A recession is a difficult time for all incumbent political parties. It is a period that should force any party in government to reflect on their successes and look at their failures with open eyes, and a view to doing things better next time. Times have been tough for many people in Britain of late. The recession has bitten hard in to peoples jobs, their confidence and their ability to see a prosperous future.
The last eighteen months have likewise been politically tough for Labour. In election after election, and on the doorstep, voters have stopped listening to what the Labour Party was trying to say. Unfortunately, however, the Labour Party was also saying more things to itself as it misunderstood what people wanted to hear. Rather than discussing and listening to what the country had to say to the party, the robots of British politics continued to trot out the tired and well worn sound-bites of a political conversation that was passed its sell-by date.
After twelve years in office the feeling that it is time to give the other guys a go is a strong and natural impulse in British politics. Voters see it as fair that different people should be given the chance to have a go at the helm. So what was once a toxic message from the Conservatives found new ground as Labour started the process of looking inward and taking stock.
When a political party returns to it’s roots and asks questions about it’s core values, it is a sign that the party has a lack of confidence in the leading edge values that it had been projecting, and a sign that the ever-grinding fight that it calls on its supporters to keep up might just be loosing its appeal. What once motivated party members to slug it out on the doorstep against the other parties now seems risky and tough. Pulling back to a comfort zone of security in core values, however, has every whiff of a political corpse.
It had all seemed so different just a few short years ago. When an opposition is so well caricatured and so easy to be against, as the Conservative Party became in the 1990s, then the job of motivating supporters to be against them is so much simpler. For the insurgents to rally people to the cause, all that was needed was a message that the ‘rot-had-to-stop’. In the glory days of New Labour success in local and national elections during the 1990s, it was easy to rally the troops against the cause of conservatism because as an opponent they had been in power for so long, and had treated the country so disrespectfully, that voters wanted to see them chucked out at almost any cost. And they didn’t care how.
And so, New Labour came to power as a way of shifting the ground under the pragmatic-conservatives who had been camped on the centre ground of British politics. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown’s great achievement is that they are pragmatists who appealed to both left and right alike. This centrist mood caught the wave of opposition to an entrenched Tory political class and called time on their rotten expectation that they had a right to rule and never be challenged.
But time doesn’t stand still, and there is no gratitude in politics. The voting public have never expected that they should show gratitude to an incumbent party and their successes just for the sake of it. But have instead, always asked what a party can deliver in government that is in the self-interest of the voters themselves.
The Conservatives great claim, on a local basis at least, is that they don’t rock-the-boat, and that they provide effective-management of the publics finances. Which is a laudable aim and worth asking of all political parties when they want to be the stewards of the nations wealth. The problem is, though, that all this safe stewardship can end up being stifling and safe, and that innovation and creativity get locked out of the political, economic and civic culture.
The appeal of Margaret Thatcher in the second phase of her government (after the disastrous first phase when she butchered British industry and ruined our overall economic capacity), was to push as hard as she could for an enterprise culture to emerge. This meant smashing monopolies and entrenched interests, freeing up markets for new businesses to enter, and looking for technology and innovation to lead the way in defining new value for the future of the economy.
But in stretching for this new form of economic dynamism, and after smashing the bedrock of our economy by failing to invest in the core industries and managing change within in them, she instead pursued a policy of industrial confrontation and wasted the energies of millions of people. The wealth that was created in the newly privatised service sector was siphoned off by a new elite of wealthy financiers. People who perpetuated the rule of the public-school network, and who have ever since refused to pay their fair share in taxation.
However, the truth is that New Labour never really challenged the Thatcherite capitalist settlement. New Labour represented the centre ground in British politics on the basis that this was an economic model that would continue to work and continue to provide some kind of benefit for the nation as a whole. New Labour’s model has been to spread out some of the benefits of this economic growth more fairly. But it defined itself as a political movement that was against wholesale change and revolution in the economy. The ubiquitous third way got all of the attention instead.
And to be fair, until recently, it has been a model that has worked. Record years of growth, record years of people in employment, years with record numbers of people owning their own home. Who would challenge the ‘Goldilocks’ economy? Who would argue against growth when the taps seemed like they would never turn off? Who predicted that it would all come crashing down, shaking the foundations of the capitalist system and fundamentally calling an end to the Neo-Conservative and Thatcherite hegenemy.
So the recent and ongoing banking crisis and subsequent recession has profoundly affected New Labour. It has forced the party to rip up its rule book and to look again at the way that New Labour can sit in the centre ground of social democratic capitalist politics. The challenge is for a number of reasons. Firstly it challenged the economic model that had been followed. Secondly, it challenged the country to question the values of the progressive left as peoples instincts where to resort to self-interest in times of trouble. And thirdly, the Labour Party has been challenged to find an authentic voice that can rally it’s potential supporters around the cause of change and fairness in a modern, capitalist economy. It is this thread of thinking that I beleive now needs to be ellaborated and developed more openly.
Watching the Labour Party conference this week I was struck by the almost humble mood that was articulated by most speakers. Gone was the triumphalism and flag waving. Gone was the follow-the-leader at all costs mentality. And gone to was the arrogance that meant that the Labour Party was talking to itself, arguing for policies that only sounded good to policy-wonks, in a voice that lacked authenticity. Instead there was talk of regeneration and talk of change, talk of creativity and innovation, and talk of renewal. There was talk of activism, of reform, of investment and development. All very welcome, diligent and careful sounding phrases.
No other party has been faced with the issue of it’s own renewal while in office. Most parties renew themselves in opposition, and against the record of the incumbent party. It is easy to be against something, but try articulating what you are for, and it is much more difficult. Try conveying the sense that you have a purpose when everyone who is against you subseqently has something to aim at. David Cameron gets away with weak policies because he holds everything so closely to his chest. He’s not stupid, he knows not to give anything away unless he has to.
But for New Labour, the party of government, has to shout and proclaim what it is about as a party of progressive change. Gone are the days of resorting to command and control economics. Gone also are the days of mass-market retail style politics. Instead we have entered the age of the personal political message. The age of social networking and de-centred opinion forming. Political parties are no longer the big publishing houses of opinion were big coalitions are formed around sectional interests to be communicated by wholesale media publishers in the form of newspaper endorsements. Instead, politics is now about facilitating the aspirations, creativity and diversity of voters opinions and matching them with a set of services that really deliver value and a high standard of living on a one-to-one basis.
British politics shouldn’t be dominated by a debate on cutting the deficit alone, as Cameron’s rightwing friends in the media would have it. The choice is much more important and fundamental than that. Instead, the progressive centre and left should shift the debate away from talking about the cuts and the closing of aspirations, to talking about the positive quality of life that we might enjoy in the United Kingdom. We should carry on talking about fairness and security in employment and retirement. We should talk more about opportunity, creativity and innovation. About how we unlock tallent and enterprise in a fair market.
Crucially, we must talk about the fair distribution of rewards for all members of our communities. The days of letting the free market stuff all the rewards in the hands of a small number of people is coming to an end. New Labour, for all it’s faults, has rebuilt the fabric of this country since 1997, but now it is time for New Labour to grasp a more radical message of fair reward for all. In the process New Labour will renew, celebrate and represent the sense of confidence that the British people need to face the challenges of the future. In talking about fairness, creativity and innovation New Labour will find its authentic voice, not from the top of the party, but from the dreams of the British people themselves. Now that is radical.?