It was Tony Blair who said, in his first conference speech in 1994:
“If the world changes, and we don’t, then we become of no use to the world. Our principles cease being principles and just ossify into dogma.”
Tony was right then, and his lesson still applies today.
In the early 1990s some Labour people thought of themselves as traditionalists defending the Labour cause against Tony Blair and the modernisation of New Labour. Today, our danger is to defend traditionalist New Labour solutions on every issue – because that would consign us to defeat. To win next time, it is the New Labour comfort zone we must escape.
New Labour was right to seek to build a coalition of lower and middle-income support, right to show we can create wealth as well as distribute it and we were right to speak to people’s aspirations. We need to keep doing all these things. But old-fashioned New Labour thinking about what these principles mean today in terms of electoral strategy, policy and style of leadership is now an obstacle to winning the next election and transforming our society.
Start with electoral politics: New Labour’s proposition was simple – we need to persuade Tory voters to come to us. The task is very different now. Five million votes were lost by Labour between 1997 and 2010. But four out of the five million didn’t go to the Conservatives; one-third went to the Liberal Democrats, and most of the rest simply stopped voting.
It was predominantly our working-class support that we lost during that time: for every voter we lost from the professional classes, we lost three voters among the poorest, the low-paid and those on benefits. Add in skilled manual workers and the ratio goes to six-to-one. These voters didn’t just switch to not voting or to voting Lib Dem – the bulk of the new Tory vote comes from these social groups.
We can neither win an election with a working-class vote alone – New Labour was right about that – nor can we take it for granted. But the problem of conventional New Labour analysis applies to white collar voters too. Particularly when it comes to the south of England, we sometimes clung to an illusory picture whereby we imagined easy affluence to run wider than it did. Half of the people in work in Reading, where the Conservatives got one of their biggest swings to take Reading West, earn less than £21,000 a year. Even in Britain’s more comfortable places, people increasingly feel insecure, overstretched and distant from rich elites. Furthermore, many of the affluent voters themselves didn’t go blue, they went yellow: the Conservative vote has fallen among ABs (professionals) since 1997.
All this requires a refounding of Labour, as profound as the development of New Labour in the mid-1990s. Our working-class base cannot be dismissed as a ‘core vote’ and taken for granted. We need to understand the real landscape of middle England to strengthen our appeal to voters right across the income scale. We need to recognise the concerns and nature of modern affluence, and we need to change our style of leadership.
That means we need a new approach on the economy. We need to create new, high-quality manufacturing jobs and support small and medium enterprise. And we need a living wage of over £7.60 an hour, so people can receive decent day’s wage for a decent day’s work.
We must speak to aspiration and recognise where we need change from the past in order to meet people’s hopes for the future. The burden of university debt is a big issue for swathes of parents – and their children. That is why I have proposed we scrap tuition fees and replace them with a graduate tax. And we must recognise, as New Labour sometimes didn’t, that aspiration is not simply about earning and owning, but also enjoying time with your family.
We must recognise that people, including affluent voters, care about tax but also about the sort of society we live in. I will unashamedly argue for a more equal society because I believe it harms the rich as well as the poor to live in a country which is increasingly unequal. I will argue for a society characterised by responsibility at all levels – from bankers’ pay to people who can work but at the moment are not doing so. I will make the case for a greener society because climate change is the greatest challenge to our way of life.
We must also be reformers of the state. Let’s face it: we never convinced people of the case for 90 days’ detention or ID cards. We got the balance wrong on civil liberties – and we need to put it right.
The New Labour comfort zone dictates that there is a tension between our values and our electability. But the truth is that the opposite is the case – there can be no victory without values. So we need to change. We need to build a new winning coalition for our time; one which speaks to our lost voters; one which rebuilds the trade union movement from the ground up; and one which by its actions shows that our values can deliver real and meaningful change. Only by building that new coalition, and restoring our values and our clarity of purpose, can we win again.