Understanding the Labour Party – its history, its choices, and its potential for the future

Head of Communication
14/07/2021

The emergence of the Third Way is remembered as the moment of a great schism within Social Democracy. On one side, there were those who embraced it as a path to modernisation, and who came up with their own national equivalents – the Neue Mitte in Germany perhaps being the clearest example. On the other side, there were those who believed the Third Way was the embodiment of ideological betrayal. Perhaps most outspoken among those who believed this were Lionel Jospin and his Parti Socialiste. As the fervent conflict between the two sides continued to grow, Social Democrats were in a paradoxical position. Towards the end of the 1990s, their representatives constituted an unprecedented majority of 12 out of 15 members of the European Council. But as a group they continued to be bitterly divided over the key issues of their times. This is something they did not shy away from admitting – as can be seen, for example, from the famous Blair-Schröder letter that was published by the two leaders just a few days before the 1999 European elections and that called for a different approach towards the European Union under the motto “Europe: The Third Way”. The letter overshadowed the electoral manifesto that had been agreed earlier by the Party of European Socialists.

More than two decades have passed since then. But while many write today about the final eclipse of Social Democracy, it is the existential question ‘Was the Labour Party right?’ that animates the debates of scholars and think tankers more than any other. The schism lives on. For many it is about defending a legend, while for others it is about cultivating myths that keep being repeated. What was the real New Labour about? Not too many people seem to know any longer. Patrick Diamond’s latest book The British Labour Party in Opposition and Power 1979-2019. Forward March Halted? is therefore an absolute ‘must-read’.

While Diamond is perhaps best known as either the brilliant young Head of Policy Planning at 10 Downing Street (2009-10) or an influential co-chair of Policy Network, this book is a testimony to him as Associate Professor of Public Policy at Queen Mary University in London, and as a serious and meticulous scholar. The wealth of material gathered in the book – including a thorough review of the vast existing literature, analyses of original and secondary sources, and an impressive quantity of empirical data and interviews – gives it the shape of a publication for which some academics work their entire lives. Diamond should therefore be recognised for his scholarly discipline. Indeed, although he himself was a prominent member of New Labour, he writes with the ethics of an impartial intellectual.

Even though the title puts the last four decades in the spotlight, the book actually refers to much longer standing traditions, going back to an assessment of the Clement Attlee governments (1945–50/1950–51). This broader context allows Diamond to show the evolution of the Labour Party, which for years has remained a party in opposition – with only brief intermezzos. Grasping what such a position means both intellectually and when it comes to party morale is essential to an understanding of the 1970s and the politics of Harold Wilson, as it is also to an understanding of the hardship of the Labour Party’s defeats in the Thatcher years. The author describes these decades by quoting various disputes and publications in a manner that makes the reader truly travel back in time to enter the smoky debating rooms that were dense with defeatism and despair. And this experience offers two important lessons that can be taken from the book. The first is trying not to judge a party without consideration of the context in which it is operating. In fact, Diamond claims, nothing happens in a vacuum. The second lesson is not forgetting that a political party which is out of power arrives at a certain point at a crossroads where the choice is indeed the one formulated by the proponents of the Third Way: modernise or disappear.

Diamond examines the emergence of the Third Way by bringing together different proposals that were articulated back in the 1980s. The vast number of papers, lectures, and debates that are quoted shows with great clarity that New Labour is firstly to be considered the result of an intellectual ferment and of generational change. This is an important reminder for those who think of party processes in a more mechanical way and who still today focus on electoral strategies, forgetting the need for a party to have a credible political story ahead of the campaign. The arrival of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown was not a sudden or unexpected act – it was a consequence of years of searching for a formula that would help the Labour Party present itself as a force capable of governing the UK, and of changing it. And this is yet another extremely relevant insight: New Labour was capable of winning because it was a party that manifested confidence and economic credentials, that offered security and hope against a backdrop of globalisation, and that showed it was possible to be open to the world and yet remain profoundly patriotic at the same time.

Consequently, the author looks at the programme of New Labour and discusses the charge that it was a neoliberal formation. As if he were a single chess-player resolved to play the game for both sides, he explains how misguided this charge is. He assesses New Labour as a counterreaction to Thatcherism, one that had to fight hard to win an election at the end of the 1990s, and how it inherited a broken Britain. This was a complex situation, made even more challenging by the fact that towards the end of the century, societies were evolving, the labour market changing, and the benchmarks of modernisation needed a very different approach from a simple look back to Beveridge for inspiration. And while, in the later chapters, Diamond provides an impressive record of what the Blair and Brown governments managed to achieve, he also admits that the three consecutive mandates of New Labour failed to change Britain in a way that would last.

Diamon concludes that while in Whitehall, Labour found itself with far fewer ‘full policy closets’ than the years of debates could have given hope for. He also concludes that the decision-making processes were not always clear, that political directions would change (as in the hallmark field of education), and that the decision regarding the war in Iraq was something that still seems to take its toll today. Although Labour did introduce some bold solutions in some aspects – the devolution project, for example – it seemed to fall short in terms of anticipating all the side effects that such processes would bring. And ultimately, instead of building a strong country, it presided over an even deeper divide of it – paying the electoral price for the so-called “Southern Discomfort”.

Looking at New Labour’s legacy, Diamond explains Brown’s defeat in 2010 and the subsequent years with Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn at the helm. Quite clearly, he does not show much appreciation for Ed Miliband, accusing him of being simplistic and populist in his criticism of New Labour. On the back of the deliberations, one could draw the conclusion that despite everything Diamond writes about Labour’s rise to power in the 1990s, the party was able to use political momentum, in which leadership and grand, forward-looking ideas would matter the most.

What may leave the European reader a bit disappointed is the scant analysis of New Labour and Europe. Diamond provides a teaser in the first chapters, where he refers to the European influence on the modernisation process that led to the emergence of the Third Way. But there is very little about New Labour’s relations with others in Europe, its position inside the PES (even if Tony Blair attended the 1997 PES Congress in Malmö and gave one of the most remembered speeches in the history of the organisation), or on the priorities that New Labour forged when the UK held the Presidency of the EU Council in 1998 and 2005. Some of the threads that connect the story of Labour with the European dimension are clearly present – the impact that the opening of the EU’s borders to the central and eastern European workers in 2004 had on the labour market, society, and votes, for example. But this is perhaps too little to be able to corroborate Diamond’s opinion that Blair was only superficially pro-European. Taking Diamond’s own claim that context matters, an examination of Blair’s speech at the European Parliament in 2005 seems to confirm quite the opposite view from that of Blair’s only superficial European commitment.

The reader might also wish for more on the global impact of New Labour, as Diamond limits himself to explanations of the international relations which helped shape New Labour (such as the mutual understanding between Blair and US President Bill Clinton). He refrains, however, from describing the dynamic that existed with others – a dynamic which nevertheless existed, if the memoirs of Ricardo Lagos in Chile or Helen Clark in New Zealand, for example, are to be believed.

All in all, Diamond’s book should be considered compulsory reading for anyone dealing with the debate about the renewal of Social Democracy today. This is firstly because Understanding the Labour Party shows how to move beyond the conflict around New Labour that has animated at least two generations. Secondly, it is because the book inspires bold thinking and shows how historical victories are only possible when great leaders and ground-breaking ideas go hand in hand. And thirdly, it is because the book indirectly gives a riposte to those who write off today’s Social Democracy by comparing it with past glories. Diamond’s book is instrumental to understanding that in order to have a future, a party must create one – and this does not happen by looking back sentimentally, but by not shying away from looking around and moving forward.

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