New Labour wasn’t always popular with the party. But it was popular with the public. Right now, the situation feels the other way round. Dumped unceremoniously out of office by an electorate tired of Gordon Brown – his abandonment of New Labour was not a coincidence – we have struggled to come to terms with forming an effective opposition. The public aren’t convinced by Ed Miliband. Opinion poll leads – which to be fair had been handed to us simply because we weren’t the government – are being slashed. The need for proper direction is clear.
The next election – whether that is in 2015, if the coalition sticks to its 5-year parliament plan, or next year if it capitulates – will be an almighty test for Labour. A year in opposition with no real alternative policies can be damaging, and a massive gamble. Simply opposing every government policy does not translate to an effective election campaign, and the public know this. At the moment Ed Miliband is biding his time. That is acceptable, if he can build on it. If not, we have wasted a year.
New Labour will probably always be controversial; but at the next election it is the direction the party must take. Faced with a public situated slightly right-of-centre thanks to the recent public disorder and the eternal dismay at handout culture, the Tories risk fighting the next election on the wrong lines. By the election, the economy should be growing. They will, just as we would if we were in power, take credit for that. That is a fact we should accept. But whereas that will be their headline campaign, Labour must prepare a manifesto which offers more than that.
This is where New Labour becomes attractive. Assuming the economy will be growing after a recession – just as it was in 1997 – we can become the party of opportunity again. The Tories will have fixed the economy but probably neglected society. That means public service cuts which will be felt deeply by communities across the country. Schools, the NHS and defence will require targeted spending.
That does not mean a return to a boom-bust cycle where we become the party of expenditure. Controlled spending – not just cutting which the Conservatives are doing – will be a flagship policy of any successful Labour campaign. Tighter control over financial institutions will be required – the biggest flaw of New Labour was the grossly inflated rewards given to bankers for ruining the economy. That shouldn’t happen again. I supported Ed Balls’ plan for a tax on bankers’ bonuses before; that is easy money to be spent elsewhere. This approach to sourcing and spending money in the right places is correct.
Labour shouldn’t knee-jerk to the left. The public don’t want Socialism, and they are wary of it. The private sector – whether the left of the party like it or not – must be embraced. Privatised utilities can be welcomed. That may well be a Thatcherite legacy, but it is correct for us to follow the same path. No horrific past should obstruct our future. We must, though, reform it; particularly the banking sector. The Conservatives won’t do it to an effective extent; Labour can.
We should also be prepared for another hung parliament. The electorate will want to avoid that, and with Liberal Democrat support only just recovering, Labour can pick up some crucial Lib Dem votes. This might seem odd, but it isn’t. Disenchanted members of Nick Clegg’s party who have joined the Labour Party in the past year did so because they were betrayed. We must also offer the ordinary Liberal Democrat voter with a manifesto which pleases them. That is also insurance for a progressive coalition between the parties if we do end up with no clear majority.
The Democrats in the US face a similar problem to Labour. Obama will lose any election he fights on the economy, and so will we. He must do what we must do – offer improved public services versus Republican/Conservative cuts and produce jobs.
Third Way politics can again become the way into power. That provides Labour with an effective motive for both opposition and government. Blair, Brown and Mandelson are gone. Whatever you think of them, and whatever you think of what they achieved – three successive election wins – is not a reason to consign their doctrine to the history books. We must, and can, build on it. The future of politics in Britain is the centre-ground; public and private sectors working in harmony.
We must capture it so we don’t go another decade or two without power.