The Labour right needs a new leader

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.

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19 Responses to “The Labour right needs a new leader”

  1. Lee says:

    Don’t expect my Brum Mayor nomination Sion if you stay on the right…

  2. Are you seriously characterising Ed Miliband’s platform as anti=capitalist? You seem to have been paying more attention to what was said about New Labour than what has been said on policy.

    In the end this is just one more whinge about the fact that your guy lost. You tried to dress it up as supportive suggestions but you failed. People like you who want to keep fighting the leadership election are what will lose us the next election – not Ed Miliband’s policies.

  3. Syzygy says:

    Is this another ultra-Blairite attack on the LP? Undermine Balls by praise and Miliband by saying that you’ll be loyally supportive but….

    What the right do not understand is how many ‘old’ supporters of the Labour Party are returning because they hope that people who think like the author have been to a large extent discredited. The PLP does not reflect the membership that left New Labour (or who only stayed because they refused to be pushed out of their party).

    To be honest, I believe that the author might be happier with the LibDems and their new colleagues.. philosophically the author (and Blair) would feel more at home.

  4. Quietzapple says:

    Ed Mili will be as left as Harold Wilson was. Pragmatic because he has little choice.

    Sticking to Darling’s targets for reduction of the deficit is the clear cut sign of this: had he gone for Ed Balls’ line, or close to it he would have weakened his own position. If the coalition falls under the no 11 bus he may well move in that direction imho.

    Lots of left-right and nu-traditional Labour delineations are piffling, but keep up the otherwise illuminating work.

  5. Skiamakhos says:

    No, Sion, I don’t think they do need a leader. If you have a kind of Blairite Militant tendancy within the party, we’ll end up with Labour condemned to the same kind of outer darkness the original ultra-left Militant brought about. You need to lay low & learn some lessons. Labour were defeated because they became disconnected from their core vote. They lost half their membership since 1997. You passed a lot of really unpopular legislation, and did everything Tony Blair & Gordon Brown asked, while the country came out on the streets again & again in protest. Labour under Blair was far too centralised. If you weren’t “on-message” all the time you were in trouble. What we need is a Labour that represents the people who vote for it, the members & supporters. We need a Labour that listens, and then doesn’t just re-state its previous assumptions & positions, but adapts & adjusts to what’s needed & what’s called for by the people. We want a Labour party where, when constituents write to MPs they get a letter back saying “Hmm, that’s a good point you raise – I’ll look into it” not “Official Labour policy is to …”.

    Maybe Syzygy’s right – maybe you’d be better off joining the LibDems, though you’d perhaps have an experience a bit like my own with Labour, where you have to watch as your party is dragged inexorably rightwards, past your own comfort zone.

  6. MarcJ says:

    Labour shifting to the right saw millions turn their back. I have voted Labour all my life – with a heavy heart as New Labour abandoned it’s traditions and shifted further right eroding civil liberties, becoming a US Poodle and waging an unjust war that a more left-centred party would have seen for what it was.

    The real trick is making socialism about decency and community not having a right-sided contrast like some sort of conscience when the complete opposite is what we needed under Blair. The last election gave it’s verdict on New Labour and a right-leaning Labour Party as far too many went off to get into bed with Nick Cameron.

    The Blairite right have done enough damage to last a long time – that’s the reason Little Miliband beat big Miliband. The minute Blair ordained David his game was up and the contest was over.

    The country’s mistrust of Labour is not fear of the left – even if the Tory party are trying with their media chums to make that the case – it’s a fear of the right sided Labour lot who look like they have weak morals because right-sided Labour looks shifty and betrays the heart of the party (IMO). Honesty is what we need now, brave and clear messages about decency and care for all.

    Ed has is – so far – spot on. Can the Blairite right just do the decent thing and go join the New Conservatives. Thanks.

  7. MarcJ says:

    “money, more than anything, is what matters to people” There it is in one phrase – entirely what New Labour got wrong. What matters to people is family and fairness.

  8. susan press says:

    Have you HEARD Ed Balls recently? Or are you so distrait re David M that you have lost a grasp on reality. Ed Balls’s position on the deficit is actually to the LEFT of Ed Miliband and it is clear his politics have shifted back towards the left-of-centre. He is (thankfully) no potential leader of the Blairite right.
    As other posters have indicated, the thousands who left Labour in despiar at least now have some hope they , as Kinnock put it,” have our Party back.”
    In their 13 years of ascendancy, New Labour all but killed Labour. Hopefully, Ed Miloband’s victory is the start of a return to the “broad church” of old.
    Harold Wilson once said Labour needed two wings to fly. But in his day, Ed Miliband would have been firmly in the middle. It is risible to suggest anything else. The Blairite ultras should either accept defeat – or defect to the Coalition where they wikll probably feel more comfortable

  9. David Clark says:

    Sion, there are so many things to disagree with in this article that I don’t know where to begin. I will restrict myself to three observations.

