New Labour lost the opportunity to challenge Thatcher’s orthodoxy – and has lost its base as a result

October 15, 2009 10:19 am

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Labour rose logoBy Anand Menon

So the big beast of the New Labour jungle has publicly declared his willingness to work within a Conservative government. Taken in isolation, Lord Mandelson’s admission might come over merely as selfless devotion to Queen and country, a willingness to work with the enemy in pursuit of the general good.

Certainly, he made it clear that he is ‘too tribal’ to cross the floor and serve as a Conservative in any such government. Yet placed in wider context, his comments were indicative of significant failings.

In moving, or appearing to move so close to its political opponents in embracing neo-liberal orthodoxy, New Labour has alienated its own base. The Government has thereby squandered (as far as one can predict with six months to go before an election) not only its own electoral chances but also, and more importantly, a golden opportunity to fulfill more fully its commitment to creating a fairer society.

Mandelson’s announcement came at the end of a highly troubling couple of weeks for the Government. Private polling presented to the Cabinet suggests that as many voters believe Labour stands for the rich as for the poor. Equally worrying, fewer people thought Labour best represents ‘ordinary working people’. And, to compound the misery round the Cabinet table, polls published in the Financial Times revealed that Labour has managed to squander what for many years has been its natural dominance of much of the north of England.

Let us be clear, Labour’s failing has not been an inability, still less an unwillingness, to help the most vulnerable in society. Quite the contrary. Massive investment in public services, the introduction of a minimum wage, and ambitions programmes such as Sure Start are amongst numerous measures that bear eloquent testament to the commitment of the Government to help those who need it most.

Rather, the problem has been the failure of the Government to make the most of, and make the case for, what it has actually done. And it is this fatal mistake that is now coming back to haunt it. In effect, New Labour mistakenly transformed a necessary electoral tactic into a damaging longer term strategy.

Clearly, the party needed to win the trust of the middle classes and to earn a reputation for economic competence in order to triumph at the polls. Yet once elected, and particularly once elected with the majority and benign economic environment they enjoyed in 1997, the Blair government enjoyed a perhaps unparalleled opportunity to challenge Conservative notions of socio-economic orthodoxy. Real, long-term, durable success in government is about changing the terms of the debate, about forcing opponents to concede the argument, as Margaret Thatcher – and New Labour’s reaction to her – so vividly illustrated.

Yet rather than using twelve years in power to convince the British people as a whole that regulating the worst excesses of capitalism, reducing inequality and promoting fairness would create a better society for all, successive governments deployed social democracy by stealth – acting on the basis of values they failed adequately to propound and promote.

Little surprise, then, that the party’s core support has ebbed away, or that people doubt its commitment to helping what was traditionally its core constituency. Belated attempts to trumpet New Labour’s left of centre credentials bear the hallmarks of desperation as the election looms.

All of which is particularly galling given that the current economic context provides an ideal opportunity for social democrats to make the case for a more attenuated form of capitalism. If all goes as the pundits predict, the party’s hierarchy will have plenty of time to mull this over whilst a Conservative government slashes public spending and amends inheritance tax so as to help the richest in British society.

Perhaps the most important lesson to be learnt is that centre-left governments must do more than govern. They must take on the arguments, and strive to convince even the better off that a more equitable society would be to the benefit of all. Only by doing so can they hope to actually change society in such a way as to entrench the social democratic values which, one hopes, they still hold dear.

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