Steve Brooks says Labour must fundamentally address what the party is for.
It’s no secret that social democracy is in crisis. In Britain, like most of Europe, centre-left parties have been swept from power. Dominant for the first three decades after World War II, progressive thinking faltered when growth slowed in the 1970s. Redistribution through tax and spend became increasingly difficult to deliver. A rapid process of de-industrialisation from the 1980s, brought about in large part by Thatcherism and globalisation, threw us further off course. At the time, the third-way looked like social democracy’s route back to the ascendency. In the late 1990s we talked of a coming ‘Labour century’, yet just 7 years in, we were confronted by the financial crisis.
Tough choices followed and thanks to Labour, an economic depression was averted. Before we left office, the economy had returned to growth. As painful as 2010 was, many on the centre-left drew false comfort from subsequent events of the last 5 years. Many assumed the global recession marked the beginning of the end of neo-liberal capitalism, and a shift back towards Keynesian economics.
The electorate had finally come to their senses. Market failure followed by five years of austerity would pull the public to the left. Popular policies like the Mansion Tax, scrapping the Bedroom Tax and the energy price freeze would propel us back into government. We had got our party back, and soon we would be returned to power. Except, we weren’t. We lost, and we lost big. Our opponents broke the swingometer whilst we achieved a lower share of the vote than the Tories did in 1997.
The task now for Labour is to accept defeat, regroup and renew. Jon Cruddas has rightly identified the scale of the challenge we face. The Labour party today has no more right to exist than the old Liberal party of the 1920s. We suffered not just an electoral defeat, but an intellectual one too. The financial crisis wasn’t just failure of the markets, it was a failure of government. Voters understand this and we must learn the lesson they are trying to teach us.
Cruddas argues that we must be “prepared to go the dark places and fundamentally rethink what the Labour Party is for, who it represents, what it’s all about”. It’s a debate on our mission, vision and values. Something we haven’t had as a movement since the mid-1990s when we changed Clause IV.
Labour’s right have accused the left of retreating into its comfort zone. The right retort that we only win when we are New Labour. The truth is that both Old Labour and New Labour achieved spectacular things. Old Labour established a health service based on need not ability to pay; it built homes for heroes; and created a welfare state that acted as springboard not a safety net. New Labour brought in the National Minimum Wage, cut crime, extended employment rights, and led the way tackling global poverty.
But the world has changed and we will do a disservice to the people of Wales and Britain if we allow the debate to descend into a ‘left a bit, right a bit’ row. It is easy to get drawn into a heated argument on strategy and tactics. Were the policies good? Was our message coherent? Were we too left? Too right? Wrong leader? Poor organisation? All of these questions matter and need answers, but our first task is something more fundamental. We cannot allow superficial arguments about aspiration and structural questions about the party’s constitution; to overshadow the more pressing need to re-identify and re-articulate who we are and what we are for.
Labour has no God given right to exist, and unless we renew our understanding of why we are here and what we want to achieve; populists left and right will invade our space, like they have in Greece and Spain.
Centre-left parties succeed when they achieve social change; they falter when they fail to keep up with the social change they create. Without that fundamental rethink, we do not simply risk irrelevance; we face extinction.