Peter Mandelson and David Miliband have both pronounced that “New Labour is dead”. The former announced somewhat theatrically that “New Labour died on May 7”, the latter, glibly, that it was now time for “Next Labour”. Before the best minds and energies of those who became most exercised by the vacuities of the “Third Way” become bogged down in this particular non sequitur – it may be time to simply say to Messrs Mandelson and Miliband “Hold on! Not so fast!”
For while on one level “New Labour” may be dead, on another it is, as the proverbial parrot, just resting. “New Labour” as a revisionist construct may thankfully have passed leaving in its wake a casualty list of five million lost voters and a party reduced to its core areas (and what irony there!) But “New Labour” in all of its command and control, authoritarian glory is still with us. It will take more than a couple of sound bytes to finally drive a stake through what passes for its heart.
For a start none of the favoured candidates has yet offered a serious manifesto, one which takes account of how and why Labour lost and suggests new policies to begin to re-build. While offering platitudes and some regret for “errors” such as the Iraq War and the restricting of civil liberties, none have actually apologised for the error of their ways, although in fairness one of the candidates, Ed Miliband was living in the USA during the Iraq war. And when it comes to the Labour Party and the ritual abuse of the rule book over the past decade, words come there none.
Labour cannot move on until the party as a whole faces up to what the architects and supporters of “New Labour” felt they had to do to ensure their project was successful. It cannot move on until democracy and accountability are restored, and party members are returned powers to make policy and select candidates. The Gerrymandering of the party conference, the obsession with spin over substance, the abuse of those – myself included – who have been black-listed and blocked from standing as candidates, all of this has to go before we can consider “New Labour” in the past sense.
There is a mechanism that could help us in this process, and for this we must thank Archbishop Tutu and the African National Congress. I would like to propose the setting up of a “Labour Truth and Reconciliation Commission”, whose meetings would be held in public and whose findings and recommendations would be publicised and presented to the National Executive Committee and to the Labour Party Conference, demanding action. The Commission hearings would be open to any Labour member who believes he or she has been a victim of malpractice, or who has positive proposals for making Labour democratic again. We could ask a respected figure in the Movement such as Helena Kennedy, Keith Ewing or Bob Marshall Andrews to chair the Commission, and ask each Leadership hopeful whether they agree in principle with the creation of a Labour Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and if – in addition to appearing in TV debates – they are prepared to come and give evidence and proposals to it.
This process need not be a long drawn out affair. Indeed it could have the positive effect of drawing the poison from accumulated wounds and channelling negatives into positives. We know for instance that many women and ethnic minorities have been badly treated by centralised candidate selection panels, so how would they propose to improve things for the better? We know that Labour performed better in constituencies where there is still an active membership, so how can we overturn over a decade of closing ‘difficult’ CLPs down, of depriving members of a real say over policy? We know that many good and professional party officials have been asked to do things that they know are not right, so how do we ensure that party officials always act impartially?
“New Labour’s” drift to authoritarianism, its move towards extended detention without trial, to jury free trials, to a blind eye towards illegal extraordinary rendition and by extension torture seemed largely to follow from the authoritarianism directed in the early days against the party itself. So it follows that an opening up and an admittal of where we went wrong is axiomatic to achieving a change of culture among the party leaders, or at least those who hope to be leaders in the future. More pointedly the whole process could be seen as one that begins to open up the policy debate at a time when Labour desperately needs to find a way of re-connecting with its natural supporters and those new supporters it needs to support it at the next election.
If Tribune readers are interested in taking the idea of a “Labour Truth & Justice Commission” forward, I would be interested to hear from them