New Labour, the politics of poverty and the spirit of optimism

We lost four elections and then won three. A return to ‘classic Labour’ is not the road to renewal. The eradication of child poverty, re-starting social mobility, and redistributing power in the public realm and our public services are the great causes of the second decade, argues Jim Murphy MP, Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform

I have noticed the discussion about Labour reform and policy initiatives on the Euston Manifesto and thought I might post a copy of the outline of a speech I am giving at a Fabians conference this weekend in Edinburgh. I would be happy to receive feedback and hope that this adds to the online debate.

As Labour approaches the start of our second decade in power we are rightly discussing the continued evolution of new Labour. For some obsessed by the Westminster village this will inevitably be viewed through the prism of the processology of the Labour succession. Nothing could be more damaging.

We are after all in unchartered political waters for Labour. To be in opposition for a decade has been commonplace. But to be on the cusp of ten years in power is unprecedented. So how should we enter the start of a second decade in office?

For me this isn't about how the ordered transition to a new Labour Leader should take place. The Prime Minister has already been more specific than any of his predecessors. Rather this is about how new Labour continues to evolve. We have been at our best when we have grasped the challenges of the age. In '97 we were elected with radical solutions to the problems of the day including long term unemployment, underinvestment in public services, poverty pay and the shame of Britain's aid budget being cut. Our policies of the New Deal, the National Minimum Wage, and Devolution, transforming our laws on race, disability, age and sexuality as well as public service improvements were a solution to many of the then contemporary problems. Each policy was radical in it's time and were opposed by some. But these policies now appear to have been accepted by most as part of a progressive political settlement.

Of course, some of those challenges remain and have been added to by the need to go further to eradicate poverty here at home, to grasp the opportunity of globalisation, to face the challenge of migration and to sustain improvements in public services. Our solutions to today's challenges have to be just as radical and as wide ranging as we have been in the past.

One of new Labour's greatest political achievements is how we have set the agenda which other Parties have had to respond to and belatedly, if somewhat superficially, accept. We should continue to do so. It would be a mistake for new Labour to revert back to the long periods in our history when we allowed others to set the pace. Labour must continue to set the agenda and challenge others as we have done on so many progressive causes over this past decade. To stall now would be to stagnate; to slow would be to concede the political initiative to the Tories. It is clear that neither the Prime Minster nor the Chancellor wish to do so. There are some in the media that claim new Labour will wither when Tony Blair leaves Downing Street. But this ignores the nature of new Labour. New Labour is about much more than Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. New Labour is the product of a collective and considered decision by the Party as a whole in the 1990's that we wished to move away from politics as normal and forge a different type of Labour Party. This remains true today as the votes at recent Party Conference record big majorities amongst local party representatives to continue to reform public services.

But there are those in the Party who wish to see a "new direction" and a return to "classic Labour" values. They are absolutely entitled to their strongly held views but it is the polar opposite of what we should do. They don’t just want a new leader; they crave a change of direction. I can only assume that proponents would have us return at least in part to a policy prognosis which delivered four successive election defeats and allowed the Tories to cause such turmoil. It would also be interesting to listen to what their analysis is of why we won three elections. It is not enough to say we won because the Tories were in disarray. They were only in such a condition because of their inability to respond to the challenge of new Labour.

However such voices have acknowledged that there is now an opportunity for us to discuss in a reasonable way how new Labour can evolve.

So what should we do?

Labour at its best has always been the Party that captured a sense of the nation's optimism. From Attlee's "Homes fit for Heroes", to Wilson's "White Heat of the technological revolution" to Tony Blair's "many not the few". At our historic worst we have appeared a Party which made reluctant concessions to the British spirit of enterprise.

All Labour governments have been founded on optimism but too often flounder when we lose that connection with the nation's aspirations. In Local Government we have managed to renew ourselves while in power. There are numerous local examples of imaginative policy and political regeneration. However unlike the best local government experience, historically many Labour governments have been worn down by events. Sometimes in the past fatigue has blurred political vision. This time we have successfully avoided the desperately repetitive interchangeable cycle of events which plagued many Labour governments of the past—wonderful goals, difficult choices, economic problems, political fractures, public disconnection and then long periods in opposition. Attlee's second post war government lasted less than two years hampered by internal division and the effects of the sterling crisis and spending cuts. Wilson struggled with tiny majorities or, when he had Parliamentary strength, was weakened by internal discord. The difficulties that beset Callaghan's minority administration in terms of the IMF, cuts and division are all too well documented and to this day remain part of Tory Party doctrine.

