By Emma Burnell
In 1992 the Labour Party lost an election we had expected to win. This was over half my lifetime ago, and the repercussions are still being felt even now.
“New Labour” can be an amorphous phrase, and everyone who uses it does so with their own, very different, definition in mind, so I’ll try to expand on what I mean when I say “New Labour” and why I know that the time has come (and is overdue) to move beyond it.
In 1992, when we lost the election, we didn’t lose because we were too confident (the Sheffield rally analysis) but because the public didn’t share our confidence. They didn’t think we could be trusted to keep the best of what had come out of the entrepreneurial boom in the 1980s and they didn’t trust us not to lose our nerve against what were seen as over-demanding unions. 1992 was also only just post-Cold War, and no one had really worked out what that meant yet. Certainly the majority were still wedded to Cold War ideas on national security, and Labour – with our anti-Trident stance (and remember that there was at the 1992 election a Bush in the White house whose reelection was expected) was seen as naive and damaging to our relationship with our strongest ally.
New Labour was a sensible reaction to the 1992 loss (apart from calling it “New” Labour – one of the worst and most short-sighted branding decisions in history). The proponents of New Labour asked the party to have a conversation, and make a choice based on the grown up electoral understanding that the majority of voters in the UK did not agree with some of our flagship policies even if they did agree with our general policy gist. It was time to examine what we were willing to sacrifice in order to be elected to do the good that we could. New Labour was about an abandonment of outdated dogma, and an understanding that our attitude to this dogma defines us just as much as our actions.
So the party gave up its historical commitment to renationalisation and opposition to Trident to create a party that would bring in a minimum wage and would rebuild and protect public services. That they did so at a time where the Conservative government did its utmost to lose the election has made analysis of the 1997 victory harder and less clear cut, but certainly the number of seats that Labour won in the South East must be a strong indicator that this strategy worked and that Labour had been seen to change enough for people to give them a chance. Crucially though, Labour didn’t lose it’s own vote either, and had promises for the whole alliance of middle class Fabiansocialists, unions and the working class that has been the make up of the Labour Party since it’s birth just over 100 years ago.
Labour’s first term really delivered. The New Deal, the minimum wage, child tax credits, statutory four weeks holiday pay, banning handguns and landmines, starting the ball rolling on dropping Third World debt and gay equalities legislation; there was something in Labour’s first term for everyone. Of course there were complaints that it wasn’t enough – there always will be – but the fact is Labour did all this, and pumped money into our ailing public services, starting the turn around that we enjoy today – while convincing the public of its case in doing so. So to my mind the 1997-2001 government will go down in history as the most radical and reforming since Attlee.
It didn’t sound like it though. Labour talked tough, and Tony Blair led from the right, continuing to prefer to pick his fights with the left of the party. PPP/PFI were anathema to the more traditional left who saw these funding models as undermining the role of the state, and instead of making the argument that the private sector was being used to augment the public sector – and continue the fight for a strong government role – Blair continued to use these fights to define himself and the Labour leadership long after it was necessary to redefine Labour in the public imagination. A phrase I heard often in those times was “I’d rather have a leader who talks right and acts left than the other way round”. While I agree that is preferable to Cameron’s attempt to move towards a progressive Toryism that we are seeing now, it was actually – in the same way that our failure to restore full regulation to the banking sector was doing for the economy – storing up trouble for the future.
If we don’t make an argument, we’ll never win an argument. The argument for better redistribution was never made while the actions were being taken. It was all “talk right and act left”, which was OK in the years of plenty, but has set us up for a bad fall in the leaner years. We don’t have the foundations that we could have been building during that time. We don’t have a general understanding of what socialism can be and can achieve when it states its case proudly.
Labour’s second term was ruined by September 11th and the reaction of the Blair government. I’m not going to rehash all the arguments over Iraq – that’s a long post for another day – but suffice it to say I thought it was a mistake before we went in and I know it was now. The arguments about the international fallout from Iraq have been endlessly rehearsed by better writers than me, more knowledgeable on international matters than me. But, here I am interested in the effect the war and the various civil liberties issues that have also arisen out of the ashes of September 11th had on the Labour Party.
Essentially it’s been devastating to our coalition. The 1992-based fear that Labour would not be seen as an able ally to a Republican US government (and apparently on advice from Clinton) led to Blair backing Bush to the hilt. Unlike many who were against the war, I don’t doubt that Blair thought it was the right thing to do, but I think this 1992-fear played into it, and into the overly macho stance on issues like 90 and 42 days’ detention, the curtailing of protest, ID cards and other civil liberties issues. Now don’t get me wrong, Labour has always had an authoritarian streak, but that was usually tempered by the liberal side of the party. However, after September 11th, it seemed that the Labour leadership took their most tried and tested tactic – arguing with the left of their own party – and moved on from issues of funding and the boundaries of the public and private sectors and changed this to a supposed populism over issues of counter-terrorism. This lost huge swaths of the party that had fought so many civil rights issues in the 1980s and joined the Labour Party over these issues in the first place. The coalition started to crumble as members despaired over a step too far. Those who were disquieted over the funding models were viscerally disgusted over civil rights issues, and weren’t willing to stay to fight for what remained good (and I believe that so much of what we have done – a vast majority is good). While I have my personal issues with those who have abandoned the party in this way, politically I realise that the coalition is essential to maintaining a vibrant, electable Labour Party.
I think the Lib Dem bounce shows what I have been arguing for a while: that the Labour Party doesn’t have to be authoritarian on these issues. It’s another clear sign that we’re not in 1992 anymore, Toto. It’s a sign that if Labour is to win back the voters it needs, it is going to have to win back it’s whole coalition, which means understanding the success the Lib Dems have had is neither in spite of nor because of its liberal policies on crime and drugs. It’s because people don’t think those policies are enough of an issue to be a deciding factor in their votes. We don’t need to over-compensate anymore, and we shouldn’t because it is damaging our electoral chances with all those who once voted for us. It’s time to once again be the party of the Freedom of Information Act and the Human Rights Act, while retaining what separates us from the Lib Dems, and continuing to be the party of workers’ rights and Child Tax Credits.
New Labour had its time and place. But its current adherents have taken what was once a smart electoral strategy and in an Orwellian twist turned it into a dogma of their own. Refusing to understand or acknowledge the passing of New Labour’s usefulness will only result in the continued tarnishing of a legacy I want to continue to be proud of. It’s time for a new conversation and quickly so people can see we have got the message. So no more championing our clearly not very New Labour manifesto. Labour must make the argument and the policy now for a coherent left of centre party for all the coalition, or risk it failing for generations.
This post was also published at Emma’s blog, Scarlet Standard.