Opinion: A new direction for the centre-left

Compass director Neal Lawson and the Guardian’s John Harris have written a very thoughtful and forward-looking article for the New Statesman. It proposes a new direction for the centre left, which they call “New Socialism”.

The authors start from the premise that the Labour party suffered a stunning defeat in May. Currently, they say, the party is “sleepwalking from the car crash”. Old Labour ran out of steam. New Labour ran itself into the sand. Now, however, “the party seems to have switched off”, while “social democracy” dies throughout the world. Labour has “almost forgotten how to think, or even why it should.”

What is particularly refreshing about this article is that it fully accepts that New Labour, ultimately, failed. It describes the “Third Way” as an “illusion” which was “shattered by the financial crisis”.  The authors are relatively damning about Labour’s 13 years of power:

New Labour stayed in office for 13 years because the world economy was so strong and the Tories were so weak. But even in such benign circumstances, the poor got poorer and the planet burned.

After analysing what went wrong, the essay goes onto point the way for the future. That involves what it describes as a “paradigm shift” towards “New Socialism”, “which is rooted in the idea of the good society and a recognition of the reforms of both state and market needed to make it a reality”.

The authors praise Ed Miliband as starting to embrace this new thinking by talking about things like “life beyond the bottom line” and “the things that business cannot provide”. They talk about a “good society” and say “We have to place much greater value on time, care and co-operation.”

(If you think there are echoes in all this of Cameron’s Happiness Index and the Big Society, then you are not alone. There’s even a glint of “Let sunshine win the day” in there somewhere – in a positive way.)

The article offers five principles as a basis for their “new paradigm”:

  1. Greater equality of outcome where people reach  “their full potential and live in a society that is safe, caring and neighbourly”.
  2. Taming the market through European-wide action.
  3. More citizens’ involvement in society’s decisions with, for example, more staff participation in public service decision-making.
  4. Sustainability through the “redistribution of time, power and well-being”.
  5. Co-operation and/or coalition with other parties.

In short, there’s nothing in here that most Liberal Democrats wouldn’t welcome. Indeed, I have heard most of it at LibDem conferences or discussions at one time of the other – without the mention of the “S” word, of course.

The article is an extremely encouraging idea of what some of the centre-left are thinking. It offers hope, yet, perhaps, for Paddy Ashdown’s “Project” of a centre-left alignment in British politics, at some stage.

If I was to pick one hole in the authors’ thinking, it is this. They seem to be naively in thrall to the charms of one Edward Samuel Miliband. I can see Ed Miliband as a “back room boy”, or engine driver, for this “New Socialism” paradigm shift. However, the idea that he can dynamically lead Labour to this great New Jerusalem is over the top. So far, his leadership skills have been sorely lacking.

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21 Comments

  • “It offers hope, yet, perhaps, for Paddy Ashdown’s “Project” of a centre-left alignment in British politics, at some stage.”

    You’ll have to defeat Project FDP first.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 4th Dec '10 - 1:52pm

    If ‘other parties’ means the Greens, Plaid, etc., then sure. It looks to me diametrically opposed to what the Lib Dems want to deliver-

    Rather than greater equality, you promise its erosion.

    Rather than taming the markets you want to extend them further into education, healthcare, and public services as a whole.

    Rather than having more citizens’ involvement you want to completely ignore the voters and deliver a vision of a society that, before the election, never left the insides of your leaders’ heads.

    You have turned your back on sustainability in favour of uncertainty and rather than cooperating with other parties you have become exactly the same as the worst of the lot.

    The Third Way isn’t dead despite its failure, it’s in the two parties of government.

  • …..there’s nothing in here that most Liberal Democrats wouldn’t welcome……

    And therein lies the problem. The same problem, that meant a centre-left party, such as the LibDems, could go into coalition with the Conservatives, because of the commonality of their agendas. The same agenda shared by all three, to some extent. Was it not Mandleson that sort to reduce voter turn out to a minimum. What better way to achieve that, than to offer Hobson’s choice.

    If I was to pick one hole in the authors’ thinking, it is this……

    Yes, well it would be wouldn’t it? In order for you to continue the media narrative, you have to at least pretend to believe the group think. Ed Miliband could be one of the most radical party leaders we have had. It was for this reason I thought that there was no way he would be allowed to be elected Labour leader. Your opinion and view of Miliband and those of the rest of the commentariat are pointless to the extreme. Most people will reserve their judgement until they have a more fuller picture from which to do so. This is because most people believe in fairness, they don’t have to agonise over its definition. And it’s this fairness that means people will give others a chance to prove themselves, or not, whichever is the case.

  • ” It offers hope, yet, perhaps, for Paddy Ashdown’s “Project” of a centre-left alignment in British politics, at some stage.”

    I think that before that happens both Labour and the Lib Dems need to decide their position in the political spectrum. The current Lib Dem leader is not centre left. The whole orange book project seems to be moving the party away from their long held left of centre position to be more in line with the right of the Tories. Some of the mood music coming out of Lib Dem ministers is effectively ruling out any future coalition with Labour. If this is the case there will be no plurality in politics, with the Tories having a great strength in any hung parliament.

