Purple bookers try to revive past New Labour glories

Leading “Blairites” plan to publish a modernisers’ manifesto, to “reshape politics on the centre left” . It will be called The Purple Book.

by Sunder Katwala

Looking back at the successes and shortcomings of the New Labour years, it could be argued that, if there was a missed opportunity which set the limits to the party’s ambitions for progress, it came with the 2001 general election campaign.

It was an election which Labour was never going to lose. William Hague’s unpopular populism was never taken seriously across the country. Yet New Labour high command could never quite believe that the party was going to win, and was concerned to close down issues which it feared were resonating.

So the posters were purple – a lot done, a lot to do – in a bid to seek a largely mandateless re-coronation of the then very popular Tony Blair.

The result was a landslide – a slow motion replay of 1997, with almost no seats at all changing hands, but on a much lower turnout in a way that did little to shift the centre of political gravity. In retrospect, Labour’s 1997-2001 term stands up well, with a ream of manifesto commitments taken into office delivered in a way that endures, from the minimum wage to devolution.

What always remained elusive was “renewal” in office, though politicians and think-tankers talked of little else. The 2001 campaign may have a good claim to be the most cautious run by any winning party in the post-war period. (The major themes of the second term had been kicked into the long grass. It was a big deal for Gordon Brown to put up national insurance for the NHS, but it was safely “under review” during the campaign. Tony Blair’s big second term idea was to win the European argument, but he planned to begin it at the TUC conference on September 11th 2001, in a speech never given, rather than to take Hague’s “foreign land” campaign head on at the hustings).

Given that 9/11 came to dominate all else within a few months, perhaps events meant that it didn’t matter. But 2001 was probably the moment at which Labour needed to give its argument and vision more positive content.

Instead, Labour emulated Bill Clinton a few years earlier. It was re-elected, but did not seek to realign the political debate explicitly. It did shift policy arguments, but was less confident than Margaret Thatcher in believing that politicians could reshape the contours of public and political debate.

To be fair, there was perhaps still more political and ideological content in the 2001 campaign than the re-run in 2005. Douglas Alexander’s “Schools and hospitals first” was (sotto voce) an argument about public services and taxation. Alan Milburn’s core 2005 slogans “Forward not back” and “Your family better off” did not in themselves seem to contain anything to suggest “Labour” rather than “Conservative” or “Liberal Democrat” would be the party claiming them.

Still, now out of power, Labour has every reason to be rather more nostalgic about that landslide moment. And so the purple banner is to be revived this autumn, as a chance to recapture those old New Labour glories.

Rachel Sylvester has the scoop in her Times column this morning (£).

Now, the Blairites in the Labour Party are planning to publish their own modernisers’ manifesto that they hope will reshape politics on the centre left in a similar way. It is going to be called The Purple Book.

“Purple was the colour of new Labour”, says one of those involved. “It’s what you get if you combine red and blue. It symbolises the need to stay on the centre ground”.

Sylvester names Tessa Jowell, Liam Byrne and Alan Milburn as having agreed to contribute, along with Spads-turned-MPs Liz Kendall and John Woodcock, to a book due to be published by Progress, with Lord Sainsbury’s support, ahead of the party conference.

The Purple Book isn’t an academic exercise,” says one of the organisers. “Ed Miliband has said he has a blank page for his policy review and we want to start making some notes on that page. This is about what Labour should be saying in 2015, not what’s happening right now. It’s not the abandonment of New Labour, it’s the next stage of New Labour”.

“It is not yet clear whether David Miliband will write a chapter, although he sympathises with the aims of The Purple Book”, writes Sylvester.

The project organisers say they wish to lay the “Blairite” tag to rest (and it was rather a caricature of David Miliband). All of those identified by name in the Sylvester piece were David Miliband supporters in the leadership election of 2010.

Sylvester writes:

Already, those discussing the project hope that they may in future be known as the Purple Book group rather than Blairites — an outdated adjective, almost two decades after Tony Blair first became leader — just as some Lib Dems are described as Orange Book MPs.

This may look only like a shallow “rebranding” if the voices come from what is seen as one pre-existing faction. The project could look rather a narrow one, at least in the embryonic form described by Sylvester in the Times. I would have thought the book’s organisers could well have a better chance of more influence in framing party debates beyond the core of their own faction if they were to involve a broader range of voices, perhaps including senior supporters of Ed Miliband such as John Denham, and thoughtful voices who did not vote first for either Miliband, such as John Healey.

And declaring an intention to emulate the Orange Book LibDemmery of David Laws and Nick Clegg doesn’t sound like the most plausible platform from which to persuade Labour opinion – not just on the left and centre of the party, but also on its social democratic centre-right.

