Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

The Spirit of '97

Magazine article Renewal : a Journal of Labour Politics

The Spirit of '97

Article excerpt

I want to think a little bit about some of the conversations that have been going on over the past five years in the Labour Party. Before we embark once again on the process of electing a new leader and attempting to reconnect with voters, I think it's worth considering why the ideas put forward last time didn't quite take hold in the way that people thought they might.

The current debate over the leadership sounds very similar to 2010. We have the same arguments about the need to capture 'aspiration'; about whether Labour was too left, or not left enough; whether it needs to distance itself from the past and apologise for mistakes, or to defend its record and attempt to correct misperceptions. We also hear about the need to tell stories, construct narratives, and so on, which was also present immediately after 2010.

Of course, much of this boils down to the party's relationship with New Labour. I don't need to rehearse the binary and unhelpful nature of all this. But I do think that the temporal aspects of it are interesting. Because New Labour positioned itself as a party of change, in many ways going back is seen as the modernising thing to do. But of course the types of 'change' that New Labour became associated with are part of the problem.

This is why we saw various attempts to argue for some form of left conservation over the past five years; whether that was Blue Labour or the 'radical conservatism' associated with One Nation Labour, the idea was that Labour has always been the party of defending ways of life in the face of the constant imperative to change. And this is the antithesis of New Labour, for whom change was good in itself.

But one of the most interesting aspects of this was that many of the same people who were making these arguments were also talking about the need to go back to the original inspirations of New Labour - the early radicalism, idealism and optimism - the influence of guild socialism, the New Left and the co-operative movement, even (by some accounts) anarcho-syndicalism. This wasn't about resisting change, then, but about seizing it and taking it in a different direction.

In the very first speech Ed Miliband made as party leader, he said: 'You remember. We began as restless and radical. Remember the spirit of 1997, but by the end of our time in office we had lost our way' (Miliband, 2010). This idea later underpinned the project of One Nation Labour, even though as Mark Wickham-Jones (2013) has pointed out, the One Nation label had already been used in 1995. It was something that was taken from New Labour itself, even if it looked like it was doing something different.

This was a useful strategy. It allowed Miliband to claim to be true to the spirit of New Labour while distancing himself from its outcomes; to acknowledge its great successes, particularly electorally, while giving him space to make a strong critique of its excesses. In many ways this was exactly the way in which Blair used earlier periods of the party's history - when he talked for instance about wanting to 'not to return to the 1940s but instead to take the values that motivated that government and apply them afresh to our time' (Blair, 1995, 3).

To that extent, perhaps it could be seen as a fairly hollow rhetorical device. But I do think there was more to it than this. Again, as Mark Wickham-Jones (2013) has pointed out, there seemed to be a genuine sense among some people that New Labour was a project with real radical potential, which had somehow become derailed. Although it had set out determined to create a new form of bottom-up politics, rooted in communities and prepared to think quite radically about decentralisation, in the end it had ended up as centralising, managerialist and statist. We should remember that, in 2010, quite a lot of the arguments coming both from the Conservatives and from the Lib Dems were about big-statism. They weren't just about the economy. There was a real sense that this was what had gone wrong. …

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