What ‘New Labour’ can and cannot teach Labour in 2015


I’m not running for the leadership of the Labour Party in 2015. But it seems like hugging Peter Mandelson — figuratively and nearly literally — on the eve of the leadership campaign is an odd step for Chuka Umunna (pictured above, left, with Mandelson), the shadow business secretary and the youngest of several members of the ‘next generation’ of Labour’s most impressive rising stars.United Kingdom Flag Icon

Though he hasn’t formally announced anything, Umunna is doing everything to signal that he will seek the Labour leadership, including an op-ed in The Guardian on Saturday that serves as a laundry list of Umunna’s priorities as Labour leader:

First, we spoke to our core voters but not to aspirational, middle-class ones. We talked about the bottom and top of society, about the minimum wage and zero-hour contracts, about mansions and non-doms. But we had too little to say to the majority of people in the middle… [and] we talked too little about those creating wealth and doing the right thing.

Ed Miliband’s resignation on Friday, in the wake of Labour’s most disappointing election result in a quarter-century, has opened the way not only for a robust leadership contest, but for a free-for-all of second-guessing about Miliband’s vision for Labour in the year leading up to last week’s election.

Liz Kendall, the 43-year-old shadow minister for care and older people, was the first to announce her candidacy for the leadership; shadow justice minister David Jarvis, a decorated veteran, said he would pass on the race. Others, including shadow health minister Andy Burnham, shadow home secretary Yvette Cooper, shadow education secretary Tristam Hunt are likely to join Kendall and Umunna in the race. Former foreign secretary David Miliband, whose brother narrowly defeated him for the Labour leadership in 2010, is set to make remarks Monday about his future in New York, where he serves as the president of the International Rescue Committee. Should he decide to return to London to vie for the Labour leadership, it could upend the race — many Britons believe Labour chose the wrong Miliband brother five years ago.

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RELATED: The race to succeed Ed Miliband begins tonight

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Unsurprisingly, the loudest critics have been the architects of the ‘New Labour’ movement that propelled former prime minister Tony Blair to power in 1997, including Blair himself. They’re right to note that Blair is still the only Labour leader to win a majority since 1974, and there’s a strong argument that they are also correct that Miliband could have made a more compelling case to the British middle class, especially outside of London.

Before he got bogged down with British support for the US invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003, Blair was widely popular throughout the United Kingdom, positioning Labour squarely in the center of British politics and consigning the Conservative Party to hopeless minority status for the better part of a decade.

But even if Blair and Mandelson are right that turning back the clock to the 1970s or 1992 can’t provide Labour the way forward in 2015, it’s equally true that Umunna and the other Labour leadership contenders can’t simply argue that it’s enough to turn the clock back to 1997.

What’s more, in a world where senior Labour figures grumble that figures like Burnham and Cooper are too tied to the Ed Miliband era to lead Labour credibly into the 2020 election, there are also risks for Umunna or other leadership contenders to be too closely tied to the New Labour figures of the 1990s. The last thing Labour wants to do is return to the backbiting paralysis that came from the sniping between Blair and his chancellor and eventual prime minister Gordon Brown. If there’s one thing Miliband managed successfully since 2010, it was to unite the disparate wings of a horribly divided party. It will be no use for the next leader to attempt to move Labour forward if it reopens the nasty cosmetic fights of the past. 

For all the wisdom in embracing elements of the Blair/Mandelson critique, there are at least two ways in which the New Labour perspective on the 2015 election falls short. It’s probably wise for Umunna to embrace parts of New Labour’s approach, but it’s not wise for him to be seen as a stalking horse for Blair, Mandelson and the other architects of the 1997 victory.

The first is that the New Labour attacks on Miliband omit the fact that he largely abandoned an ‘anti-austerity’ campaign against the Tories last year as the British economy slowly began to accelerate. By the time the election campaign began, Miliband had embraced an economic viewpoint far closer to Tony Blair than to, say, Greek prime minister Alexis Tsipras. Instead of challenging Cameron and chancellor George Osborne’s basic premise that British public spending is still too high, Miliband embraced it, while trying to put the National Health Service at the heart of Labour’s 2015 campaign. In this regard, at least, Miliband’s 2015 campaign was more centrist than Brown’s 2010 campaign, and yet Labour lost ground.

In the April 2 leaders’ debate, it was Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon who presented the most striking contrast with Cameron on economic policy, not Miliband. The Scottish National Party (SNP), for Scottish voters, will continue to offer a more leftist alternative in the next election. So will the Liberal Democrats, a party that’s expected to return to its more traditional center-left roots under the likely leadership of Tim Farron.  So will the Green Party, which improved its support nationally from around 1% in 2010 to 3.8% in 2015.

The second is Scotland. Today and for the foreseeable future, Sturgeon and the SNP embody the hopes of Scottish voters. Labour’s decision to join the Tories and the Liberal Democrats in the pan-ideological ‘Better Together’ campaign in 2014 may well have prevented a ‘Yes’ vote in the Scottish independence referendum, but it also allowed Sturgeon and other SNP officials to dismiss Labour as nothing more than ‘Red Tories.’ Moving to the center ground may win Labour votes in England in the next election, but it seems like a certain path to dooming the rejuvenation of the Scottish Labour Party. The Blairites, whose well-meaning and laudable efforts made devolution a reality in 1999, are indirectly responsible for the SNP’s rise. But platitudes about reaching ‘aspirational’ and middle-class voters won’t restore the trust that Scottish voters had previously placed in Labour for generations.

Both blind spots are reasons for Umunna another centrist Labour reformers to beware the dangers of embracing New Labour wholeheartedly.

Umunna is still chiefly defined as Labour’s future and, despite his youth and ministerial inexperience, that’s still his strongest quality. The greatest risk for him as he wades more deeply into the contest for the Labour leadership is become a puppet of New Labour’s past.

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