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The twentieth anniversary of Labour’s 1997 election victory passed without much comment last year – among other reasons, the hectic pace of political developments left little space for historical debate. But two revealing reflections on New Labour’s legacy did surface towards the end of 2017.

James Graham’s play about the recent history of the Labour Party, Labour of Love, debuted in London in late September and Gordon Brown’s memoir, My Life, Our Times, was published in November. Although clearly very different in intent and form, both of these works made explicit an account of the New Labour years that, in a more hazy way, has surfaced in British political debate ever since the financial crisis.

Originally seen as ideologically ambiguous or even incoherent, New Labour is now remembered as a free-spending social democratic government that sought to refurbish Britain’s public realm only to be felled by the economic crash. For Brown, this forms the tragic end to his premiership – his great regret, he tells us, is that he could not persuade voters that an activist response to the crisis was preferable to one driven by public expenditure cuts. But Brown is also clear that, before the crisis, New Labour’s project was to fight against the inequality-generating forces unleashed across the globe by ‘neo-liberalism’ (a word that Brown now uses with far greater liberty than when in office).

Labour of Love explored similar thematic terrain, but as a drama it conveyed more of the contradictions inherent within the particular kind of social democracy practiced by Blair and Brown.

In one notable exchange, set just after Labour’s exit from office in 2011, David Lyons, the Labour MP at the heart of the play, seeks to persuade a Chinese businessman to invest in his Nottinghamshire constituency but is drawn into an uncomfortable discussion of the reasons for the high levels of poverty and unemployment in the area. He notes: ‘we’re particularly vulnerable, with so many jobs in the public sector, to cuts from this new government, it’s the same cycle we went through, areas like this, under the last Tory government, time and time again.’ Later in the same scene, the other main character, Lyons’s constituency agent, Jean Whittaker, offers a more critical assessment of Labour’s achievements in office: ‘All looks good on the outside but it only takes one little tremor to bring the whole thing down.’ When Lyons leaps to Labour’s defence by listing the new investment undertaken in local schools, hospitals and town centres, Whittaker responds: ‘yeah, spending, good, fine, but not the actual difficult work of digging deep down, into the underlying factors woven into the rotten fabric of this unfair, fucking country.’

A cycle of doom?

This dialogue identifies an issue about New Labour that Brown – understandably – avoids engaging with: whether Labour’s agenda could have been designed so as to be less vulnerable to the inevitable subsequent period of Conservative government (and whether doing so would therefore have achieved a more stable and deep-rooted narrowing of inequality). Was the cycle doomed in advance simply to be one of Tory cuts followed by Labour spending followed by more Tory cuts, as the lines given to Lyons suggest?

Put in these terms, this oversimplifies New Labour’s record, because there were obviously important policy innovations undertaken by Labour in office that persist to the present day. Leading examples include the Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly; the London Mayor and Greater London Authority; the minimum wage; tax credits; and increased spending on international development.

This is a disparate list, but it shows that the creation of new institutions or spending programmes, if framed and calibrated correctly, can be popular and hard to roll back. Overall, though, it is fair to say that the architects of New Labour gave comparatively little thought to how their policies might endure under any subsequent period of Conservative rule, perhaps because they were overly confident that the arc of history was bending in the direction they favoured: free-trading, liberal and moderately egalitarian. This implied that the Conservatives were unlikely to win office soon, or, if they did, they would find themselves constrained by these seemingly dominant trends in public opinion.

It also reflected New Labour’s pre-financial crisis assumption that Britain’s economic model was working relatively well, leaving the fundamental question of politics to be about how to distribute the resulting tax revenues. It is curious that although leading New Labour figures had been deeply impressed by the capacity of the Conservative Party to win public support during the 1980s they did not follow through the implications of this insight to consider what would happen to their agenda after they left government. The financial crisis dispelled this hubris, delivering salutary lessons about the reversibility of social democratic policy-making, and the need for major reform to the structure of the British economy, that Labour would do well to heed now.

Long lasting change

Although Tony Blair and Gordon Brown received extensive criticism for prioritising electability above principle, this portrayal of them is in fact rather imprecise. Their point was not that their cautious approach was necessary for Labour to win a single election, but rather that it was essential to enable Labour to gain office and hold it for a decade or more, as opposed to the abrupt, short-lived Labour governments of the 1940s and 1960s/70s.

Corbyn’s Labour Party seems much less engaged by this question of the longevity of Labour governments. Instead, the objective appears to be to take office and undertake as much radical reform as possible as quickly as possible. Given current levels of political polarisation, it seems unlikely that any incoming Corbyn government will enjoy a large majority, if it has one at all. This scenario is guaranteed to raise precisely the same problem faced by New Labour but in a more acute form – how to prevent any measures enacted by a Corbyn government being swept away by the inevitable Conservative backlash that will be stoked by the visceral opposition of the press and key economic actors?

For this reason, as Labour formulates its policies for the next election, it will be crucial for the party to focus on what kind of radical policy innovations are likely to be defendable from the Conservatives, even when the Conservatives return to government. A strange moral of the New Labour years is that Labour has yet to take the Conservative Party as seriously as it should.

This article will be published in the upcoming issue of the Political Quarterly journal. 

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