The End of New Labour: Switching the Leader Will Be a Waste of Time If the Party Does Not Radically Change Direction, Argues Neal Lawson

Article excerpt

The end of every summer marks a moment of potential political renewal. Pundits and commentators urge leaders to modernise, consolidate, shift left, move right or die. Reality rarely matches the hype. But the tail end of the wet summer of 2008 lives up to the hyperbole. Labour really must change or die.

Whatever Gordon Brown decides to do as he considers re-launches and reshuffles, something is glaringly apparent: the new Labour project, initiated, perhaps unwittingly, a quarter of a century ago by Neil Kinnock and accelerated to dramatic effect by Tony Blair after 1994, is finished. The center left needs a new paradigm in thinking and action, one as different from new Labour as this was from the creed it superseded. But a new left project that mixes commitment to principle with a lust for power in equal measure has to be built on an understanding of the rise and fall of new Labour.

For the century before new Labour, the centre left put all its hopes in the basket of the bureaucratic state. The combination of economic Fordism and the elitist politics of Fabianism and parliamentary Leninism created a bureaucratic model of top-down state reform. For the 30 years between 1948 and 1978, the bureaucratic state ruled supreme. It died as society became more complex, decentralisation became popular and we witnessed a welcome end to the age of deference.


The failure of the state was the most important cause of the right-wing response, a market state which ruled for an equivalent 30-year period from 1978 until now.

Servants of the market

Historians will bracket new Labour with this era and with Thatcherism. That does not make it the same as neoliberalism. New Labour was a contradictory and limited response to the free-market forces unleashed during the 1980s. But its failure to make a decisive break with Thatcherism meant new Labour's response to the crisis of the left and of the state was doomed, containing the seeds of its own destruction.

After four electoral defeats, new Labour inverted the principle of social democracy: Labour governments would no longer try to make society the master of the market; it would make society its servant. Social justice would become a product of economic efficiency. Globalisation would not be regulated in the interests of society but would be accommodated.

Unlike under Thatcherism, people would not be left totally alone in the face of open market competition. New Labour believed that, for Britain to compete effectively on the world stage, people had to be trained, educated and encouraged to become flexible and adaptable. So the state would be modernised. Labour would invest in people to help them become individually competitive.

Crucially, in the name of social justice, the private sector and market forces would be introduced into parts of the public sector Margaret Thatcher had not dreamed of.

As Lord Tebbit, of all people, said recently: "There are some things that just shouldn't be privatised."New Labour was better than Thatcherism, but not different in character.

The nature of the new Labour project was contradictory and it is vital that the positive aspects of its legacy be rescued. Its period of government cannot end up as 13 wasted years. There are three aspects of new Labour the centre left must hold on to: first, the will and ambition to modernise and win; second, the active use of the state to determine different social and economic outcomes (despite the now obvious limitations for motive and method); and, third, completion of the social liberalisation project started by Roy Jenkins in the 1960s.

But Labour's next stage should not be a modified form of Blairism, unable to deal with such market failures as the credit crunch because it doesn't have the belief, the will or the institutional mechanisms to do so.

For new Labour, the market must always come first. …