The purple book is not the only “purple” project in the Labour debate. A broader and perhaps more promising “purple” project involves some of the same voices formerly known as Blairites, but attempting to forge a new alliance with the emerging conservative communitarian left which calls itself “blue Labour”.

These are not natural alliances – combining an economically liberal post-Blairite wing (and especially its more socially liberal voices such as Phil Collins and James Purnell) with Blue Labour which is hostile to market liberalism from an egalitarian perspective, and has a communitarian critique of social liberalism too.

That anti-market instinct might give this project a better claim to the “red + blue = purple” banner than the Progress group themselves – though it could be argued that Maurice Glasman is perhaps providing most of both the red and blue in the mix in that case.

These two tribes have been exploring their common ground and differences in a series of seminars in London and Oxford. Phil Collins wrote about this in an interesting Times column, republished by Progress on the “new and blue” synthesis. They can find a common enemy in a (somewhat stylised and occasionally caricatured) critique of the Fabian state, often drawing on the critiques of Fabians like GDH Cole to make it, and an interest in an emerging politics of reciprocity and mobilisation from below.

Other good, sympathetic critiques of blue Labour have been published recently by Michael Merrick, seeking the positive account of the state which is needed to go with the critique of excessive statism, an important challenge to both sides of the “new plus blue” alliance – and by Dan Hodges of this parish, who combined a sympathetic engagement with good advice which went beyond presentation.

One year after a heavy election defeat, it is a sign of health for the party that predictions of a factional civil war have proved absurd, and there is instead, at the outset of the policy review, a serious high-level debate about ideas, though not one yet translated into language which would engage broad public audiences.

There is also a challenge here to the leadership. Ed Miliband does have a strategic sense of where he wishes to take the party, but needs to build on his arguments about the squeezed middle to articulate how he believes the party’s public argument, as well as its organisation, should change.

Beyond the three or four most significant set-piece leader’s speeches, there has been little from others.

Maurice Glasman has provided a strong sense of intellectual and political challenge across the party, talking about this as “a completely agitational idea to provoke a conversation about what went wrong with the Blair project”. (Again speaking to Progress, in an interesting forthcoming interview which has been prominently reported for rather loose language in asserting that Labour “lied” about immigration, unwisely extending the popular mythology of a conspiracy theory that this endlessly noisy debate has been silenced from above). Glasman has certainly widened and enriched the conversation, while signalling an intent to ensure there is some grit in the Labour oyster. The leader should make these insights part of a new synthesis, but nobody, including its advocates, thinks that this is is likely to involve swallowing blue Labour whole.

Ed Miliband is a pluralist, comfortable at engaging across the spectrum of opinion in the party. He also needs more “outriders” for his own argument.

Putting Stewart Wood into the House of Lords was a good move, to give one of the key thinkers around the leader a public voice too. Back in the leadership campaign, there was a strong case for giving greater public prominence to John Denham, who was doing long-term policy thinking for the campaign. This would have helped to challenge and destroy the rather silly “Red Ed” caricature at an early stage, and flesh out what are the motivating themes for the leadership – themes including reciprocity and contribution, and the politics of fairness which can connect with what has become known as the “squeezed middle”.

After a knife-edge contest, Ed Miliband has demonstrated his naturally collegiate instincts.

He will doubtless engage with the purple prospectus too. But he and his supporters do also now need to do more to ensure that they frame and shape debates about the direction which the leader wants the policy review to take.

Sunder Katwala is general secretary of the fabian society.


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11 Responses to “Purple bookers try to revive past New Labour glories”

  1. Robert says:

    For the first time ever I took a long hard look at the BNP as a party, sadly it does not meet my requirements, it would have killed me for having no legs, so not a good start, I took a long hard look at Labour the red version is hard to find these days, so I went to the purple flag or blue if your colour blind, and I did not like what I saw, OK they not kill me but starve me to death. And I took a look at the Tories, and I have to say these days they meet my requirements.

    I’m working class, disabled after a massive accident, have two kids and a few grand kids, I need to have a lot of help to find a job, but already I’ve written 1006 job applications and had three replies one told me to F off as he had enough shit already.

    So where do I go now for a party which will say OK mate your disabled we need to help you, it’s the Tories, yes yes they will hammer me like hell so did Labour, now we have this naff Purple flag badge call it what you like.

    Hold on we have Plaid in Wales phew thought I’d have to vote Tory.

    What would plaid do well they said they allow people to end their lives.

  2. It’s hard to be wholeheartedly optimistic about this “Purple Book”, and you’re right that the Red-Blue synthesis with potential is that of Red and Blue Labour, not that of the Red and Blue parties.

    I’ll always read things with an open mind, but if it as I fear it turns out to be a rehash of “more markets, more choice, and more outsourcing”, it’ll demonstrate that the Blairites in question have failed to learn the key lesson of Blair – that parties and movements have to adapt to changing times, not keep fighting battles which are already either won or lost.