Bill Clinton said that progressives should campaign and govern as though every year in government was their first. Whilst that may not always be possible we do have to continue to find fresh ways of communicating and to evolve new policies

It is not enough to simply recite our achievements. We need to convince the public by our words and our actions that we remain fresh and optimistic. Most people continually want to do better for their family. Very few parents ever rest in the belief that they have done everything possible for their children. New Labour has given a political voice to those personal aspirations of many and we need to maintain that connection. We have to share the aspiration that tomorrow can be, and with Labour will be, better than today.

One thing is clear; we cannot simply expect a belated sense of gratitude from an electorate who are rightly more interested in our vision about the future rather than retrospection about our achievements, some of which are nine years in the past. We implicitly acknowledged this in the '90s when we proclaimed that new Labour was about "the future not the past" In an era of declining voter turnout we need to inspire as well as reassure. People are not inspired by the safest option. We should not simply be about consolidation.

New Ways to Tackle Poverty

We need to maintain a sense of new Labour radicalism in finding new ways to tackle poverty and stay in tune with voters aspirations.

In the past we sometimes spoke of the politics of aspiration as though it was distinct from the politics of poverty. But the politics of aspiration and the politics of poverty are two sides of the same coin. No one aspires for change more than the poorest families trapped in the poorest areas and sometimes served by poorer quality public services. And we have to continually give voice to those aspirations.

One way of doing so is to make a reality of the slogan of Making Poverty History in the UK. There is no better place to start than eradicating child poverty. There is no more ambitious Government target than ending child poverty by 2020. It may be the most ambitious challenge that we have ever set ourselves. In many ways eradicating relative child poverty can be seen as a proxy target for restarting social mobility which has stalled in recent decades. I have previously gone into this in some detail in the pamphlet I wrote on Social Mobility earlier this year (read at I do not wish to cover all that ground here but suffice to say the socially immobile 30-somethings of today were the children in poverty in the 1980s. This is not an attempt to avoid contemporary responsibility but simply an assessment of the timescales involved in the influence of public policy on social mobility.

We have made real and lasting progress on poverty. We inherited the highest levels of child poverty of any major EU nation and now more children are being lifted out of poverty here more quickly than anywhere else in Europe. But have we done enough to restart social mobility of the future? The only way we can be certain is if we make real progress in eradicating child poverty. In the absence of a million people demonstrating in the streets to Make Poverty History here at home we need to continually challenge ourselves. That is why we invited Lisa Harker to carry out her current review into the Department of Work and Pensions child poverty strategy.

The redistribution of power

We also need to go further in redistributing power in the public realm and our public services. The Left has often been animated about the redistribution of wealth but has inexplicably been strangely muted about sustained redistribution of power in communities and public services. We need to go further to embed choice in public services. And not a choice for the sake of choice but one that helps to redistribute opportunity. I have previously argued, and I still maintain today, that those in poorer communities still experience poorer public services despite the real improvements in recent years. As Progressives what is our response to those who pay their taxes but still experience a quality gap? The alternative to radically extending choice is for those families to simply wait for a gradually improving uniformity to eventually get round to those living in the poorer areas. This is not a Labour response to what—despite remarkable progress—still remains a problem.

The spirit of optimism

In addition to an evolution of our policies we also need to change important aspects of how we convey our politics. It is my sense that the public punishes the political pessimists. I'm not suggesting we all become wide-eyed dreamers. Nor am I arguing for a counterproductive and senseless state-sponsored contentment campaign or a never enforced US style right to the "pursuit of happiness" which is contained in the US Declaration of Independence.

But we do need to temper our rhetoric which proclaims that tough choices are totemic of new Labour. Of course we are taking important decisions that are sometimes controversial. But a new Labour government is not just about tough choices; we are also about great causes. The sometimes tough decisions are a means to achieve those ambitions. Our health and education changes were about speeding up the much needed improvements which continued investment alone would never achieve. Our welfare reforms are about no longer allowing anyone to be written off. If the vocabulary of tough choices prevails to the exclusion of the talk of great causes the public will make their own choice and vote for others who claim, however superficially, to share their optimism.

So, as the conversation about new Labour's evolution continues, we should strike a tone which avoids the division that has beset every previous Labour government. We should also remember that in the past we have had to learn painful lessons from our failures. Today we cannot make the mistake of ignoring the lessons of our successes.

Jim Murphy MP is Minister of State for Employment and Welfare Reform

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