Lessons from New Labour for renewing the Left.
Social democracy is in its worst global crisis for a century.
In Italy, Holland and France social democratic parties are in meltdown. In Germany the SPD is a shadow of its former self. There are liberal-left exceptions to the rule (Canada and New Zealand for example) but in Poland, Hungary and Brazil it is nationalist authoritarianism that is in the ascendancy. And while it is true that in Spain and Sweden social democratic parties are in power, they are hanging on by their fingernails.
It is easy to take comfort of course from President Biden’s victory in the USA but it is very possible that without the Covid-19 pandemic a Trump second term would have been the most likely outcome. Meanwhile in the UK, Labour hasn't won an electoral majority since 2005 and Australian Labor since 2007.
This is a losing pattern which progressives the world over can no longer ignore. So why is it happening and what can be done?
The explanations are as multiple as the defeats. For the Hard Left, social democracy got its comeuppance by dancing too willingly to globalisation’s tune and ignoring its losers. Sadly for the Leftists who seized control of the UK Labour Party under Jeremy Corbyn, the alternative they favoured (a dose of the old style socialist religion) took Labour to its worst result since 1935 when put to the electorate.
Other more progressive voices point to the inequalities and imbalances created by globalisation, particularly after the global financial crisis put markets in the dock and left social democracy uncertain how to create a new state activism without replicating outdated state interventionism. Yet others highlight how the upsurge in a new politics of identity found the centre-left stranded on uncomfortable terrain and without compelling answers.
Profound economic and social change has left many voters clinging to what they know, hence their concerns over place and immigration, identify and security. Tony Blair argues convincingly that the megatrends of change - globalisation, mass migration, growing inequity - left social democrats confused between the ends we believe in and the means we deploy. The one remains fixed - our commitment to fairness and justice, our belief that we achieve more together than we ever can alone. But the other, our means, has to be flexible if we are to keep pace with the modern world. The calibration between what is fixed and what should be flexible is what the centre-left has found most difficult to get right and is at the root of the social democratic crisis.
There is much in these analyses. In my view the problem facing social democracy all boils down to this: right now it is hard to discern what today’s social democratic project really is. It wasn’t always so.
Social Democracy 1.0 was about giving rights to people who lacked them - workers and women for example. Although there is more still to do, there has been much progress, not least the successful creation of social democratic welfare state systems.
So Social Democracy 2.0, led by Hawke, Keating, Blair and Clinton, moved onto new terrain, trying to make markets and globalisation work for the many not the few. Again social democracy delivered real results with prosperity growing among working families even though inequalities sharpened too.
Today a new agenda beckons but it is not at all clear what the Social Democracy 3.0 project looks like. That is as true in the UK as it is in Australia.
Of course there are lots of individual policies Labour and Labor are in favour of. But a list is not a project. Political parties have to exist for a purpose. They have to have a big project if their values are to be translated into policies. Without it they are nothing. Both Margaret Thatcher’s project to marketise Britain and Tony Blair’s project to modernise Britain gave voters a clear sense of what their parties were about. It is no coincidence that they delivered thumping parliamentary majorities for their respective parties. In politics, clarity kills. Today, by contrast, it is hard to disagree with Leftist trade union leader Len McCluskey when he says that people no longer know what today’s British Labour Party stands for. I share the diagnosis but part company over the solution.
What is clear is that last May’s shocking UK election results are a wake up and smell the coffee moment for Labour. They can no more be dismissed as Prime Minister Boris Johnson enjoying a Covid vaccination dividend than they can be explained by the aftershocks of Corbyn or of Brexit, still less of Keir Starmer’s leadership. The rot did not set in over a few months or years. The last time the Labour Party won a general election was sixteen years ago and currently we look likely to lose the next one. That would be two decades in the political wilderness.
It is not a particular surprise. Labour gets what it deserves. With no discernible overarching change or future project, the public have moved on from Labour. Keir Starmer is competent, credible and has shown courage but, set against the headwinds he faces, the pace and scale of reform to date is simply not enough. It is not enough to say that Labour is under new leadership. That has to be proven in practice, day-in day-out.
The disaster of the Corbynite agenda has to be put in the dustbin of history where it belongs and the drift towards Labour becoming a Leftist, wokish, metropolitan party out of touch with aspirational (not just working class) voters has to be reversed. Equally, Labour needs to resist the temptation of putting all of our eggs in the Red Wall basket - those Northern and Midlands seats lost to the Conservatives under Mr Corbyn - and instead work on building a coalition of support across the whole country. To win again Labour will have to take Hastings in the south and not just Hartlepool in the north.
In short, the only way forward is a total reinvention of what Labour is - starting with an open diagnosis of why we keep losing, moving on to a full-scale policy review and a fundamental change in how we organise as a Party and are structured. Without a major process of public engagement and far-reaching change the British Labour Party risks going the way of other social democratic parties across Europe. Avoiding that outcome will be hard. There are no easy answers. It will require deep strategic thought and patience.
So far then so bad. But here is the good news.
After Labour lost for the fourth time in 1992 many people thought they would never see a Labour government again. What changed? We did. It is possible to turn a streak of losses into a series of wins. Under Tony Blair’s leadership Labour became a winning party, not a losing one.
As Peter Mandelson graphically puts it, the last eleven general elections for Labour have been lose, lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose. To be clear, I am not advocating a return to the politics of 1997. The world has moved on and so should we. Rather the focus should be learning from what worked strategically to turn defeat into victory.
In essence the lessons are five-fold.
