Monday, 20 September 2010

Labour must stay New Labour, but it must refresh it

With the leadership election coming to a close and successful contender set to be announced on the 25 September at Conference, there's an outside - and very outside - chance of one of the more Left candidates winning, either Diane Abbott or Ed Balls. But whoever wins, there is a risk of them becoming fixated with trying to break links with the New Labour project by building dividing lines with the Conservatives where they should not exist. Given how out-of-touch Labour became during the 1970s and 80s, with the policies being a blind pursuit of ideological British socialism due to the power of the Militant wing, I think it is important that the party continues with the New Labour project begun by Blair.

Sticking with New Labour does not mean no new policies, Blair himself is quoted in Mandelson's new book as saying that Brown should not stray one iota from New Labour, but he must devise new policies in fitting with it. This effectively means recognising that Labour should continue to appeal to the growing middle class, whilst not alienating the working class. It must go on believing in Capitalism, but understand that its negative effects must be countered by a Government which seeks fairness and greater equality.

New Labour was a marked change from the radicalism of the 70s and 80s when, according to Mandelson, Tony Benn and other radical MPs managed to drive Labour policy. The days when Unions had too much control and the NEC was a powerful force. These elements combined drove Labour to the Left, making the party unpopular and unelectable, and most importantly, completely out of touch with ordinary people. Had the 1997 Labour Government been Old Labour as opposed to New, it would have embarked upon reversing the privatisation of Thatcher and nationalising key industries. There would have been much more rapid and dramatic rises in public spending, and to pay for it, dramatic rises in taxation or debt, and far less pragmatic compromise and common sense.

David Miliband is the closest to New Labour, but I did not vote for him in the leadership ballot. Instead, I chose Ed Miliband as my first preference. The reason for this being that my views are generally closest to those of Ed, particularly in the key area of the economic direction which the country takes in future. Ed, like me, believes that unrestrained and uncontrolled Capitalism is undesirable, and we should work towards a system which ensures the benefits of the free market and the wealth it creates are better shared and the income inequality gap is reduced. However, despite Mandelson's recent claims to the contrary, Ed M's views do not represent a return to Old Labour in any sense; they represent building upon the positives achieved by New Labour but pushing it forward into the new decade. I do not believe that the public will turn against a party led someone who believes in better pay for the lowest-earners, and makes the statement that the very wealthy should pay more towards helping the poorest. It does not equate to higher taxes on the working or middle class. The fear seems to be that anyone other than David Miliband as leader would alienate the middle class by setting the party back to its Old Labour roots, but there is no chance of that with either of the Milibands. David is the Tony Blair continuity candidate, one who doesn't really seem to have much vision or many policies, Ed, on the other hand, has a vision for a fairer and more equal Britain. Both are firmly New Labour, but one understands that it needs to be move forwards, the other lacks the desire to do anything more than tinker.

[caption id="attachment_1354" align="alignleft" width="244" caption="Blair's New Labour legacy must be continued, but it requires modernisation to move forwards."]Tony Blair[/caption]

It seems that the party already dropped it when it became tainted by the Iraq War, but whoever wins the leadership contest should make sure that 'New' is not part of their branding. 'Next Labour' would sound tacky and artificial, so simply branding the party as Labour again would make most sense. However, the dropping of the prefix must not reflect a dropping of the New ideology amongst Labour MPs. All the candidates seem to plan to make the National Executive Committee more powerful again - particularly David Miliband, who, whilst lacking in reforming policy, has received particular support for his intentions to return the party to a more devolved, less centralised organisation. The NEC should not become too powerful, lest the party be plunged back into the 70s, 80s, and early 90s, where reforming policies were difficult to get through due to the members of it being more traditionally socialistic Labourites who failed to see the need for a move to the centre-left and policies with widespread appeal. The situation may now have changed, but having read the booklet which came with my ballot paper outlining the candidates for the Labour elections, including the NEC and NPF elections, I noticed that a few of them implicitly set themselves out as being in contrast to New Labour, with some of suggesting Trident should be first in line for cuts, calling for unsustainable investment, tax rises, and taking a very pro-immigrant stance. Susan Press goes as far to call for Labour "to be Labour once again", which is a roundabout way of saying she wants a return to Old Labour. It was only through such measures as dropping the absurd policy of unilateral nuclear disarmament and through showing that Labour is not a party of insane taxes and unsustainable expenditure that it became electable. The party must now also tackle immigration more vehemently than it did whilst in Government, defending its record of a points-based system whilst recognising that much of the electorate are concerned about immigration and the problems it cause. If the leader and his (or her) Cabinet must battle with the NEC and NPF over continuing the New Labour project, the party could risk being plunged back into the petty infighting of the 1970s and 80s, with the ideological battles being fought all over again. The Left in the party would also have a greater foothold for their arguments than in the 1997 election, as now they have the recession to point to as an example of needing to move the party to the Left to tackle Capitalism, and they can call for policies which are the total opposite of the coalition's cuts plans, stating that it will be popular with the public for the Labour opposition to come out with a no-cuts and investment approach. This can't be allowed to happen. It will push the party out of touch again and risk leaving it in opposition for many elections. It is clear that the deficit must be reduced - and some of that burden must come from cuts - but the party has the opportunity to show it can be done in a fairer, more appealing way which ensures the pain is spread. A good start is that even David Miliband has proposed increasing the bank levvy.

