The government has run out of steam. Where should the party go from here?by Sunder Katwala / October 21, 2006 / Leave a comment
Published in October 2006 issue of Prospect Magazine
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 poverty. Labour must now test the Tory language on what are essentially social democratic themes: the key debate will be over what government should do in addressing them, exploring the tension between Cameron’s new concerns and the right’s core “smaller state” agenda, which he seeks to maintain in gentler language. Secondly, it remains true that Labour can win only with a broad coalition of voters. New Labour finally broke out of the electoral ghetto but could largely take its political base for granted. Now Labour’s coalition risks fracturing at both ends. Labour must avoid any return of “Southern Discomfort” while also addressing left-liberal disaffection and heartlands apathy. A party which aspires to govern will struggle if its response is to run contradictory messages to different audiences. So Labour needs an argument capable of binding a winning coalition together again. As John Denham argues, making the collective good a platform for individual aspiration can do this. In fact, New Labour had such an argument. Its political appeal arose not just from countering the idea that Labour was opposed to individual aspiration, which had seen Labour voters defect to Thatcherism in order to “get on,” but also from tapping into widespread anxiety about the costs of an excessively individualistic atomised society. Striking this balance will again be at the centre of the battleground between the parties. Thirdly, Labour’s policy agenda has got stuck and needs renewal. An important argument for “reform” remains—the effectiveness and legitimacy of large increases in public spending depend upon it. But there needs to be greater clarity about what reform is for, and about which reforms a social democratic party will pursue. New Labour, building on the revisionist tradition of the party’s right, made a great deal of undogmatically separating ends from means, yet its rhetoric of “reform” suggests that the means have become an end in themselves and has oversold technical policy changes, such as foundation hospitals, to the confusion of party and public. Labour is set to place education, rather than health, at the centre of its agenda for the next comprehensive spending review. Yet an incoherent education white paper and schools bill has made this the domestic issue over which the party is most divided. The dispute is over whether the current reform agenda will exacerbate inequalities or reduce them. What is needed is a reform agenda which addresses inequality explicitly: a policy approach to schools funding, inspection and targets which pays as much attention to narrowing the gaps in performance as to increasing average attainment—dealing with the long tail. New issues should become more prominent. The environment could be as important as public services. This might be as green a government as any before but it remains a long way from a serious red/green social democracy. To sort out what government, business and individuals must do, Labour will need to think harder about how we manage markets: what does a social democratic capitalism able to combine prosperity, sustainability and equity look like? The necessity of markets has been a core New Labour principle but there has been little sustained thought about their scope and limits. Expect democratic renewal to be a big idea too. Here, Gordon Brown is likely to pursue the Bank of England analogy: that it is necessary to give away power to restore trust and the effective scope for political action. But a shopping list of constitutional reforms will not deal with the roots of the problem unless we remake the argument for politics itself, to restore the legitimacy of our being bound by collective democratic choice. Here, Brown’s Britishness agenda is likely to prove more substantive than many realise. To view it as simply a rhetorical device of a Scot in pursuit of a premiership, is to miss how far it links the key themes Brown would pursue in power: the response to globalisation; Britain’s role in the world; integration, citizenship and democratic renewal. Fundamentally, the argument is that we need a stronger sense of the ties that bind us for it to make sense to ask what collective missions we want to share—whether international development or “making child poverty history” at home.