Wanted - a New Strategy for the Centre Left: A Convincing Strategy for the Centre Left Requires a More Radical Rethink Than We Have So Far Seen from Labour

By Diamond, Patrick; Kenny, Michael | Soundings, January 2012 | Go to article overview

Wanted - a New Strategy for the Centre Left: A Convincing Strategy for the Centre Left Requires a More Radical Rethink Than We Have So Far Seen from Labour


Diamond, Patrick, Kenny, Michael, Soundings


The future of British social democracy is inextricably intertwined with the fate and prospects of the Labour Party. The relationship between the two has never been entirely straightforward, with the party only rarely espousing the kind of social-democratic thinking that has been the lodestar of its continental cousins. But the social democratic lineage has been kept alive within and around the Labour Party - sometimes by party intellectuals, such as Tony Crosland, and sometimes by independent thinkers and academics. And it has played a crucial role as a source of ideas, direction and purpose at various moments throughout the party's history.

Our contention is that the current malaise gripping the Labour Party is not solely a product of its heavy electoral defeat in May 2010, or of its continuing inability to craft a narrative relating to its achievements and failings in office. Opposition parties are always prone to focus on tactics and short-term positioning, and the abiding instability of the Coalition government has encouraged these tendencies all the more. But the party also needs to begin the task of developing a compelling, longer range strategy that aims to recast Labour's appeal as a party of reform, drawing on influential currents of progressive thought, and as a party of security for citizens from working-and middle-class backgrounds facing growing economic uncertainty. If it doesn't succeed in this it may be out of power for a generation or more.

The party's current woes are as much intellectual as political, and are connected to the sense that social democracy itself has come to a historic crossroads, gripped by a lack of confidence about which direction to take, and losing faith in some of the fundamental propositions that gave it life. In this essay we suggest that those with a stake in social-democratic politics and values in the UK need to adopt a far more 'realist' stance in relation to the political situation which they face - through an acknowledgment of the entrenched position of many neoliberal assumptions across significant parts of society and state, and a recognition of the need to develop a new programme for the coming decade, founded upon some of social democracy's enduring values. (1) While the position facing the centre left today is in some respects more perilous than at any time since the early 1980s, the historic mission of social democracy endures, as set out by Andrew Gamble and Tony Wright - 'the constant search to build and sustain political majorities for reforms of economic and social institutions which counter injustice and reduce inequality'. (2) This broad orientation remains equally important and valid today. But the social and political circumstances in which it is to be applied and promoted are, for the most part, inhospitable.

Labour's record in power

A pressing challenge facing Labour now is to address some of the abiding associations it has accrued in the minds of significant sections of the electorate following its lengthy period in office. There has been remarkably little systematic effort to understand the reasons why the party lost so much support between 2001 and 2010 - despite the traumas associated with events such as the Iraq war and the apparently relentless conflict between Gordon Brown and Tony Blair; and the growing evidence that the living standards of lower and middle income families began to fall away from 2003 onwards. Nor has there been, as its opponents like to observe, a proper reckoning with its own macro-economic record. The party needs to show that it understands where it went wrong or was insufficiently effective, for instance in relation to financial regulation; but, equally, where it did well and can claim genuine achievements that have been either under-valued or quietly accepted by the Coalition, for instance those of Sure Start and its early intervention with disadvantaged families. More importantly, it needs to bust the caricature of New Labour as a regime that was addicted to reckless spending. …

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