I appreciate that my view of the NEC and NPF might be a little callous and undemocratic, but I look to the New Labour project and draw the conclusion that its immense success - both electorally and its achievements whilst in Government - were largely as a result of Tony Blair, a political visionary who simultaneously modernised the party whilst leading a Government which accomplished so much, was able to implement his reforms and really lead without obstacles being put in his way. Whilst ordinary members like me have ideas to contribute, we are not a representative sample of the electorate, and the party must always, always, remain focussed upon gaining and keeping the support of the population at large. This isn't because of a tribalist blind pursuit of power, but since I and all party members naturally believe that the UK is better off with a Labour Government in office, we should recognise that the leadership must do what is necessary to appeal to the public. Gone are the day of the 70s and 80s, where blinkered socialists said that there could be no compromise with the public. Politics is compromise, and if the public at large does not like Labour policies, members must be willing to accept that. The party, after all, should be trying to appeal to the greatest number of people possible. If it is only appealing to Labour members, supporters, and those who lean that way, it means the party isn't doing enough to address the issues the general public face, or it would have more support.

Having watched part of the Lib Dem conference today, I was perplexed at the amount of power given to members. Unlike Labour or the Conservative conferences, party members at the Lib Dem conference are able to vote on policy, and today that power allowed them to vote against the Government's policy on allowing parents and teachers to set up their own academy schools. The party is already seen as being divided over the coalition Government's agenda, so conference-goers explicitly declaring "We disagree with what you're doing in Government" does not bode well for its future. Had this happened to Labour or the Conservatives, there would likely have been uproar in the media, but it seems the Lib Dems don't matter much now, they'll be close to a non-entity in the next election, and we've come to expect them to stare at their navels, so it's less important news. Of course in an ideal world party members should be able to make the policies in a democratic and fair way, but I think it's too idealistic to have that happen. They should, instead, be created by the party leader and their Cabinet, with more minor input from members. They should take note of suggestions for new policy made, but us members cannot expect our whims to be put into policy often, because it is possible for us to become blinkered and lose sight of what will please the public and win elections.

Similarly, the party must not become a slave to the Unions as it was in the dark years. With the difficult times ahead in terms of restraint in spending, the party cannot afford to return to the days where it was made unelectable by unpopular and unyielding unions which refuse to accept the need for compromise. We are already beginning to see unions warming up to fight the Coalition cuts - and it is right that they do, because a Government must be made to think twice about cuts to see if there is a fairer way - but a sensible centre ground must be found. This centre ground should recognise that ordinary people are suffering for the actions of a minority of very wealthy banks, and the burden should therefore fall in much greater amounts on those who were partly responsible for the mess, but it is no possible for there to be no cuts in spending at all unless we cross our fingers and hope that the more spending theory proposed by Ed Balls will work. The recent Tube strikes and expected future strikes could see the UK entering into another winter of discontent, particularly with the spending review - expected to announce 25% cuts to most departmental budgets - approaching fast. If Labour were to rekindle its close relationship with the Unions, relying on them for support and donations too much, it would have to stand side-by-side with the likes of Bob Crow, who is incredibly unpopular. Not only is it important for party image and electoral  success that the party does not cosy up to the union again, but it is not in the public's interest that policy can be formed and decisions made which is believed to be in the long-term public interest, and that does not always mean giving into the union leaders' sometimes absurd and polemic demands. The moment Labour and the Unions are seen as being tied together again, then New Labour has failed.

Labour is, today, a centre-left progressive party, one which takes elements from the Right when they are correct, but which is always guided by its beliefs in fairness and making life better for all. It must never return to the absurd out-of-touch location it occupied in the 70s and 80s. Now the dust has had time to settle on Blair's time as Prime Minister, it is time to recognise  that Blair was overall a fantastic Prime Minister, whose leadership skill and political ability ensured that Labour could accomplish so much whilst in Government. The party must continue to move forwards with the New Labour agenda, seizing upon what Blair did, but not becoming complacent and stagnating. It must remain New, with no consideration of going back to the ways of Old.

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