The story of New Labour is often framed around the idea of revolution, with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown (and Peter Mandelson) being the interlopers who rejected tradition to change the Labour party from an irrelevant and outdated party of protest to a party of power. It’s a view that goes against even the most pro-New Labour historiography, but that hasn’t stopped it being widely held – even by members of New Labour’s modernising triumvirate. Colm Murphy’s new book Futures of Socialism: ‘Modernisation’, the Labour party, and the British Left 1973-1997 seeks not merely to correct the story of New Labour, but change our entire understanding of it.
The book is a perfect foil to the personality-obsessed analysis that engulfs Labour Party discourse, often driven by people for whom Michael Cockrell’s four-part documentary The Wilderness Years is their Year Zero. The kind of analysis this thinking inspires can be best exemplified by former Tony Blair advisor John McTernan’s Guardian article which imagines a world where John Smith had lived (and everything would’ve been great). It’s a view shared by Jon Lansman, former Chairman of Momentum, who ran the campaigns of Tony Benn, and later Jeremy Corbyn, for leadership of the party. Futures of Socialism, by contrast, brings to life a forgotten and often misremembered debate about the future of the Labour Party.
The way it does this is by focusing chiefly on the Labour party’s intellectual debate around modernisation. Murphy establishes the sites of ideological debate within the party: debate between MPs, academics, activists, and journalists in the pages of The New Statesman, Marxism Today, pressure groups like Charter 88, and think tanks like the IPPR. These sites made up part of what became New Labour’s modernisation agenda going into the 1997 election. Murphy provides much needed context to the relative liberalism of New Labour, which goes some way to explaining how a fundamentally authoritarian party took up reforms its leaders would go on to bemoan, such as the Freedom of Information Act. Murphy states:
To the abiding images of furious spin doctors and the Iraq war, we must add the rebuilding of crumbling schools, the rollout of classroom tools like interactive whiteboards, and (more ambivalently for the centre left) Jobcentre Plus to properly recollect the New Labour years.
The book is split into three parts, with six chapters covering: constitutional reform, globalisation and European integration, gender, race and multiculturalism, and economic strategy. Trade unions are not mentioned in great detail, likely because covering them would make up an entire book in itself. But this tight focus yields a greater depth to its arguments. Whether you spend your free time reading about Labour politics, or are professionally obliged to, this book is a must-read.
In detailing how modernisation came to be a by-word for the New Labour agenda, Murphy reveals those politicians who tried, and ultimately failed, to forge their own programmes around the concept of modernising the Labour party. These include Bryan Gould, David Blunkett, Ken Livingstone, and Michael Meacher. The book also details many policy ideas lost to time. The most interesting of which being a Europe-wide Alternative Economic Strategy. As well as an “industrial parliament”, replacing the House of Lords: consisting two hundred members, balancing business, trade union, government, and pressure groups. Murphy also shows that many points of debate within the Labour party have been forgotten and rediscovered many times over by “amnesiac” politicians and intellectuals. “Supply-side socialism”, and the primacy of manufacturing are familiar, but the “stakeholder economy” stands out most. It was taken up (and swiftly abandoned) as a key piece of messaging by both Blair and Keir Starmer (who termed it the “Contribution Society”) early in their respective tenures as Labour Leader.
The book has already provoked a broad debate on a range of subjects, such as whether or not New Labour were neoliberal, whether Labour’s “soft” and “hard” left should reconcile, and whether Labour’s present day policy debates lack intellectual heft compared to New Labour’s. Stephen Bush shares Seb Payne’s view that for New Labour there were “gurus and thinkers aplenty” but the modern party represents an “unflattering” parallel in regards to intellectual debate. Ben Jackson in his review for Renewal says a conclusion such as Payne’s should not be rushed towards, as “many of the characters in Murphy’s book outside of Labour’s inner circle would have bemoaned Labour’s lack of ideas if quizzed about it in, say, 1987, 1997, or for that matter 2001 or 2005”.
Jackson is undoubtedly correct, intellectual heft is usually only recognised with the passage of time. However, it is hard to envisage a future where we look back upon the Starmer leadership as anything other than a period of deep superficiality. The best example of this can be found in the arguments put forth in favour of Labour’s first “mission”, to “secure the highest sustained growth in the G7”.
