Friday, 7 October 2011

At the heart of New Labour

I'm at a talk on The Birth of New Labour, by Pat McFadden MP, formerly a very close aide of Tony Blair and John Smith. He was in at the start and stayed there for a long time. Despite despising New Labour, this promises to be fascinating. These are my rough notes, excuse the incoherence (anything in [ ] is my commentary - perhaps more intemperate than considered).

10 of us here, half female, half male. Mostly 18-21, ethnically mixed. Orange squash and chocolate fingers are provided.

1980s: public felt that Labour = strikes, high taxes, soft on defence, economic incompetence. Labour was reluctant to face up to why we lost.

Modernising faced problems internally - the general secretaries, NECs, other party bodies would bar reforms. Electorate saw Labour as big-hearted and soft-headed: ahead on caring subjects, weak on economic credibility, and so couldn't win an election.

Voters want more and different things every time. Choice and empowerment change expectation and Labour came across as hostile by talking about 'yuppies' and the middle classes rather than reaching out to these people. PM joined Labour after the 1983 election loss, Labour's lowest point (27% of the vote). Almost came third. Labour only had 1 majority government between 1951-1997: we were the natural party of opposition. The question was whether we could ever win again. Hobsbawm's 'The Forward March of Labour Politics' posited that the decline of the traditional working-class distributed most MPs to the Celtic fringes: perhaps Labour could never win again. On the right, Tim Bell and Co. felt the same way.

Kinnock started modernisation by 'dragging the party back towards electability'. We 'modernised' communications. The Tories have read up on what Labour did but misinterpreted New Labour as simply marketing, not substance.

The 1987 campaign was wonderful in communications terms: the Kinnock life-story film etc. But policies hadn't changed much, e.g. unilateral disarmament and tax-and-spend were still on the books but weren't credible with the public. Communications won't make you electable: policies will.

The problem is whether we're changing enough, not 'deserting your roots'. The 'real betrayal' is abandoning the electorate', which is what Labour did. Jim Murphy who wrote the 1983 election manifesto (not the shadow defence minister) says we were culpable for not changing enough. The different factions led by different politicians in Labour led Labour to disaster. Benn says 8 million voted for socialism in 1983: Dunwoody called it the longest suicide note in history. She was right. Concern over betraying the roots led to the wrong decisions and Tory governments.

New Labour solutions: 'compromised with the electorate'. We stressed economic credibility: Brown deserves enormous credit. He had to excise tax/spend programs popular with Labour but not with the electorate. [He's basically saying the public wanted worse public provision in return for lower taxes and Labour had to recognise this].

Blair replaced Clause 4: the statement of common ownership of the commanding heights of the economy dated from 1918, but nobody really believed it any more. The new clause 4 was 'hugely symbolic' because it was a definitive break.

[He keeps talking about 'consumers' of public service: what happened to citizens, clients, owners?] He stresses 'reciprocity' of rights and duties, tolerance and respect. [It seems to be a lot less tangible than serious economics and values. Much woolier].

We also stopped being 'hostile' to aspiration [no mention of how people made their money].
Public services: Labour had to support the 'consumer' of the services, rather than the providers. 'We tried to create a more consumerist approach to the public services'. We got rid of fear of being tough on crime and criminals, reaching into Tory territory.

Being New Labour meant 'relentlessly modernising' and being 'optimistic about the future'. Old Labour seemed to be all about the past. New Labour suited the electorate's aspirations.

New Labour was a struggle. Some of it worked through luck and timing. 4 defeats meant a willingness to accept Tony Blair's prescription (no mention of John Smith). The exceptionalism of the leader also helped. 'People-metering' of Blair was off the scale, and he spoke to Middle England, made them optimistic. We faced an exhausted Tory government, and their European struggles made them look weak. The Clinton election and the New Democrats  winning by appealing to the middle classes also gave Labour hope. Their victory gave us hope, organisational principles and communications models.

Policy examples: tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. We'd always made excuses for crime in public perception. The Bulger case horrified the whole nation. Tony Blair made a speech which captured the moment: it was his defining moment as leader in waiting. Crime fell by 43% under Labour.

Health: everyone knew we were pro-NHS. We gave the public choice. Waiting times were a problem. Things like hip replacements could mean a 2-3 year wait. We put money and staff in, but the other thing we provided was choice. [I'm really suspicious here: he's massively skating over the rigged-market private sector stuff]. We brought in American companies to increase capacity [actually, they were promised minimum payments, whether operations happened or not - which was a HUGE waste of money]. One of NL's greatest achievements was reducing waiting times.

Schools: comprehensives produced low expectations, low results, low aspirations. We wouldn't accept selection by house prices. The left convinced themselves this was an equal system. Choice of school types was a triumph. Exam results in city academies have doubled. [Haven't people started moving house to get into them? This is a disgraceful evasion by McFadden].

Global reach: New Labour was ambitious [will he mention Iraq, kids?]. HIV, debt, trade and aid: Labour shifted the centre ground on this. Liberal interventionism: basically since the 17th century, the view was that internal repression was OK. We turned that on its head with Kosovo. That was a big controversial shift. People will have their own views, I'm just explaining why we took that shift. That policy has continued. Blair's 1999 Chicago speech explained all this. The UN was challenged to explain what a duty to protect people means. This was a New Labour philosophy on interventionism.

It didn't all go well, but on the whole it was a huge achievement. The culture of 'betrayal' on the left meant all modernisers were constantly accused of betrayal - see Philip Gould's book. Actually we were just trying to make the Party fit for the 20th century. We were overly obsessed with media management, especially in government. There wasn't a New Labour press, only hostile left and rightwing press. This explains why New Labour courted Murdoch. News International were capable of changing sides, unlike the Guardian/Independent/Mirror and the Mail/Express on the right. Clinton used to remark to Blair that it's amazing what you do without a natural press constituency.

