So, last night I found my tiny self at a debate organised by Soundings and Comment Is Free, provocatively titled ‘After New Labour’. I was starving, having been writing all day when I should have been eating lunch, and had just about enough time to pick up the world’s largest blueberry muffin on my way to King’s Place. As I was due to write a piece for the Graun (Pennyred articles commissioned and turned down by Guardian currently stand at 6), I was ushered into a little room containing The Rt Hon Harriet Harman Rt Hon, Madeleine Bunting and someone else who knew them both so was obviously famous, and – me, and my muffin. Dilemma! I have an annoying tendency to shake and fall over when I haven’t eaten. But Harriet Harman was right there! I couldn’t just scoff down a muffin in front of her without even introducing myself – could I? Or could I? In the end I made my excuses and sprinted outside for sugar, cigarettes and other vices, before heading back in to ask cheeky questions and generally have a great deal of fun. A report/thinkpiece follows. Enjoy.
After New Labour, we have been delivered a shrill and remote language of progressive politics. Every speaker at last night’s Soundings/Comment Is Free debate agreed on the urgency of abandoning old rhetoric and working towards what John Cruddas called ‘a new sense of economic and social solidarity’, but such high-mindedness will be scuppered if Labour continues to define itself against the Conservative party.
My generation does not remember an ideology of Old Labour. Some young people who were born after the fall of the Berlin wall have already cast their first votes. Our parents may have voted for Blair in 1997, and we may even remember the excitement and pounding pop anthems that signalled the fall of the Major government, but we do not relate to that excitement. We do not play well with big, simple political ideas for one very good reason: big, simple ideas no longer seem relevant.
The global credit crunch has delivered the final blow: we have come to the end of ideology as a significant rallying factor in party politics. The New Labour generation, raised with the syncretic paradigms of internet technology, is bright and informed enough to understand that answers that look too easy usually are too easy. Radical socialism no longer quite suits; neither does the sacred cow of free market capitalism, currently flailing its hooves in bovine panic.
In the midst of this crisis, the same Labour party which not ten years ago declared an end to ideology is now casting about like a teenager anxiously trying to define itself. The party needs to move on from its adolescent wavering and realise, like every growing kid, that nobody cares how it defines itself anymore: it will be judged on its actions. At last night’s event, Harriet Harman lauded New Labour as ‘a delivery mechanism for Labour values’ – but the 18-26 year old cohort no longer has a clear idea of what those values are.
The party is still, as Harman noted, ‘driven by our experience of what it was like to live under a Tory government whose values we abhorred,’ but with what Chuka Umunna identified as Labour’s failure to ‘deal a blow to the Thatcherite consensus’, my generation can only point to New Labour when the cruelties of neo-liberalism begin to bite.
What will win votes is not ‘a return to Labour values’, but principles and practical planning, two noted absences from the current Conservative platform. If we are not offered practical principles, my generation will vote for personality, as we already have in London this year (not that anyone’s grateful).
Umunna, by far the most engaging speaker of the evening, was the only one explicitly to agree that Labour must offer something more than a platform of ‘not the Tories’. He noted that the notion that the individual prospers in the context of a strong and active state has always been at the heart of Labour’s mission – ‘it’s not that hard to say, so why don’t we say it?’,
Labour must stop defining itself by what it is not, and instead step forward with real principles to win back the 4.3 million voters who have abandoned the party since 1997. One of these core principles must be the potential of the state as an engine of wealth redistribution. The collapse of the derivatives market provides a perfect opportunity for this government to raise the pitifully low tax thresholds for the wealthiest 10 percent, who own 71 percent of this country’s wealth – so long sticking place for a British progressive consensus attempting to reconcile itself with New Labour values.
In the wake of this financial crisis, Brown’s government will enjoy a unique window in which to tax the wealthy, in response to a real public hunger for tax justice. My generation is crying out for socio-economic fairness, and the forcible lowering of petrol prices at the pumps this month is a baby step towards the platform of real social solidarity which Cruddas and Umunna echoed the call for last night. ‘After New Labour’, the Labour party’s first question must not be what it now stands for, nor what its values are, but what precisely it plans to accomplish with another term in power.
ELECTION NIGHT ON PENNYRED: THE DOOMED YOUTH OF TODAY ARE HOLDING AN END OF THE WORLD PARTY AT MY MEATSPACE RESIDENCE, WITH GIN, CHEMICALS, BBC-ONLINE AND MASSIVE QUANTITIES OF DORITOS AND BLIND HOPE. THERE WILL BE A SMALL AMOUNT OF LIVEBLOGGING, DEPENDING ON WHETHER OR NOT I’M SOBER ENOUGH TO HOLD THE KEYBOARD STRAIGHT. STAY TUNED TO THIS SITE AND TO LIBERAL CONSPIRACY.