Gordon Brown’s resignation speech captured the strengths and weaknesses of New Labour, especially in this passage:
I loved the job not for its prestige, its titles and its ceremony – which I do not love at all. No, I loved the job for its potential to make this country I love fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous and more just – truly a greater Britain.
I could have done without the clichéd “greater Britain” line, and I suspect Brown was treading a fine line between sincerity and denial when he denied having any love for the status of prime minister. But as a statement of what Labour is for, this statement:
fairer, more tolerant, more green, more democratic, more prosperous and more just
is a good summary of what its values are, what its policies should (without exception) aim for, and what many of Labour’s best achievements since 1997 have reflected – though equally it has also fallen short of these ideals more often than many of us would have liked.
But two items missing from that list show where New Labour has been at its weakest. First, “more equal“: I would have loved Brown to be able to refer not only to Britain being “fairer”, but “more equal”. While more redistribution has occurred than New Labour has liked to let on, overall the gap between top and bottom has increased since 1997, straining social solidarity. I’m looking forward to reading The Spirit Level to assess its argument that more equal societies are better for everyone, though I’m aware it’s probably going to be kicking an open door in my case.
Second, “more free“. Probably Labour’s greatest failing over the past 12 years has been its embrace of an anti-civil liberties agenda, particularly since 9/11. At the very least it has been too reluctant to resist the authoritarian tendencies of the British state (remember that ID cards as an idea preceded Labour’s time in government, and Labour opposed them in opposition), and too often it has embraced those tendencies enthusiastically.
There are encouraging reports this morning of the new government scrapping ID cards and biometric passports. No doubt there will also be other gains (repeal of s.44, anyone?). Overall, however, I find it hard to believe that a Tory party committed to abolishing the Human Rights Act – one of the really solid gains for civil liberties under Labour – will, in the long run, do much to resist the authoritarian temptations afforded by the combination of state power and modern technology.
So I think Labour’s big challenge in opposition is to rethink how our values of democratic socialism should make us work for a society that is more equal and more free – and make Labour more able to resist the power of both capital (or “business” and “the markets” as we euphemise it today) and the state to lead us in the opposite direction.