Andrew Thorpe-Apps says New Labour is buried but not dead.
Whatever one says of his moral compass, Tony Blair was a master of political strategy. By altering Clause IV and endorsing market economics, Blair remodelled the Labour Party into an institution that appealed to ‘middle England’ as well as its traditional working-class constituency. Tony Benn once remarked that Blair did not only change the Labour Party – he created an entirely new Party. As a consequence, Labour began to win large majorities in general elections and gave the Conservatives a serious headache. But with ‘Red Ed’ Miliband now at the helm, Labour is shifting back to the Left. The recent departure of Miliband’s Blairite brother, David, surely marks the end of the New Labour project.
Ed Miliband only became Labour leader due to trade union backing. In the leadership contest, David won the support of 90% of constituency Labour Party votes, yet still lost. This means that Ed ‘owes’ the unions – a debt they will look to recall if he ever becomes Prime Minister. One only need think back to the late 1970s and the Callaghan Premiership to realise how destructive this close relationship can be.
Ed Miliband recently hired Simon Fletcher as his new adviser on trade unions. Fletcher, a former Trotskyite, served as Ken Livingstone’s chief-of-staff when he was Mayor of London, and once accused Gordon Brown of ‘pandering to fascism’.
In his first speech as Labour leader, Ed admitted that the Blair and Brown governments had made ‘mistakes’, and called for a ‘new generation of Labour politicians’. More recently, Ed said that New Labour was ‘too sanguine about the consequences of rampant free markets which we know can threaten our common way of life’.
David Miliband confided in close friends that he could never return to the front bench whilst his brother remained leader. The two men have very different visions for the future of the Party – particularly over policies on reducing the deficit and welfare reform.
This ideological shift within the Labour Party was in many ways inevitable. Between 1997 and 2007 the economy was growing steadily, unemployment rates were negligible and house prices rocketed. There was barely a kitten’s whisker between Labour and the Conservatives when it came to economic policy. The only difference was over who could offer the ‘lightest touch’ regulation. But the financial crisis brought Britain’s economy to a shuddering halt and changed the political landscape beyond recognition.
The two main parties have different strategies for reviving the country’s economic woes. Labour advocate more government spending to stimulate growth, the idea being that this will allow the deficit to be cut in the longer term. Conservatives, on the other hand, argue for austerity in order to cut the deficit now, allowing for a solid foundation for future economic growth. Apart from making for exciting politics and heated exchanges at the dispatch box, this means that Labour have lurched to the Left, discarding the New Labour experiment onto the scrapheap of history.
New Labour seems to have been replaced by ‘Blue Labour’ – a rejection of neo-liberal economics mixed with socially conservative ideas on key issues such as crime, immigration and Europe. As with David Cameron’s ‘Big Society’, the cornerstone of Blue Labour is ‘localism’ and democratic accountability. The hope is to move Labour away from the abstract egalitarian and international preoccupations of traditional socialism, and instead focus on the real concerns of ordinary people.
This new political tendency within the Labour leadership – wheeled out publically under the banner of ‘One Nation Labour’ – was conceived by the academic Maurice Glasman. It is a deliberate attempt to reengage with Labour’s core constituency – the working class. Chuka Umunna has said that Blue Labour ‘provides the seeds of national renewal’.
This is not to say that Labour will not return to the Third Way. When the economic situation eventually improves, all Parties will have to squabble over the centre-ground once more. Failure to do so will mean electoral disaster and political irrelevance. When that time comes, Labour will be forced to search for a leader in the Blair mould. Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson and Jack Straw have all suggested that David Miliband could return to front-line politics. Mr Miliband himself has not ruled out such a comeback. Though he does not fit with the current Blue Labour framework, one senses that Miliband will be watching events closely from across the Atlantic.
David Miliband may yet return to claim the New Labour throne.