‘A Newer Labour’, Policy Network, 8 January 2015

It may seem strange to kick off a discussion on what the next Labour government can learn from the last one with a brief excursion back to the 1980s. But anyone interested in statecraft should take a look at what quickly became a seminal study of those years – the late Jim Bulpitt’s The Discipline of the New Democracy: Mrs Thatcher’s Domestic Statecraft.

In it, Bulpitt claimed that successful statecraft could be broken down into four components.

The first is in some ways the most obvious: a winning electoral strategy. This is best achieved by seeing your four- or five-year term as a series of phases: you get the difficult stuff out of the way early on; you get the tangible benefits flowing with at least a year still to run; and you remember to use that year or so to reanimate and re-tool your project so that you can run not just on your record but on a future offer.

The second component is just as important, and that is party management. That means keeping your supporters, and particularly your members, not merely content but connected, helping to ensure that they not only absorb the shocks that are bound to come but also that they will go into bat for you in bad times as well as good.

The third, talking of shocks, is crucial too, and that is governing competence. This is about convincing voters that, in the age of ‘valence politics’, where people care more about sound management than tribal ideologies, you know what you are doing even if they do not particularly like it.

The fourth and final component is political argument hegemony. This means establishing your frame, your worldview, your common sense as the common sense so that anything running counter to it looks foolish, naïve, wrong, impractical, even impossible.

Bulpitt’s definition of statecraft seems to me as a good a guide as any to getting into and, most importantly, staying in government, not least because it points to some of the weaknesses and mistakes of the Blair and Brown era which the next Labour government should try hard to avoid.

It would, of course, be bizarre to suggest that Tony Blair failed to come up with a winning electoral strategy, although it is only fair to point out that the elections of 2001 and 2005 almost won themselves, so benign was the economy and so hopeless were the Tories at the time. But one of the reasons Gordon Brown proved such a big disappointment was because, after portraying himself for so long as Labour’s master-strategist, he seemed to have no discernible game-plan once he entered Number 10.  The argument that he was blown off course by the global financial meltdown seems less convincing than its opposite, namely that without that massive challenge he would simply have drifted to defeat with virtually no achievements as prime minister.

When it came to the party, it is no exaggeration to say that both Blair and Brown allowed Labour’s grassroots to wither and even die.  The discipline and centralisation they brought to the party before 1997 was a necessary advance but by 2001 that model was wearing thin and needed renewing with a more interactive version that might have meant the poor bloody infantry felt more appreciated and more involved. The top-brass avoided paying the price in 2005 but did so in 2010, after which the move toward a more decentralised, community organising model was desperately – perhaps too desperately – needed.

One would be hard pressed to criticise Blair (and, by implication, Brown while he was chancellor) over governing competence.  Yes, there were some difficult moments, particularly at the Home Office and, of course, over Iraq. But, for the most part, his was a government that looked like it was normally in control of events rather than being swept away by them. Brown’s premiership, however, was a different proposition: ‘the election that never was’ (when, three months after becoming prime minister, the new prime minister backed out of calling an early general election which he and his aides had very evidently been preparing for) was followed by a series of disasters (beginning with the loss of data discs containing the personal records of 7.25 million families claiming child benefit) from which the government never really recovered its authority and its equilibrium. Indeed, once again, it took the global financial meltdown to remind voters that the man in charge did, at least occasionally, know best.

As for political argument hegemony, Polly Toynbee is onto something when she argues that neither Blair nor Brown, after brilliantly repositioning Labour in opposition as a force determined to fuse social justice with economic dynamism, ever took the necessary next step – namely, using the power granted them by huge majorities and a decade in office to finish off Thatcherism and persuade people that centrist social democracy was the only game in town. Instead, as she argues, they were so scarred – and so scared – by the seemingly endless defeats of the 1980s and early 1990s that they came to believe that Britain really was a conservative country after all. Any good an active and enabling state could do would, therefore, have to be done by stealth rather than by example after example coupled with constant reminders of why what they were doing made perfect – and common – sense. As a result, when Labour’s economic luck ran out, it proved all-too-easy for the Conservatives to argue that almost everything it had done was a big enormous waste of money which had created the mess that only their state-shrinking austerity programme was capable of clearing up.

If there is, then, a Labour (or, more realistically, a Labour-led) government after May 2015, it should do all it can to learn from its predecessor’s mistakes. This is emphatically not about trashing New Labour in order to emphasise Ed Miliband has moved on: there has arguably been way too much of that already. But it is about statecraft: about a four- or five-year plan to win the next election, albeit one flexible enough to survive contact with the enemy; about not forgetting the party lest it forgets about you; about sometimes doing less but doing it better; and about having sufficient self-belief in your ideas not just to trumpet them from the rooftops but also to trample those of your opponents into the dirt where, in truth, you believe they belong.


About tpbale

I teach politics at Queen Mary University of London.
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