    Blue Labour, for its part, needs to be a little less ‘agitational’ and a little more shrewd at using language which will appeal to Labour party members – it’s broken into mainstream debate now, no need to overuse provocative language just to get noticed.

  3. Stuart Dickson says:

    Where does this leave Scottish Labour? Even further behind?

  4. john p Ried says:

    Interesting The highlighted red tag “to read more..” comment cut off with Sunder saying “to be fair” saying that laobur at 2001 didn’t change the political concensus in 2001 the way Thatcher did in ’83 and that there was a wasted oppurtunity but that we were’nt aware of 911, Well the shift in the concenus in ’83 was also due to Miltant and the strikes playing into her hands as thatcher had backed down about pit closures in 1981, Also it’s a myth to feel that Thatcher bravely for saw the chance to take on the Unions, they had been unpopular to the pint of regualiton through out the sixties let alone the strikes that would follow her victory or the Winter of discontent previously, I remember after the 2001 eleciton and disapointment at the low turnout that one solace I had from that was such a big majority it wa imposible for the Tories to have won in 2005 because of it,

    Maybe Blair and Co new to bring in the investment in Education and the NHS it would take longer than 2 terms as it take less time for the Tories to destroy the NHS than for labour to have repaired it, and that was there justification for sticking to the middle ground to win 3 terms at all else,
    Remember If denis Healey had become leader in 1980 ,its said he would have lost in ’83 and won in ’87 so The tories in doing what they wanted to do in their second term did change the country but they new in doing what they wer ein 84 it may have been a sea change but, It they wouldn’t have won the next election, but they would have won the argument as Laobur on winning in 1987 may have had to accept the tories polcies on unions 10 years earlier.

  5. paul barker says:

    It looks to me like both Purple & Blue Labour are retreads, of Blairites & The OLd Right repectively. I cant see anything in either to attract anyone even vaguely Liberal or forward-looking.

  6. Henry Tam says:

    Colour-coded politics is fun for the insiders, but Labour needs to start articulating ideas which would resonate with the majority of the voters. For all the gimmicks about new mixes of red and blue, corporate interests are becoming even more powerful in the UK, at the expense of everyone else, the middle and those left at the bottom. The Tories are dismantling public services and cutting regulations to make us more dependent on the private sector, while rendering the latter less accountable to public scrutiny. Labour should take a firm stand against this.

    Here are four simple ideas: mutualise the private sector; engage the public in a long term investment plan for public services we all rely on; provide real leadership for the growth of green manufacturing and energy generation; and tax financial transactions to pay for the best support for children’s early year development.

  7. iain ker says:

    Great post about the 2001 general election.

    But, and how can I put this gently, we are now in 2011.

    Hope this doesn’t come as too much of a shock.

    And while I’m on, here are four simple ideas. Privatise the public sector; engage the public in a long term investment plan for public services we all rely on while of course getting rid of the thousands of non-jobs none of us wanted (apart from those in them) at the same time as deunionising the public sector and ending the curse of Spanish practices therein; stop pretending that wind, wave, and solar power have any role whatsoever to play in our future energy needs, and don’t even think about taxing financial transactions as if you drive away the City of London you might as well close down the country.

  8. james says:

    Shame there’s no like button on this thing. I really like Henry Tam’s comment.

  9. Neither the original nor the best.

  10. AmberStar says:

    Purple Labour… Good grief.

    And please don’t let Liam Byrne write anything else; remember the problems his parting letter caused for our Party.
    😎

  11. L S McKnight says:

    New Labour Blairites should never be allowed near anything more important than making the tea.

    They are responsible for policies that have lead to thenever-ending attacks on the unemployed whilst offering no jobs. but enriching the executives of A4E.

    They took house building to a new level – unfortunately it was the level of 1923.

    The brought about the huge rise in disability hate crimes as they branded those on DLA as fraudsters and subjected them to ATOS.

    The 2010 manifesto committed to increasing the access to the NHS for private corporations.

    It is unbelievable that New Labour Cabinet members had no knowledge of renditions and torture.

    There is a commitment to ‘communities’ but i see no mention anywhereof alllowing communities to select their own candidates if that reduces the openings for the PPE Oxbridge graduates who are parachuted around the country.

    I could go on but as I live in Scotland I will be one of the hundreds of thousands of us up here who are fed up watching a party moving inexorably to the right to satisfy its south-east England focus groups; in a couple of years I will have a chance to cast a vote on the ultimate confidence motion and at the moment I am minded to vote for independence.

    Thatcher mark 2 that’s going on at the moment is terrifying, Blair mark 2 would be unendurable.

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