The government has run out of steam. Where should the party go from here?by Sunder Katwala / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
It is quite obvious that Labour’s next steps must involve both continuity and change. Labour’s next leader can build on those things which the centre-left has got right, while taking the chance to start afresh on those issues—notably “trust” and foreign policy, where Tony Blair can no longer get a hearing from the voters.
Iraq now dominates all discussion of Blair’s legacy. There have been other failures—Britain’s European anxiety remains unresolved, there has been a retreat to headline-grabbing on crime and asylum. Still, for progressives, this has been by some distance the best British government for 50 years. (That there is so little historical competition is part of the point.) It has not only been more economically and electorally successful than its predecessors: it compares favourably on redistribution with Wilson and Callaghan too. But it is also a government which has visibly run out of steam, and which will likely be 12 years old when it asks the voters for another term.
So how must Labour’s political narrative, its electoral strategy and its policy agenda evolve? Firstly, New Labour’s founding argument that a strong economy and public services are interdependent has been won. Just as Labour adopted Tory spending plans at first, now it is the New Conservatives who have to sign up to levels of public spending they find ideologically distasteful. But to leave that as the definition of the “new centre” in British politics could allow David Cameron his claim to be “heir to Blair.” A “progressive consensus” depends on Labour shifting the argument again, fusing the economic and social agenda with environmental sustainability and narrowing inequality.
New Labour’s political success, in beginning to convert its opponents, means that the 1990s politics of triangulation now delivers diminishing returns. Attempts to define “New New Labour” on the “think of something the Labour party will hate” principle (such as Stephen Byers’ call to abolish inheritance tax) now makes little strategic sense, because the dynamic of the cross-party battle has been reversed. For a decade, New Labour claimed the centre-ground by pushing rhetorically into Tory territory, and the Tories consistently fell into the trap seeking “clear blue water” out to the right. Three defeats later, they have worked it out. Just as Labour had to show it had a response to crime, Cameron seeks attention by addressing issues which Tories used not to talk about—the environment, social justice and global…