affluence days of yesterday..

    In this modern climate of worsening living standards it is time for Social Democracy & Interventionism to alleviate poverty to play its part.

    Progress are going to become irrelevant unless they get that.

  8. Robert says:

    Do not worry folks if labour loses the next election, then you can run to Blair and beg him to come back and try it again.

    New labour is alive and well, it’s just keeping it’s head down.

    Thankfully the 5 million Labour people who either left did not vote or voted for somebody else I doubt they will back any time soon

  9. john spellar says:

    I am not sure that Tom and Luke are too far apart.This seems to be a glass half full or empty argument.We have all been in the Central Arena of politics for some time and can forget how lonely it can be for moderate,normal people in many local parties.Through its publlications and meetings over the years Progress has provided a valuable lifeline and support for these members fighting difficult battles.It has also provided a platform for policies that reached out to aspirational voters.
    It has also had its faults and Luke rightly refers to failures on organisation.There has also been a tendency towards metropolitan elitist and sectarian attitudes.However Luke is right that recently Progress has become more engaged and mainstream( in spite of its over-the- top campaign for AV ,which ironically both Tom and Luke may approve of ). It’s direction of travel is positive and welcome.

  10. Paul Richards says:

    I wasn’t weary; I was bored. I am full of energy for the battles to come!

  11. Can I just point out that it wasn’t invite only either? It was advertised on the Progress e-bulletin which is a few thousand emails strong. Bursaries were advertised, and taken by half the attendees who couldn’t afford the cost of the whole weekend.

    The line-up was advertised on the website and no doubt there will be a full write-up in Progress Magazine next month.

    I found it the total opposite of your article Tom. There was a good representation of Labour activists (mostly young, many joined after 97) outside of London (shock horror!) and trade unionists. It was upbeat, totally behind the leadership, thoughtful but realistic about Labour’s electoral future. I ran a social media workshop, there were workshops on speech writing, press, Labour’s history – all the stuff that we used to term political education and which is really needed. It was as far from nostalgic as you could get. I think that was the point of what Jim Murphy said. Yes, we need to think about what we didn’t achieve in government and why, but having a vision for what Britain should look like in 2015 should occupy more of our thinking time.

    In fact it wasn’t so different from the Labour Students’ weekends we used to spend in Stoke Rochford, except without the bitchy votes and big egos, and we all probably got a slightly earlier night than we did then.

    I’m writing all of this of course with my background as a former Acting Director of Progress, so take that as you will. But having attended shedloads of conferences, seminars, and general blah-fests, I have to say that last weekend was the first to make me a) feel like we can definitely win 2015 b) challenged my own assumptions and c) was full of genuinely nice people and new people.

    Maybe you should come next year and see if it’s the same?

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