    – Your characterisation of the Revisionist tradition of the Labour right seems to me entirely wrong. It certainly didn’t share your view of capitalism as morally neutral or agree with New Labour that the answer to market failure is more and better markets. Just read John Smith’s Reclaiming the Ground lecture to understand his view that institutions of social solidarity are needed to compensate for the moral inadequacies of capitalism. That is not to say that he thought capitalism could or should be abolished.

    – Following on from this, there is a failure to acknowledge that your conception of what constitutes the Labour right has shifted markedly over time, hence your mischaracterisation of Ed Miliband’s conference speech. His speech was that of a John Smith social democrat and would have been recognisable as such to John Smith himself. New Labour, as it turned out, was a break with his tradition, not a continuation of it. That is why those of us who remained constant viewed the whole thing with such dismay. You, like Tony, have been on a ‘journey’. I only hope that unlike him you bought a return ticket.

    – I find your defence of bankers odd. You seem to think that it is wrong to apportion moral blame to people who proved to be as useless as they were greedy (and at such heavy cost to the nation), but presumably right to apportion moral blame to welfare cheats and the work shy. This is anything but morally neutral. It smacks of one law for the wealthy and another for the poor.

    You clearly are, as you say, devastated by the leadership result. I hope the confusion and distress it has caused you proves temporary because your argument at the moment is too garbled to do you justice.

  10. Carniphage says:

    Surely the elephant in the room is the track record. The centrist move of New Labour might have been unpopular with Labour traditionalists, but resulted in three consecutive election wins.

    Whatever lost the last election for New Labour, it was not the Gulf War, or even civil liberties, because those policies were in place in previous elections. A reasonable guess might point the finger at Brown’s hopeless lack of charisma and leadership, combined with some runaway spending at a time of global economic turmoil. Despite that catastrophe the Conservatives still did not win outright.

    The election of Miliband is a reflection of the mood of the party – specifically the mood of the Unions. A reaction to the Blair and Brown years. A symbolic retreat to some old-fashioned ideology.

    But I don’t think this shift in tune with what the electorate want. Is there any point in getting your party back if no one wants to vote for it again? What the electorate fear is the country being used as a political football by anyone. The boat feels like it is sinking and they don’t want anyone to rock it for political gain. They want a steady hand, a leader who is a smart communicator. They want a moral heart but one ruled by a pragmatic business head.

    The next election will be interesting. Cameron will take the blame. Clegg might just come out of the coalition smelling of roses.

    The labour party would win the most seats under Cooper.


  11. Brian says:

    Oh fecking ‘boo-hoo,my guy lost and it’s sooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooooo unfair,im going to stamp and scream untill Im sick’.
    Sion, go and sit in a darkened room for a few days and then grow up,and leave the door knocking and leafleting to the footsoldiers,eh you know the real stuff?

  12. Gary says:

    If you found Ed Milibands conference speech ‘excessively left wing’, I think it says more about your politics than Ed’s. I think it could easily be taken as a centrist, left of centre or left wing speech, but to describe it as ‘excessively left wing’ is a bewildering thing to hear on a Labour blog. It’s what I would expect to hear from the Telegraph.

    I do agree that Ed Balls position is not so simple to define though – as you say, he has gone from the architect of the bubble to proposing the most Keynesian response to the crash. His views on immigration throughout the leadership campaign alienated many on the left. He probably views himself as a future leader, and has a history of agitating behind the scenes to take power. Balls becoming the unlikely hero of the Blairite/Right doesn’t seem quite as daft as it first sounds.

  13. Siôn Simon says:

    I did not vote for David Miliband. He was not ‘my guy’.

    I am not at all unhappy with Ed’s victory. I am excited by it. I wrote last week that his performance at PMQs was brilliant. I wrote today that he has the potential to be a great leader and win the election. I don’t think David would have won the election.

    But in order to do so, Ed needs to campaign on an electable platform. Unless the arguments for electability are made loudly and clearly within the party, he will be bound to be over-influenced by siren voices more concerned with moral purity and less concerned with actually winning elections. This is how it used to be in the old days when we used to lose elections and millions of working class people used to get stomped all over by the Tories for decades at a time.

