Opinion: New Labour may be dead, but its spectre haunts the party’s left

(c) World Economic Forum

Claire McWethy

As Tony Blair walked out of Downing Street for the last time, some would say it wasn’t just footsteps that could be heard; that if you listened carefully, you could hear the death knell for New Labour. This is certainly what the departing PM thought, speaking at an event hosted by think-tank Progress yesterday, where he warned Ed Miliband of the dangers of pursuing protest politics and slammed the party’s new direction. But it is the ideological mess left behind by Blair’s self-confessed ‘pick-and-mix politics’ which have left Labour sidelined and the legacy of New Labour haunting the party.

Whether New Labour died when Blair left or after Brown, what is clear is that the party has been flatlining since its 2010 election defeat.

Ed Miliband now faces an unenviable position, where the ideological vaccuum left behind after the explosion of New Labour’s flimsy Third Way ideology remains to be filled.

Blair claims this void is because of a lack of subscription to so-called ‘centre-ground, progressive’ ideals after his departure, and of too great a reliance on traditional leftist ideology.  But to the contrary, the New Labour movement has made it extremely difficult for the current party to say anything with conviction, or to stand by any of its traditional beliefs.

One of the few consistent, historically defining issues between the left and right over the decades has been the approach to equality and this is where New Labour blurred the ideological lines too boldly in pursuit of power. Blair relied on Thatcherite neoliberal economics to help fund his projects, such as SureStart, Social Exclusion Units to tackle disaffected areas fraught by the poverty trap and, of course, a sustained focus on increasing access to education throughout three terms of Labour government. But despite defining Labour’s first-term success in terms of the fulfillment of rising equality, Blair should recognise that, on this count, New Labour’s trickle-down politics failed to offer anything new. Inequality rose, the rich became richer, and the working person was left wondering who was representing their interests.

This is without the added burden of the Iraq war, a determined assault on civil liberties, broken promises on constitutional reform and stewardship over a paradigm-defining financial crisis. The fact that the roots of the financial crisis were in neoliberal policies has now been lost in the debate over Labour’s handling of the crisis, undermining any potential attack on the right in Britain. A golden opportunity to question the neoliberal paradigm has been lost, and as an architect of this failure, Blair’s appeal to look beyond ideology is provocative.

The problem is that New Labour positioned itself as as much a friend to big business, the banks, and the super-rich as to the most deprived, and now it is left out in the cold wishing it had chosen more coherent bedfellows.

On 13 June Miliband recognised these failings in a speech where he accepted the Labour government had failed to curb greed in the City at one end of the spectrum and to spur the long-term unemployed into work at the other. If Miliband’s tone verges on apologetic on occasion, it is not difficult to see why. New Labour was a clear case of pragmatism losing sight of principles and the party must make a clean break with the past if it is to provide effective opposition.

Blair’s remarks seem to be directed at the apparent seduction of Ed by the Blue Labour movement. But his warning about engaging in protest politics is hardly needed. Viral is an apt description of Miliband’s now famous and utterly anaemic interview with the BBC where he repeated his carefully crafted position that “the strikes are wrong” to every question the exhausted interviewer could throw at him. He is desperate not to alienate unsympathetic public service consumers by supporting workers and equally determined not to alienate Labour’s traditional blue-collar support base by siding with the government.

During the TUC London protests Miliband invited the wrath of the right-wing press as well as protestors when he made a speech praising the right to protests but pledged no allegiance to the TUC’s cause. But to straddle such a narrow line is clearly dangerous and Miliband’s timidity is doing little to win back some four million disillusioned voters lost during New Labour’s tenure.

In a radical era of conservatism this is not the time for meek, weak Labour opposition. If Labour doesn’t want to be consigned to the shadows of British politics, the party needs to admit to its shortcomings in government rather than indulging in Blair’s nostalgic back-patting and decide exactly whose side it is on. Otherwise, Labour risks getting caught in the crossfire.

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