    Labour need to decide if they are going to ditch the bathwater of (frankly sometimes right wing) new labour policies that have broadly failed whilst keeping the baby. I wouldn’t comment either way on Millibands leadership for at least a year. Whilst he has been mocked for the blank sheet of paper approach I think that is entirely sensible considering the result of the election.

    I guess the choice is to regain the centre left ground, plant the flag for the future and wait for Labour’s position to be known, or try to shape a kind of compassionate conservatism that I for do not think will ever be more than a facade for the hang ’em, flog ’em Tories back benches.

    Any Tory move to the centre is for expediency only, their hearts are in the right of politics and we forget this at our peril. Work with them through neccesity, oppose them where appropriate but let’s not turn the one night stand into too long an affair or God forbid a marriage !

  • Tony Dawson 4th Dec '10 - 2:42pm

    An interesting perspective. Labour may well have done better in 2010 than Michael Foot, but the prospect of the reduction of constituencies will almost inevitably leave them the equivalent of 30–40 seats worse-off than they are now as a starting point for the next election. Labour’s only real hope for re-involvement in government at the next General Election is to fight a strong campaign and win an AV campaign. The temptation to ‘stuff the Liberals’ by opposing or ignoring the AV campaign should be tempered by the fact that in so-doing, Labour would be greatly-helping the Tories.

  • @Tony Dawson
    “Labour’s only real hope for re-involvement in government at the next General Election is to fight a strong campaign and win an AV campaign. The temptation to ‘stuff the Liberals’ by opposing or ignoring the AV campaign should be tempered by the fact that in so-doing, Labour would be greatly-helping the Tories.”

    But this is not a realistic proposition for Labour as the Lib Dem leadership are not espousing Plural politics but have becopme increasingly tribally linked with the Tories. The whole approach to this coalition needs to be more arranged marriage then love match if the Lib Dems are going to convince Labour they will ever be able to work together in the future.

    At this point Labours best hope is to attack the Lib Dems and hope to pick up the voters the Lib dems seem to be currently losing. I’ve stated before the Leadership is blowing the chance of AV being won by their approach to the Labout party, andf their gampble on the date of the vote which gives Labour the chance to state they are concentrating on the elections.

  • John Roffey 4th Dec '10 - 5:14pm

    I would just like to put in another plug for Direct Democracy. It may be satisfying to create some new intellectual concept, but generally the people [the voters – those irritating people who democracy is supposed to serve] know what they want and what they see as fair. Direct Democracy provides this, pretty much, and is likely to be popular with the vast majority – thereby attracting a great many votes to a Party that offers it.

    The political class should not fear this system too much, there are bound to be plenty of opportunities left where self interest can be served.

  • Thanks for the review Paul and the comments. Labour has to embrace liberty. Liberals have to embrace the social. Between the two strands of progressive intent we can create a more equal and therefore free world, a more sustainable and democratic world. The Coalition government is in part a product of the lack of dialogue between social liberals and liberal socialists – over the next 4 years and beyond we have to put that right. Compass welcomes an ongoing dialogue with all political activists and thinkers who share the dream of the good society. I look forward to those conversations and through campaigns like the one for AV – developing a genuinely new and radical politics

  • Mike(The Labour one) 4th Dec '10 - 8:42pm

    Or as will likely happen- the Blairites will cosy up to the Liberals in order to ensure there is no resurgent socialism from the grassroots. The Liberal Democrats and the VIPs of Labour will unite against the Labour grassroots to consolidate the gains the Right will have made under this coalition, leaving a Tory Party free to oppose and push the centre further to the right.

    No thanks. A Popular Front by all means but no Cable, no Hughes, no Liberals.

  • The guardian article is too full of rhetoric to be meaningful.

    Problem with the lib dems is they are too broad church even more so than Labour or the tories. They need to be broken up into their respective camps – orange bookers, social democrats and greens under true PR then there can be a proper realignment.
    I agree that FPTP creates the worst kind of politics.

  • paul barker 4th Dec '10 - 10:35pm

    My first thought on reading the article was that it sounded very like the stuff the Communist Party used to say in the 1980s, during the period when they renamed themselves as “The Democratic Left”.
    What we have here is the old Iron Fist in a tatty nylon glove.

  • The problem is Compass appear to me to be a relativeley weak force.

    The Leader, the front bench and the vast majority of MPs are still New
    Labour.

    You can call an elephant a camel but it still remains an elephant.

    There is no ideological centre to these people all they want is power
    so they attract more of the same.

    They retain what electoral support they have based on past loyalty
    and stirring up fear.

    The long term Lib Dem objecting must still be to push them into
    third place in a future General Election and keep them there.

  • Mike(The Labour one) 5th Dec '10 - 11:11am

    ‘There is no ideological centre to these people all they want is power
    so they attract more of the same.

    They retain what electoral support they have based on past loyalty
    and stirring up fear.

    Which party is this about again?

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