    That is that happens when you start to believe that “money is not what matters to people. what matters to people is family and fairness”. In real life, it is money that feeds the kids and pays the bills. Not family and fairness. Try asking if they take family and fairness when they come to repossess your house or you can’t get money out of the cashpoint. (They don’t. Money is what they take).

    Ed Miliband can be a great leader who can win the election. But in order to do so he needs to hear – loud and clear – both sides of the debate. Including the side which people actually vote for.

    @David Clark – I thought about not putting John Smith in the list, for the reasons you say. In the end, I put him in for sentimental reasons. But you’re right, he was not a proper part of that tradition. The rest were.

    I’m not going to have a row on the internet over which of us has been on more of a journey. I simply note that of people who thought like you and i both thought twenty years ago, many more of them still think like me than think like you now do. Most such people would say that it is you, not me, who has been on the strange journey. Even Dan Hodges seems to be coming back round…

  14. Dan Hodges says:

    …it’s true, I am. A strange journey indeed…

  15. james says:

    “we are on the side of wealth creators”

    Yes, working people. Capitalists do not create wealth, they accumulate it.

  16. David Clark says:

    Sion, having realised that the body of your argument is gangrenous, you have wisely decided to chop off a limb. The idea that John Smith does not belong in the revisionist tradition of the Labour right will baffle Labour historians, but it is besides the point, so I will let it pass.

    The fact remains that all of the people you named, including Roy Jenkins, identified with the ethical socialist tradition of Tawney (the SDP think tank was called the Tawney Society, after all). They certainly didn’t agree with you about the moral neutrality of capitalism and the benefits of endless marketisation. Their pragmatic, but sceptical view of capitalism led them to support the mixed economy and redistribution as a way of correcting the deficiencies of the market. The market fundamentalism of New Labour is therefore alien to the revisionist tradition.

    You may be right that most of the people who thought like us twenty years ago agree with you rather than me today, but as a counter to my point that it is you not me that has changed, it’s a complete non sequitur. I refused to follow the herd. If you disagree, perhaps you could illustrate your point by naming a single issue on which I moved position. Twenty years ago we both would have regarded Ed’s conference speech as mainstream, common sense social democracy. I still do.

    As for our good friend Dan, ‘journey’ is an unworthy metaphor. He’s more like one of those superballs that first appeared in school playgrounds in the 70s. No one has any idea where he is going to bounce next – or why.

  17. Syzygy says:

    I hate to break in on the personal differences between friends but surely the thread of revisionism etc is an inappropriately academic discussion when faced with the Alice-in-Wonderland economic policies of the coalition government.

    The current anti-democratic insistence as to ‘there being no left and right’ and ‘all parties are a coalition’, is not true and is used to confuse and mislead. We need a re-alignment of the political parties which reflects the ideological spectrum so that voters know who and what they are voting for… up until May 2010, there has been virtually no choice – all 3 main parties being to the right of the one nation tories.

    Since May, we are faced with a government which is to the right of Thatcher. The LP needs to move well away from the Blairite Tory lite position. I think that those for whom socialism is a dirty word would do well to consider their position on the political spectrum. Instead of making the LP bend to blairite ideology and values by a leadership heist, the experiences and values of the membership past and present has to be listened to.

  18. ZED23 says:

    @MarkJ give over. The problem with so many writers on the left is that they are so bloody earnest. At least this is honest and heartfelt.

    People are seeing shadows, it’s good to discuss stuff like this. and Ed’s speech was v left wing – saying that doesn’t mean ppl are mad capitalists.

    there are many shades of Labour, from the hard right to the far left. all these voices should be heard, and voicing them doesn’t necessarily mean a criticism of Ed. If this was a far left piece criticising Ed for supporting trident and option for a 60/40 economic strategy instead of someone being from the labour right voicing their opinion would there be so many accusations?

  19. MarcJ says:

    Siôn – you are missing my point.

    “That is that happens when you start to believe that “money is not what matters to people. what matters to people is family and fairness”. In real life, it is money that feeds the kids and pays the bills. Not family and fairness. ”

    I was suggesting if my kids are fed and my bills paid I won’t be going out of my way to have massive equity in property, be scared by public services paid for by my tax. In essence what Blair forgot in his rush to invite Mrs Thatcher round for tea, biscuits and tips. You confuse being obsessed with money for money’s sake with money assisting change and allowing the proliferation of decency.

    I want leadership, ideals and hope. Of course it needs backing up with ideas that work but the droves that ignored Labour and handed the Lib Dems power prove that it’s not just about ‘the money’ (Lib Dems have consistently said they’d raise tax for public services – until they got in of course).

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