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No going back: Labour needs a clean break

no_going_backHistory, Marx remarked, often repeats itself. The first time as tragedy and the second time as farce.

If we don’t understand history we will certainly be doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past. And so it is that we can learn a lesson from the Conservatives.

Mrs Thatcher showed the Tories how to win elections after a period of opposition. Mr Blair did the same for us.

But the Tories made the mistake of attempting to find leaders who reproduced her politics. This was a serious blunder, and they lost three subsequent elections under the Thatcherite clones – Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard.  They failed because they didn’t understand that the country had changed fundamentally and that it had moved on beyond Thatcherism.

And now there are siren voices in the Labour party who are in effect arguing that we should return to the politics of our own election winner, Tony Blair.  It seems that there are even aspiring leadership candidates who are consciously parroting the politics of the Blair/Brown years.

The Party will not fall for such politics. It is backward looking, retrograde and imagines a country which is stuck in a 1990’s time warp. Nor, by the way should we think of going back to the solutions of 1945 etc. No party which simply engages a reverse gear will win.

And the country won’t warm to it. Defeat will stare us in the face once more.

The person who will win the next election for us will have to show that they understand the country as it now is. He or she will show that they have learned the lessons of the past, will take the legacy and insights of Brown, Blair and Miliband but move then on to be better adapted the country as it now is.

In the balance between continuity and change, it is the latter which must win the day. We need a clean break with the politics of the 1990’s without of course for one moment repudiating the significant achievements of the Labour years such as the minimum wage, the refinancing of the NHS and education etc. But equally the later Labour years were marked with growing disenchantment which I analysed in my Missing Millions hypothesis in 2005 and which in part laid the seeds for our defeats in 2010 and 2015.

Ed Miliband’s leadership was marked by a partial break with the recent past. But he was to some extent hamstrung by the overhang from the years of Labour government, and never achieved the clean break which is necessary.

To that extent we can see him already as a figure who began the transition into modernity for the Party and showed that we need to open the door to a better politics, rooted in conditions facing the country as it will be after 5 more years of Toryism. I think that we should build on that part of his legacy which led us forward, but then move beyond by making a fresh start.

There is a profound malaise in the country and a sense that things are not working any more for most of us. It is Labour’s task to give expression to this mood. Some of the commentators argued that the country wants a Labour party committed to aspiration. Well, of course. But in the campaign where I travelled throughout the country and had many thousands of encounters, it was not a mood of aspiration that I found, but one of quiet desperation and a sense of disappointment or even anger at Britain’s ruling elite.

We need a leader who understands our country and who knows how to respond to it. We must cease to look and act as if we are on the side of the elite and become the party which is on the side of the 99%. Here is a preliminary outline of a path which a successful new leader will need to take:

  1. Tackle inequality and take on the vested interests when they act against the common good. Confront the way in which the country is working for the 1% and not the rest of the country.
  2. Drastic reform of the way we do politics and an end to hierarchical state structures. The public services do not need marketising they need democratising. We live in New Times where the internet and the end of deference together have made vertical structures redundant. A new type of politics and institutions needs to be invented to match the new zeitgeist.
  3. This must not entail abandoning the Labour idea that we need active government to intervene in markets where they are failing.
  4. Reform the world of work which is becoming increasingly nasty, brutish and short. The Tories will continue to press forward with labour market reform making real people’s lives increasingly difficult and unsustainable. Labour’s manifesto for work is an exemplary first tranche of reforms which is well worth a read.
  5. Create a proper economic and industrial strategy which focuses on how we can create wealth in new ways as well as distribute wealth more fairly.
  6. Show that we care about efficiency in public services.  Every penny must be made to count and that we will tackle the deficit but not in a Tory way. Jobs, investment, and a new industrial structure and prosperity is the way to tackle the deficit, not cuts and a downward spiral.
  7. Re-orientate the foreign policy of the United Kingdom so that we take up a role which reflects our contemporary status; and especially end the pretence that we are necessarily one of the world’s police officers.
  8. Rebuild the Labour movement’s links into local communities in new ways. Labour’s activists left me feeling humbled wherever I went as a result of seeing their devotion to the cause, their stamina, and their liberal use of shoe leather as they pounded the streets. But the truth is that we need substantial movement building and long term reconnection in neighbourhoods throughout the country. The recent reforms of trades unions may help to start this process, but we need to go further in many other respects.
  9. Do our elected representatives reflect the occupational backgrounds, and everyday experiences of normal people who we wish to represent? The answer is no. The next leader must prioritise the task of resolving this problem, because the present trajectory may leave us with a set of spokespersons who simply cannot connect.

