The past few years has seen the New Labour movement wane and I’ve been compelled to find what it was missing. Whether it is defined as a political experiment which lacked substance or a genuine attempt to create the ‘third way’ is for another debate. What I want to start is the discussion on how New Labour, if it is indeed salvageable, can be improved and what it is missing. I want to find how it is applicable in an ever changing society and how it can be best harnessed in this country.
I fundamentally believe that it was missing Glasman’s Blue Labour – a form of conservative socialism that the left can learn from.
There is no doubt that New Labour was a major shift for the Labour Party and it sparked a new way of thinking for how a centre-left government could look. Rallied behind Blair, New Labour understood that society had evolved. The birth of capitalism, the rise of the welfare state; New Labour began the movement towards harnessing the benefits of the private sector in safeguarding welfare responsibilities. This could only be achieved as traditional unions were no longer needed in the original guise – championing individual rights over collective rights was key. A genuine rebalancing of the economy in terms of power, geography and industry would have further questioned the role of unions.
Opening up the public sector to the potential benefits of the private sector has merits – efficiency gains, innovative solutions to problems and the potential to attract expertise which may not be normally accessible. With the correct level of regulation ensuring equality and fair opportunity we should not rule out innovative solutions to society’s ills.
New Labour appealed to the private sector with low taxes and (initially) light touch regulation (which ultimately was its downfall within the financial sector and had too much emphasis on big-business). This ensured that growth was high, unemployment low and formed the basis for funding the welfare state.
So what was New Labour’s downfall? Obviously, there are too many variables to categorically say; Iraq, financial crash, government fatigue exacerbated by the expenses scandal, to name a few. Did it have substance? Was it just a branding exercise? There was no doubt, however, that New Labour had alienated the voter by eroding civil liberties. A small dose of conservatism could cure its inherent illness.
Maurice Glasman, the so-called father of Blue Labour, stated how the central state had become too large and managerial. The movement post-war showed the necessary rise of the welfare state but it had become too large – Glasman says, “it broke all the mutual solidarity – the ways we took care of each other – and handed them over to the state.”
Is it wrong for the left to reclaim the issues of family, community and mutual responsibility? Should the left find it disturbing to talk about ‘faith, family and flag’? I certainly don’t think so – we should stop running away from these modern challenges.
The left also shouldn’t be afraid of enterprise or localism. Enterprise can ensure individuals are in control of their own destinies while communities can be transformed through wealth generation, regeneration and health improvements. Moreover, localism can ensure that power to spread to the communities and therefore policy is decided where it is implemented. Both are important factors in rebalancing the economy both geographically and within industry.
Moreover, social enterprises are the microcosm to this debate – a private enterprise which has social/environmental/community goals and objectives at its heart. They use the skills and talents of private sector officials and marry them with community objectives which lead to a ‘social reinvestment’. This could be an excellent way to enhance the NHS without such radical upheaval and reorganisation. Commissioning certain health and social care services away from the NHS and towards social enterprises can increase efficiency, decrease costs and, most importantly, follow the patient on the personalisation agenda. Cooperatives have a major role also – they facilitate power sharing and allow an enhancement of the working environment. Under these conditions, the role of unions is substantially curtailed and individual rights are further championed.
Labour should not abandon the key issues on gender and race equality but it does need to take note of the issues which are traditionally left to the right: parents financially over-stretched with no time with their families; general levels of crime; anti-social behaviour and immigration.
Whether it is Cameron’s Big Society, Ed’s Good Society or David’s Movement for Change – what it stands for is mutual cooperation, working for the common good and engagement within your community. The state shouldn’t be big it should be big enough. It clearly should protect where individuals cannot. But it had become too large and completely eroded a sense of common responsibility and mutual need. While the coalition is not implementing this correctly (it looks as if cuts are the driver rather than a genuine need for community), I do not accept that these ideas are wrong and exclusive to the centre-right.
Politics should no longer be about tribal allegiances based on preconceived ideas and out-of-date notions. It should be about ensuring that policy works for the people at a point in time. Society has evolved and now needs a true ‘third way’ to rebalance the economy; one which spreads power, encourages small business, enhances communities, promotes social cohesion and champions mutual responsibility.
Conservative socialism can enhance the work already done by New Labour. Blue Labour is not about pining for bygone days nor is it retrenching to a protectionist stance – it is about ensuring communities survive and thrive. If Labour is to succeed in the next election it has to harness the work done under Blair (public-private sector relationships, race/sex/gender equality, low taxes) with Glasman’s ideas (mutual responsibility, community and family promotion and power dissemination).
New Labour moved to the right of Labour; Blue Labour would move right further still. The ideal, as ever, is a combination of the two and it has the potential to cement Labour’s position in the centre ground.