New Labour: An Obituary

New Labour: An Obituary

You lose an election with your second worst performance ever, and 20,000 people join the party in the aftermath. Then the leadership contenders—all but one prominent ministers in the last government—compete with each other to distance themselves from that government’s policies. There is a simple explanation for these seemingly strange behaviors—a lurch to the Left, similar to what (disastrously) happened after the 1979 defeat to Thatcher. But the people joining the party and joining in the critique are not, by and large, rabid leftists. What these events do mark is a palpable and pervasive sense of relief at the formal end of the New Labour project. I say formal because the project has been politically dead for quite some time. Hollow election victories allowed it to stumble on, zombie-like, across the political landscape, and only an actual defeat could lay the body to rest.

IN THIS article I want to attempt a political autopsy, drawing on the experience of someone who, as editor of the journal Renewal, had for a long time one foot in and one foot out of the New Labour camp. What I want to argue is that New Labour was not killed by its opponents, a hostile media, or even the global financial crisis. Rather, the death was a case of suicide by stages. It is possible, indeed necessary, to highlight the things that it did in office and shouldn’t have; it is equally important to focus on the things it didn’t do. Lacking the will and ultimately the intellectual resources to fashion a radical, realistic, modernizing project, in essence it suffered from too much New Labour, not enough New Britain.

In the Beginning: Preparing for Power

After his 1997 victory, Tony Blair briefly bestrode the European stage, presenting the New Labour recipe as the basis for renewing social democracy. It didn’t really take hold, and for good reasons. New Labour was always a project to win more than to exercise power. In order to win, the Old Labour brand had to be decontaminated. In 1996, Blair said, in Prospect, “We have cleared out the deadwood of outdated ideology, policy and organisation, and made the party relevant again.” Romantics believe that Labour would have won in 1997 with anyone as leader. Perhaps so, but the polling evidence is clear—there was a qualitative leap under Blair, who found a reassuring, modernizing language and picked a symbolic transformative moment—the dumping of Clause Four, the historic commitment to public ownership of the commanding heights of the economy—to define the process.

Although it was certainly true that there was no transformative project, it was not obvious at the time that Blair and New Labour were incapable of developing one. Business-friendly pragmatism was to the fore, but Blair was undoubtedly searching for a longer-term progressive vision. In that same Prospect article, he identified four building blocks of new identity: t...