Finally, the Labour party needs to abandon the notion that a single heroic leader can achieve our goals.  We must be led by a team which demonstrably can ‘talk normal’ in the language, dialects and syntax of the ordinary people of our wonderful country.

There must be no going back. The party should offer the country a fresh start.

This article first appeared at Shifting Grounds

Image copyright:Samantha Craddock at  



    Mark Twain said,

    “It is much easier to fool people than it is to tell them that they have been fooled.”
    The Blairite candidates are so concerned that we might upset the City, and not balance the budget, that they think a move back to the right is the answer.
    The worst deceit from both the Tory and Right of Labour is that we must pay off the deficit and create a surplus.

    Before we embark on returning Labour to its traditional values of looking after the poor, yes I said poor, we need to shake off some illusions. In the thirties it was the poor who needed jobs, and the Attlee government who delivered them.
    He was not concerned with working families, but hungry ones, and with food banks on the rise, and teachers supplying food to pupils in schools, this is happening again. Attlee had a much, much higher debt than we see today, and yet delivered the NHS, the welfare state, and close to full employment.

    We need to completely reject the idea that government needs to make cuts to expenditure. It does need to be careful where and what it spends money on, it needs to create jobs and rejuvinate the NHS, local government and education, particularly after another five years of the coalition. It needs to invest before the next generation inherits the crippling debt of undeveloped skills and long term unemployment. It needs to invest to create exports, to stem our gaping trade deficit, which would aid recovery. BUT IT DOES NOT NEED TO BALANCE BOOKS OR CUT THE DEFICIT WHILE WE HAVE POVERTY AND UNEMPLOYMENT.

    All economists know that the deficit is really injections of real sovereign money into the economy, and that government has no constraints on spending. Governments can never run out of money or default on a debt. They are sovereign issuers of currency.
    In fact, a government deficit is the only way to get real money int the economy. When government spends, the public earns real money. The only other source of money is bank debt, and banks also create money, but only with a corresponding loan.
    When governments run a surplus, they take money out of the economy, and bank debt builds up, as people borrow to survive. Some people sink further in to poverty.

    Any Labour leader must understand this, or will be doomed to keep repeating that “there is no alternative to cuts” – the neoliberal TINA mantra.

    We have a great opportunity to expose this when George Osbourn makes his next round of cuts, and the help to buy increases bank debt – a new recession beckons.

    There are many economists explaining this with blogs and youtube lectures. The best ones include Bill Mitchell, Stephanie Kelton, Randall Wray, Steve Keen, Michael Hudson, Steven Hail, Jamie Galbraith.
    To get socialist policy, we need an understanding of the freedoms and choices that governments have.

  2. James Martin says:

    But to have a ‘clean break’ we need to understand what Blair represented and why his politics were allowed to do so much damage to the Party (and via Iraq the world).

    The ‘Project’ of Blair and Mandelson was always about removing both socialism and organised labour from the Party, of making the Party pro-nuclear and pro-NATO and it was directed (and in the case of Blair’s sudden wealth financed) from across the Atlantic. And it was allowed to happen because too many in the movement who should have known better allowed themselves to be brought off by the promise of power – but as we (and the people of Iraq) saw, power without principle is far, far worse than no power at all.