We failed to continue modernising the party while in government. The division between Tony and Gordon became a huge problem later but I don't want to go over it all again. It was policy difference, not personality. At the time Gordon came in, he though success required distancing himself from New Labour: that was a mistake.

Results: most successful electoral run in Labour history. Highest ever NHS satisfaction. Education gap between poorest and richest was closing. Crime down 43%, 60,000 kids out of poverty. We've done too much apologising and not enough defence of our record.

Don't vacate the centre ground.
Don't fight the last war - including New Labour. 1997 policies won't be the right ones for today.
But the approach is still the right one. The means - e.g. comprehensives - are far less important than the ENDS. Labour constantly confused ends and means.
We've got to win seats in the South.

New questions:
How has the financial crisis changed the applicability of all this? The state had to intervene in market failure. But that doesn't mean we need more statism.
What are the boundaries of the state and market in leaner economic times? We should have had a better industrial policy. Tories paint us as a big state party, but we don't need to be.
What about globalisation's losers? There is a human cost, e.g. jobs in the Black Country. We didn't do enough to prepare people for that future. We can't be isolationist, but we can equip people better.
How does Labour renew? Policies may change but the lessons of the centre-ground, leading the party rather than accepting what they won't wear is still relevant.

Questions from the floor:
1. The left was forgotten in the chase for centre-right voters. What about the Thatcherite idea of self-regulating markets? Labour carried it on and people are suffering. New Labour didn't address this.
A: it was a global financial crisis. We shouldn't blame ourselves, though we should have done some things. It wasn't the UK government's fault.
[I ask if 13 years of deregulating the largest financial system in the world shouldn't attract some responsibility].
We've allowed the Tories to blame us. I don't believe more regulation would have stopped the crisis. Bankers have thrived causing the problems then blaming governments. I smell a Tory plot to blame the UK government. I believe in defending our record. Gordon deserves a lot of credit, e.g. for keeping us out of the Euro. Where's the global resolve now? What are governments doing? Gordon pulled things together, I don't see any effort by the Tories to do the same. Ed is right: there should be an urgent G20.

2. Ed Miliband: people don't see him as a leader, he lacks substance. (Some people agree with this point, others object). How will Labour strengthen his image?
A. I nominated David Miliband and voted for him. My side lost. Leadership is tough. I want to support what he's trying to do. He's had a specific problem: fighting a coalition. Policy arguments are had within the coalition first - we're not on the pitch. Human rights, health bill… coalition creates a different dynamic. He'll grow into the job. He takes a different view to me: he feels we can win from further on the left. I hope that's right.

3. John Smith: could he have won?
A. He'll be regarded as an interim leader, dying 2 years into the job. I don't know if he'd have won. Winning elections isn't automatic and there was a lot of work to do. Philip Gould is good on this. OMOV in party democracy was a huge thing to do: challenging the unions on this was huge and a close-run thing. We expected to lose and planned for that. We won by the skin of our teeth. I can't say he'd definitely have won. By the time he died, for all the TB/GB thing, I think TB was always a more likely successor. That's why I couldn't understand the difficulty in accepting Blair's victory.

4. (Me) Did the identical backgrounds of politicians divorce Labour from voters? What about Anthony Sampson's identification of a 'political class' in which all parties' representatives went to the same schools and colleges, then straight into politics?
A. Was there ever a golden age? [I mention Wilson being a don rather than being rude enough to cite Keir Hardie, Nye Bevan, John Major etc.] There may be a political class. I'm not in it. There is a language that can exclude people. Blair and Thatcher could both communicate with ordinary voters. You can put too much weight on the professional politician. I can't judge whether 20 years in other jobs helps: they're all lawyers and academics.

5. Why haven't we defended our record in the press?
A. We're in danger of learning the wrong lessons. We need to stay with the voters, stop apologising and defending our record. By not fighting back hard enough, we have the massive economic credibility problem.

Me: Press inform the public.
A. We have to deal with the press. It takes political leadership. We shifted the centre-ground to the left. We forced the Tories to remain committed to overseas aid. We've made them stick to the minimum wage: they couldn't abolish it. It isn't just following the press agenda. Leadership is about capturing the centre ground then moving it over time.

End of session. I have a few words afterwards - he's an affable guy who spots my Irish name and shows me his Donegal GAA keyring. How do I feel about him? I'm genuinely impressed by the coherence of his perspective, but that doesn't mean I'm convinced: his refusal to accept that 13 years of Labour government of the world's financial hub meant that they should have acted rather than proclaiming the joys of deregulation is a real problem for me, though I do concede that the taxes flowed in.

I'm not clear what 'political leadership' is if you repeat 'stay close to voters' as a mantra: an electorate which almost exclusively reads hysterically rightwing newspapers. Sure, voters aren't slavish followers of newspaper lines, but the commentators set the terms of the debate. I'd like a closer examination of the Labour/media relationship. McFadden sees the Guardian as leftwing - to me it's centre-liberal - and he saw the Murdoch press as changeable. I doubt it: News International picked winners. We need to persuade citizens about our policies, not dump policies which voters just don't fancy - McFadden would hugely disagree. I'm not sure there's an answer to this one. Other than banning the Mail.

I absolutely agree that Labour should fight back, and defend its record, though the sight of New Labour apparatchiks insisting on its infallibility while the country falls around our ears would be a little hard to take.

I am convinced of his good faith though: there wasn't a hint of cynicism or elitism about his purpose or goals, though some closer examination of methods would have been useful.
A stimulating and fascinating insight.

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