In the end, the legacy of New Labour was mixed. International development, the minimum wage and record investment in public services, to name a few achievements, were all important and valuable contributions. Iraq, however, was a blight on its legacy and in the end we failed to build the well supported institutions that could endure through a Conservative administration.
But in the run up to 1997, New Labour had one clear and defining quality: it gave people a lot of hope – and people need hope. Thanks in part to 13 years of Tory government, there’s a lot of despair around at the moment. And that doesn’t lead to a sense that we can and we will change things.
Labour today would do well to learn from the message of hope that helped propel us to victory in 1997 – but whoever is around Starmer seems to be misremembering the past. Their template seems to be when Blair took over from John Smith. They seem to think that he got rid of lots of commitments and just had five things on a card. But in reality, people including myself have a memory of Labour’s radicalism – and the commitments went much wider than the five on a card. We know too that under John Smith we would likely have won anyway, albeit probably with a smaller majority, without having to sanitise ourselves and pretend we weren’t going to do anything.
Now, Starmer and his team are desperately trying to emulate that historic victory by getting rid of all their commitments and tying themselves down on their economic policy and so on. This means even if Labour does win, as now looks increasingly likely, it won’t be able to do very much. Labour should be very wary of making a cage out of its own victory. If the party were to win but fail in office and disappoint everyone, that would be extremely bad for British politics. When the Left totally disappoints, you usually see a rise in extreme right wing populist forces, a la Trump in America.
My optimistic scenario, then, is that the Tories lose but Labour doesn’t win an overall majority. This still seems possible because in recent by-elections the Tory vote collapsed but Labour’s vote hardly increased. People also say on the doorsteps there isn’t much enthusiasm for Labour – merely anger and disillusionment with the Tories.
If Labour becomes the largest party but falls short of an overall majority, it would have to reach an arrangement with the SNP and the Lib Dems. An arrangement like this would probably lead to better, stronger and more effective government, because having to take on board a diversity of viewpoints would soften Labour’s hard edges. The SNP cares more about devolution and inequality, while the Lib Dems probably care more about civil liberties and the environment.
Believe it or not, this could be a blessing in disguise for Labour. There’d be much more room for manoeuvre and much more room for argument about the best way forward. This horrible authoritarian control freak stuff that’s going on in the Labour Party now would also have to give way if the party leadership was forced to agree with others on how to go forward.
If we did get a hung parliament, and if the minority parties were smart, we could get electoral reform and get rid of our rotten First Past the Post system. This would no doubt lead to the election of a big tranche of Green MPs, which would surely improve the quality of governance in the UK.
We have to find a way not of attacking Labour, but supporting it and encouraging it to have a bit more confidence and be a bit more radical. The party should let some of its more radical elements have more of a say, rather than dumping something every week that they think the right wing press might not like. Working with other progressive parties where they have shared aims is one way we can do this.