  3. Timmy says:

    Blairism may be dead, but as the comments make clear the ideas that were prevalent in the 70’s and 80’s (and led to it’s creation being necessary) are clearly still walking and need a stake through their heart too. Number one on the list in the article should be creating and maintaining an economy that is open, energetic and sucks in international investment. Without that strategy, the rest is like armchair admirals playing fantasy fleets.

    The “deficits don’t matter” strain of thinking is dangerous, poisonous rubbish and will eventually lead to a crisis worse than the last one. The poor and less able of this country will be best protected by having an economy that does not need to borrow to maintain it’s public spending commitments and has some money put away for a rainy day.

    The public came to trust TB, PM and GB in the 90’s precisely because they did not spout the sort of economic nonsense that is seen so frequently in comments here and elsewhere. When we see less of it, and note that it is regularly challenged on here and similar sites when it does appear, it will be a sign that we are getting ready for Government again. At the moment the opposite is happening…

  4. swatantra says:

    Good article. Basically it means dismantling the whole machine and starting from scratch and building up a real Peoples Party, a Social democratic afty that does what it says on the tin. ‘The Labour Party’ does not.
    Neither Blairism and Brownism is the answer. A great giant leap forward is., escaping the shackles of the 19th Century which has little relevance to the 21st Century.

    1. swatantra says:

      Lets shift the focus to investing in the future ie younger people; pensioners have had rather a good deal on the whole these last 20 years or so.

  5. David Ellis says:

    It took only twenty short years for a combination of New Labour’s cynical realism (there is no alternative) and its opportunist attempts to game the capitalist system by piggy backing on the Bankers’ 30-year Ponzi Scam (endongenous growth theory) to reduce the party to rubble.

    If there is to be a phoenix arising out of these ashes it will have to be openly socialist. The alternative for the so-called left MPs is to sit behind some New Labour clone for the next five years who offers zero opposition to the most vicious Tory government ever but who attempts to try to outmanoeuvre it from the right on every occasion. In five years time in that scenario Labour in England will be as pasoked as it is in Scotland.

    1. John P Reid says:

      New labour reduce date party to rubble, a,New labour could b et raced back to Kinnock bravely taking on Hatton so when new labour started it was just after U.S. Getting 27% of the vote, New Labour according to Ken Livingstone died after the 2008 mayoral lectionaries which he lost,

      And if you mean the party is in rubble now, then Ed Miliband ignoring New Labour can’t be seen as it being new labours fault for us just losing the working class vote last week,

  6. Mukkinese says:

    All well and good, and i largely agree, but the big point we are all trying to avoid is what lost us the election.

    We now know that it was mistrust on the economy and competence.

    This question, above all has to be tackled. It will not go away, the press will see to that.

    So far the blairite Tory-lite wannabes in the leadership race are just giving a silly mixed message of “yes Labour spent too much, but that did not cause any significant problems”.

    What the hell is the voter supposed to take from that?

    Any leadership contender that shows some confidence and decides to tackles the lie head on will get my vote. The rest are cowards who just want to be kinder Tories…

    1. Robert says:

      Looking at those standing now for the leadership will give you nightmares.

      1. SANDRA CRAWFORD says:

        Yes just look at Liz Kendall’s address in the Guardian today (21st May). Definitely a free school, high tuition fee, deficit hawk – I do not know why she doesn’t just cross the floor.

        1. Rod says:

          The same goes for quite a few of the PLP.

          But there’s nothing that can be done. Jon’s fine words will have no purchase. If he stood for leadership he wouldn’t achieve the required backing from the PLP.

          And members of the LP have little say in anything. Even when conference voted to renationalise the Royal Mail the vote was immediately slapped down by the elite.

          If a backward-looking Blairite becomes leader then it’ll be time for Labour’s Left to think the unthinkable and then walk the walk.

          1. Sandra Crawford says:

            Only a mass exodus will work and must be accompanied by a few of the well known.
            A new party merging with the Greens, Left Unity, the NHS party, Coop party, would gain traction and have the SNP effect.

          2. john P Reid says:

            many have left ,Hatton, Scargill, Galloway, Dave nellist, Liz Davies, at least one of them actually got a few votes

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