Labour need to break with the politics of austerity, not rehabilitate the discredited orthodoxies of the past


pop tarts

Well, I’m devastated. Pop Tarts, the retro-cheese night I went to as a party-hungry undergraduate is now playing 90s music. I was alive in the 90s. I was young, but I could think, speak and even had views on Current Affairs and Things of Importance. Okay, so they were precocious under-developed ten-year-old kid views, but views nonetheless. For the first time in my life, a part of it has been designated ‘the past’. The 90s are officially retro.

It’s therefore with surprise that I hear that some in the Labour party – in the name of ‘modernisation’, of ‘moving on’, of ‘getting over’ the worse than disappointing election results of last Friday morning – are advocating a return to the discredited New Labour orthodoxies of this now sepia-tinged era of my life.

Chuka Umunna, in a Guardian op-ed eerily similar to a piece in the same paper by Tony Blair, is probably the leadership contender who most represents this view. Of course neither he, Alan Johnson, John Reid, Peter Mandelson nor any up-and-coming Progress think-tank apparatchik explicitly say ‘bring back 1997, viva Blair, the Third Way rules okay!’, but the coded vocabulary of ‘aspirational voters’, a return to the ‘centre ground’, ‘the party of ambition’ and numerous other slogans are all the hallmarks of this profoundly Blairite perspective.

Richard Burgon is entirely correct to say that a return to Blairism would be disastrous for the party. Under New Labour, the party hollowed out its base, lost 4.9 million votes and, well, Scotland. New Labour is the reason we’re in this mess.

Not enough people are saying it, but for the last 18 years the Labour vote has been in decline. With a miniscule move to the left, Miliband’s Labour – for all its faults – managed to buck this trend. The party picked up 600, 000 more votes than it did in 2010.

The danger, here, is that a lurch to the right – cheered on by the Labour right’s temporary allies in the media – will be depicted as a ‘pragmatic’, ‘sensible’ political manoeuvre. It’s anything but. It will only continue to hollow out Labour’s base of support and resume the downward trend in its share of the vote. The Scottish vote will be written off entirely.

There is one point on which I agree with the Blairites. Not enough was done to take on the myth that New Labour profligacy was the cause of the economic crisis. As Owen Jones points out, those on the Labour left found themselves in the strange position of defending the economic record of a government which they thought hadn’t done enough to reduce inequality and strengthen public services.

No wonder the Labour right’s so-called ‘aspirational voters’ didn’t trust Labour on the economy. The Labour leadership accepted the premise that a free falling economy could be halted with spending cuts. No serious attempt was made to reframe the debate.

If Labour spending wasn’t responsible for the economic malaise, it makes little sense to say that cutting spending is the solution. The British financial crisis was an effect of the global financial crisis. Banks stopped lending, big businesses stopped investing and as a consequence, tax revenues declined. The deficit was a symptom, not a cause, and investment, not cuts, was the cure.

This should have been the economic choice in the election. Instead, the Labour leadership’s acceptance of the necessity for austerity tied its hands in the campaign. Instead of a full-throated roar of opposition to the bogus logic of austerity, we saw a mealy-mouthed accommodation to it that voters clearly didn’t find convincing.

Although the Blairites identify an important problem, the solution they offer is incoherent. What they mean by a ‘return to the centre-ground’ is an economic policy that looks more like the Tory’s approach, not less. Defending the record of the last Labour government means saying Labour spending was not the problem, which in turn necessarily means that cuts aren’t the solution.

Many who read this will doubtless object to my use of the term ‘Blairites’ as divisive. The argument goes that this isn’t the time to resurrect old tribal animosities. I have some sympathy for this view. We do need to move on from the tired debates between ‘Blairites’ and ‘Brownites’.

But these old forces in the party still exist and they are still saying the same things as they were saying twenty years ago. To move on to new frontiers of debate in the Labour party requires that we ignore the siren-songs of 90s nostalgia and get on with the business of defining a new left politics for the 21st century. This means a break with the Blairite past, not its rehabilitation.


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