Many question what the current Labour leadership actually stands for and whether the party has witnessed an authentic ideological revision since the New Labour days. But despite his leftist campaign for party leadership, Ed Miliband offered key positions to many Blairites and, as head of the opposition, has endorsed pluralism and attenuated his critique of the Blair years. Lilia Giugni argues that New Labour has changed the party so deeply that its discourse and cultural background remain mostly unchallenged.
In 2010, Ed Miliband inherited a party troubled by tensions and confusion. After three electoral victories and 13 years in office, New Labour had lost its appeal due to the legacy of the Iraq war, a series of burning scandals and endless backbenchers’ rebellions. Blair had resigned in 2007, replaced by his eternal rival Gordon Brown, with many of those within Labour seeing him as more traditionally left-wing and able to rescue the party from its decline. Yet, the 2008 financial crisis had promptly interrupted Brown’s brief honeymoon with the electorate and Labour had lost the 2010 General Elections, leading to a Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government. Ed Miliband, a young Brownite, then won a bitter leadership contest, in which the main adversary was his brother David, one of Blair’s closest advisors. Ed obtained the support of most of the Unions and of many social-democrats who had at some point started to despise the Blairite model, examples being Roy Hattersley and Neil and Gladys Kinnock. He did so by differentiating himself from the previous leadership, declaring that New Labour was over and running a quite leftist campaign.
Four years later, many question what the current leadership actually stands for and whether Labour has witnessed an authentic ideological revision. On the one hand, Miliband launched the new slogan ‘One Nation Labour’, inspired from a famous Disraeli’s speech, which has been praised as an attempt to revitalise socialism in the context of the current economic crisis, as well as criticized for flirting with rightward doctrines such as compassionate conservatism. On the other hand, he has often declared his preference for an open and pluralist model of leadership and defended the value of a lively internal debate. Therefore, despite describing himself as ‘a European social-democrat who takes inequality very seriously’, Miliband has witnessed and even promoted the rise of a number of ideological sensibilities.
Party factions, think-tanks and research institutes defending sometimes very different positions, such as Progress, Compass, Tribune or Briefing, all contributed to this lively debate. One of the main outcomes was the Blue Labour project, a strong critique of economic and social liberalism and a call for communitarianism and localism, mainly associated with the academic and Labour peer Maurice Glasman. The second was the Purple Book, a collection of essays signed by distinguished Blairites, defending New Labour, revisionism and the necessity not to retreat in the comfort-zone of opposition and class-based strategies. A third perspective has been offered by classic social-democrats like Roy Hattersley, who backed Miliband and his One Nation Labour, but firmly opposed any Blairite resurgence. Last but not least, the Red Book, a collective effort of radical and quite isolated Labour members, invoked instead a return to Old Labour and a rediscovery of Marxism.
How to explain this intellectual effervescence and, above all, the cautious, if not ambiguous, attitude of the leadership? Let us allow ourselves to reminisce and go back to the early 1990s, when Tony Blair had just been elected leader and the New Labour saga was about to begin. Let us remember that, back then, the shift in the partisan ideology was painful and the battle of ideas ferocious. Not only the party’s radical left (the Bennites and their successors), but also many classic social-democrats fought New Labour and its fathers in the name of socialism, welfare and unionism. As a consequence, when the large majority of the party, including most of the trade unions, finally united behind Blair hoping he was young, charismatic and revisionist enough to bring them to victory, the elite reshuffle was comprehensive. The modernizers monopolized the main offices and an ideologically homogenous coalition found itself leading the party. The electoral victories helped to marginalize the adversaries, while the majority’s inner tensions, mainly due to personal and policy divergences, didn’t significantly undermine the new dominant ideology. In other words, the agenda and the world-vision underlying the New Labour project effectively and profoundly changed the Labour Party.
Twenty years later, all British parties seem to compete within the ideological and political bounds set by New Labour (and arguably by Thatcherism). Inside Labour, no innovative paradigm has emerged from the 2010 crisis and even the internal struggle for leadership took place in a post-New Labour framework. Despite his quite leftist campaign, Miliband offered key positions to many Blairites and, as head of the opposition, endorsed pluralism and attenuated his critique of the Blair years. To put it differently, New Labour’s vision proved so resilient that no complete transformation has so far been achieved. Now more than ever, Labour appears to be a broad church, where inner factions and very active intellectuals give voice to different positions on policies and programmes. Yet, New Labour has changed the party so deeply that its discourse and cultural background remain mostly unchallenged.
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Lilia Giugni is a PhD candidate at the University of Cambridge, POLIS Department. She is working on a thesis on the transformations of European left-wing parties, which emphasizes the role played by ideologies and ideational change. Her main reserach interests lie in European, Italian, British and American politics and she has been publishing on ‘Contemporary Italian Politics’, ‘The Routledge Handook of Contemporary Italy’ and ‘Renewal’. You can find her on Twitter.