Two sets of stats to contextualise my thesis this evening.
In 2005 in England, Labour under Tony Blair – in Blair’s last election as leader, an election he and Labour won for the third time – the Party achieved 8,043,461 votes.
Simultaneously, from 2005 to 2015 the Lib Dem vote collapsed from 5,201,286 to 2,098,404. That’s over 3 million votes less.
I’ve seen people on the right-wing of the Party arguing over the past couple of days that Ed Miliband afforded himself the luxury of a massive political – read particularly wonkish – experiment on the progressive people of Britain.
Unlike, say, the experiments of austerity and trickle-down economics which have been committed over the past forty-odd years.
Yes. I know. You’ll be accusing me now of whataboutery. What about this? What about that? But here, I do feel it’s relevant.
I’ve been speaking to people recently and watching what others say in public. As I tweeted earlier in the day:
I’ve seen it beginning to happen, and it saddens me – it does. As the grand Patrick Wintour piece in the Guardian quoted recently (the bold is mine):
“Just as it would have been foolish to trash everything about New Labour, it would be similarly foolish to throw away what was good about Ed’s leadership,” Tom Baldwin said. “At its best, it faced up to the big challenge of progressive politics in the 21st century, which is how to achieve the goals of social justice in an era when we can’t spend. Even Tony Blair said Ed had been right to put inequality back on the agenda. Ed’s leadership struggled with the tension between building a new offer of change while also trying not to define ourselves entirely against the preceding three terms of Labour government, in which he played a considerable part. This was a tough puzzle and, despite all our efforts, one we never really solved.”
So you know exactly where I stand, I’m still generous enough to say New Labour’s political and intellectual curiosity about the world was sufficiently ingenious and productive to be worth revisiting – even today, even in hindsight. The decisions its leaders took – Iraq being a prime case of whataboutery I’m sure you’ll be expecting me to mention – would not be; indeed, are not.
PFI was also a desperate, cack-handed measure to put the roofs back on the schools and the hospitals after Thatcherite idiocy – a measure I’m not sure Blair & Co would have been terribly unhappy about, even if they had known (or, actually, did they?) that they would be crippling future public-sector provision, as they delivered it long-term into the hands of private profit.
In the context of the above two examples … yes, it’s easy hindsight of course. But even as we accept it’s very easy, the decisions New Labour took were by far the easiest ones to take as well. It didn’t stand up to Bush’s dreadful regime; it didn’t stand up to the social needs of higher education; it didn’t stand up to Murdoch or any of the other big media empires; it didn’t stand up to the regulatory soft-touch the financial-services sector demanded; for God’s sake, it didn’t even stand up to the fundamental interests of utility companies and the services none of us can avoid using.
What it did do was lay the ground rules and carefully tend to the playing-fields Cameron & Co would enjoy five years on.
From 2010, Labour did make a mistake. In a sense, no one cared to value any part of New Labour. Yet Blair was Blair I, II and III. And whilst no one cared for Blair III, as reality slowly emerged and seeped out from Iraq et al, Blair I surely still – even today – should serve to maintain its charm, fascination and interest for anyone wishing to win British voters back for Labour.
Equally, I’d argue, as a self-confessed adherent of Ed Miliband, that early on he appeared to want something different in modern politics: the language of conversation and dialogue, not warring parties and machines and political engineering. There was wisdom too in the motto of One Nation Labour, before it was abandoned out of weariness, incapacity or simply a wider lack of vision.
But just as we shouldn’t have discarded Blair I, so the promise maybe some of us saw in early Miliband – even when blessed hindsight indicates now that it was never to be – should not be ignored nor forgotten either. Apart from anything else, we live in a different world from New Labour: in fact New Labour didn’t start in 1997 but, rather, at least five years before – perhaps a decade, perhaps as early as 1987 – as its prime movers began to cogitate their political theories, positions and strategies … and how exactly to implement them.
The world we live in lends itself less and less to the language of machines and political engineering; more and more to the technology of connectedness. And connectedness means hundreds and thousands of disparate networks that only come together when people, wanting to, push them in the same direction.
If the old New Labourites, as well as those who – without any real understanding of what it all really meant – simply love the idea of winning again, think all they need to do is transplant the Tory view of life – its button-pressing message-drilling mechanisation of humanity – to the heart of the Labour psyche again … well, I honestly think you’re all very foolish in your intentions – and ultimately in your beliefs.
The networks we now lay down and form a part of need to be enabled and facilitated – not gathered close to one, imposed upon nor taken for granted. Just as early Miliband was moving towards this, just as Blair I managed charismatically to make us believe was the case (even when it really wasn’t; even when sofa politicking & policy-making would soon take charge), so leadership at all levels – a leadership where people learn to act out of productive unity but not in vacuous uniformity – can be an experiment truly worth pursuing.
Yes. To propose this is to run the risk of exhibiting a wonkish nature, it is true perhaps. But, equally, in the right hands, and I sincerely believe it’s possible for them to exist, it can be a very humane, much needed and essentially election-winning process.
A process where the destination would be more than satisfactory for us all.
As well as, possibly, self-renewing.
No. Ed’s Labour didn’t get the most important thing right.
But it did get many important things spot-on. And it’s even arguable that what it got precisely right led to its ultimate downfall.
So let’s build on this – not forget it.