When the monarch dies, the cry goes up “The King is Dead, Long Live the King!”. At Labour Party headquarters in Britain the new cry appears to be “New Labour is Dead, Long Live the Labour Party!”.
With Gordon Brown’s resignation, the race is on to succeed him as Leader of the Labour Party and the first two into the race – Ed and David Milliband – have made it clear that they wish to return to the heart and soul of the party and have done with the idea of “new” Labour. Ed Balls, who is likely to announce his candidacy shortly has also said that this will be a battle about returning to the true roots of the party and to fight the next election from a progressive position, not as “red Tories” (the name given to left of centre conservatives). John Cruddas, who famously resigned from the Brown cabinet in the hope of triggering a rebellion in 2009, has also indicated that the challenge will be to bring Labour back to square one and rebuild the party as a party of the progressive left, though he has ruled himself out of the race.
The fact that some key figures – Harriet Harman, Alan Johnson, Jack Straw – who have been associated for a considerable time with the “new” Labour “brand” have made clear that they will not be candidates, also indicates that the “new” Labour motif is to be sidestepped in favour of a more progressive, left of centre stance.
There are two major reasons for this shift of thinking within the Labour party. The first and most obvious is arithmetic: Labour was roundly rejected in the recent general election by the people. Though it did better than some expected, it was Labour’s worse showing in terms of popular vote for eighty years. The party was not humiliated, but roundly defeated and will now spend at least five years if not a decade in opposition.
Second, there is clear evidence that throwing money at problems and setting centrally determined targets for health, education and social programs – state centralism – does not work. The history of new Labour will be written sometime in the future. It will focus on how Blair and Brown sought to “control” the levers of the State through money, targets, quango’s and inspection and how this failed to create any major improvements in health, education and other fields. What this did do was turn Britain from a nation of shopkeepers and entrepreneurs into a nation of bookkeepers and idea inhibitors who work for the public sector. Wages in the public sector are 7-9% higher than in the private sector and Britain is primarily a public sector economy with some entrepreneurial activity.
The next Labour leader needs to explain how Labour will transform communities and public organizations in such a way that they are once again effective means of securing fairness, meritocracy and empowerment. They will need to show how their thinking differs from that of the progressive arm of the Conservative party who appear to be pursuing policies closer to “old” Labour than Labour itself. They also have to explain how Labour will return pride, dignity and respect to communities, schools, health care and other public sector services. It is a tall order.
What we will witness in the Labour Party’s leadership struggle between now and the start of the party conference in September is a struggle for the ideological grounding of the party. The Milliband brothers are likely to provide the conversations, debates and writing that will articulate this ideology and lead to significant policy shifts – John Cruddas could also provide ballast to thinking, even though he will not be a candidate. Ed Balls, in contrast, is a lightweight thinker with heavyweight credentials – an enforcer and proclaimer rather than a thinker and imaginer. It will be an interesting time, but not the best of times for Labour.