First, forge an electoral coalition of support by becoming as comfortable with individual aspiration as traditional redistribution. Second, make the public’s concerns the party’s and make their pragmatism (tough on crime and tough on its causes, tolerant on sexuality and immigration but intolerant on a failure to abide by society’s rules) Labour’s watchwords. Third, separate ends and means by being willing to change old approaches to policy, for example through radical reform of the public services. Fourth, offer hope not fear by championing a sense of patriotic optimism about our country and our place in the world. Fifth, in a world of rapid change, always face outwards to the future rather than finding solace in the positions of the past.
Much is different since New Labour demonstrated how progressive parties could both change and make change. Growing insecurity (about the future of the environment and employment for example) has been heightened by the advent of social media leaving people more sceptical and less tribal, more uncertain and less loyal, more assertive and less trusting. People will no longer act as passive recipients of a political message. They want to know that parties and their leaders get their lives and they want to have a say. That calls not just for new policies but for a new politics, one that is different from 1997 and far more engaging.
But in politics there are some constants. Change and the future: these are the ingredients that have always unlocked victory for social democrats the world over. And here too there are some reasons for optimism. Change is the currency of the times in which we live. Shocks on the scale of the Covid-19 pandemic always produce change. Of course people want a return to normality but they also want a better world to emerge from what has happened. It is not a coincidence that Build Back Better is the slogan of choice for both a Centre-Left President in the USA and a Right-wing Prime Minister in the UK.
The world faces multiple uncertainties in the light of the pandemic. Covid has shown how vulnerable we are, calling for new approaches to improve equity in society and tackle the climate emergency. These are huge challenges that call for a new approach to how government works and what it does. We need a new approach to secure our supply chains, our borders and our care systems. Long term investment is required to secure prosperity for future generations by investing in new skills, new infrastructure and new jobs. Above all, technological change, which is disrupting all aspects of our lives, has to be harnessed properly to address these challenges and make society more fair, not less.
This has the makings of a new social democratic project. Social democrats believe in the collective action that is needed to secure new jobs, a greener economy, safe borders, better care and less inequality. President Biden is showing, by framing the debate on tax-and-spend in a progressive way, how an argument can be won about an active state being the route to a future that is prosperous, sustainable and fair.
But it must be recognised that this is terrain that the Right is now contesting, rather than assuming it will naturally be the property of the Centre-Left. Prime Minister Johnson’s levelling up agenda is the centrepiece of a new brand of interventionist Conservatism. The age of austerity, the defining right-wing tenet for over a decade, has been ditched. That makes the going still harder for Labour. Of course, he faces the twin problems of having to deliver meaningful change whilst keeping the deep conflict within the Conservative Party between his Home Counties, small-state and low-tax faction aligned with his Red Wall interventionists. But we should not underestimate Mr Johnson or this new conservatism.
The easiest mistake to make in politics is to create a convenient truth about your opponents: that they are not up to the job and that eventually the public will see through them. It is worth remembering that when he became Mayor of London, Mr Johnson was able to win from the Right in arguably one of the most progressive cities in the world. So Labour needs to protect its progressive flank. Mr Johnson has succeeded in making equity an issue over which Conservatives have some ownership.
To wrestle it back, Labour will need to redefine equity as more than a place-based agenda, important though that is. Inequality hurts people, not just places. In particular, grandparents and parents alike are concerned that the social progress they enjoyed will not be repeated for this and future generations of young people. If older people have been on the health frontline of the pandemic, it is the young who seem doomed to suffer the biggest economic and social consequences. More than half of under-25s in the UK had been furloughed or lost their jobs by last June. One million of them are already unemployed. Meanwhile the rate of home ownership has plummeted amongst young people from well over half to around one third in just twenty years and the prospects of getting a place on the housing ladder feel increasingly remote.
These concerns about thwarted aspirations straddle middle-income and lower-income families. As both Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair realised, it is aligning behind the politics of aspiration that creates the electoral coalitions that help parties win elections. It is a lesson Keir Starmer would do well to heed.
So what could this analysis mean for Australian Labor? I have worked on election campaigns not just with Tony Blair but also with both Kevin Rudd and Julia Gillard. I admire Anthony Albanese who is one of the few opposition leaders to have kept his party in a competitive position during the pandemic. I very much hope that he is the next Australian Prime Minister. It may be that the current PM Scott Morrison calls the next election sooner rather than later. Tempting though it is to dismiss Mr Morrison as “Scotty from marketing”, if I was advising Anthony I would urge him not to under-estimate his opponent. Instead he should paint Mr Morrison’s party as one that is locked into yesterday’s solutions and therefore cannot provide security for Australians in a world that is changing. That will require an argument from Labor about how the world is changing and the insecurities that it is causing.
Of course voters in Australia, as across the globe, are yearning for a return to many of the facets of life from before the pandemic, but if that is the terrain on which Labor allows the election to be fought it will merely favour the incumbent.
Instead, Australian Labor will need to show how the world has moved on and demonstrate that its policies can be woven into a golden thread of narrative around a clear project for the future: one that is about harnessing change, not least in technology, so that families and communities - the young especially - can face a future of security not insecurity.
Focusing on the next generation would give Labour and Labor the most precious of advantages, without which progressive parties never win: an agenda for change and ownership of the future. That is what has been missing. It is time to fill it.
Alan Milburn was an MP in the UK for 18 years and served in Tony Blair’s Cabinet, first as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, and subsequently as Secretary of State for Health and Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster. @AlanMilburn1958
Series: Australian Fabians Review - Issue 2
Author: Alan Milburn