These arguments are both vague and facile, epitomised by Rachel Reeves saying “I don’t see the way to prosperity as being through taxation.” One of the few times Keir Starmer was actually pressed on how he would bring back economic growth was by Rory Stewart in 2021, who said his plan sounded like he was “reciting an article from The Economist magazine twenty years ago.” Starmer’s response emphasised the importance of Labour’s green energy spending commitments – which the Party has subsequently watered down. There seems to be no genuine enthusiasm for Labour’s growth policies outside of the Party other than from US Republican Senator Chuck Grassley.
The reason why Labour finds itself with such a dearth of intellectual thinking is due to the sites of debate being much more atomised than the 1990s. While many of these sites are still alive and kicking, their influence on the direction of the Labour party seems negligible. This is not a new development – New Labour strategists were infamous for their reliance on focus groups, under Starmer’s leadership these same strategists have been brought back into the fold in aid of winning back the so-called “Red Wall”. The results have been similar to the parodies of a decade ago.
Ideologies which are genuinely outside and antithetical to the Labour tradition now appear to be able to buy influence within the party, rather than put in the hard yards like the ginger groups of the 1990s. The media’s obsession with the Westminster-drama aspect of every story also means leading politicians can go three years without ever having to face serious scrutiny on their plans for growing the economy. They can even become Prime Minister.
It therefore seems a big ask for Labour’s sites of intellectual debate to produce better work than in the late 1990s in much more hostile terrain. As Colm Murphy said on our podcast, in the 1990s if a Labour MP wanted to start a debate they would pen a book or essay titled a variation of “The Future of Socialism”, now, they would write an autobiography.
The book’s most interesting chapter is A Telling Absence. The chapter shows that for New Labour, while modernisation did include making policy advancements in the field of gender equality, this inclusivity did not extend to race. Murphy states that focus groups and polling commissioned by the Labour party from the mid-80s onwards found a public uninterested in minority rights. In a political atmosphere poisoned by “loony left” smears, the Labour leadership “downplayed, but didn’t abandon, its minority rights policies.” Regardless of motivation, this was something New Labour clearly did not feel deeply towards over the course of its time in office, Murphy exemplifies this by recounting how Jack Straw said the murder of Stephen Lawrence was barely on the radar of the Labour leadership until a campaign by the Daily Mail sparked them into action. This was not an attitude which seemed to moderate with time; two months before Blair left office he blamed a spate of knife crime murders on “black culture”.
‘A Telling Absence’ also details the break down of the Black Sections movement, which campaigned for greater Black and Asian representation within Labour. It became deeply divided over the concept of “political blackness” and whether Irish republicans should be included, and was split over Salman Rushdie’s fatwa for writing The Satanic Verses. This chapter is the most general reader friendly, demonstrating how all encompassing divisions on the Labour left were, as well as the exclusion of race and multiculturalism from New Labour’s conception of modernisation.
One of the book’s most hotly contested arguments is Murphy’s contention that New Labour were not neoliberals. Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell shared Mike Phillips’s review, where he states
Judging the New Labour experiment by its accomplishments in office – especially its failure to tackle systemic inequality and the ease with which its modest reforms could be torched by the Conservative-led austerity government which succeeded it – leaves little doubt as to its neoliberal character, at least regarding its economic record, which was its most important legacy.
Phillips’s review may suggest Murphy’s argument is one that is much less nuanced than it actually is. Murphy acknowledges New Labour “ceded ground to its opponents on direct taxation, trade and fiscal regulation, and trade union law”, but states that “challenging the characterisation of New Labour as ‘neoliberal’ does not necessarily mean it can be labelled ‘social democratic’.” Murphy’s argument is an important one as it seeks to get past the notion of “Forty years of Thatcherism”, which can often obscure more than it reveals about the true nature of New Labour.
Murphy’s definitions of “managed liberalism” and “market liberalism” are undoubtedly more useful terms to view Labour history. They may prove unpopular terms, as the argument about whether or not New Labour were neoliberals dovetails with much of the personality-driven debate. Looking at Tony Blair’s post politics career and comparing it to Gordon Brown’s, it’s easy to see why the labels of “New” and “Labour” have been retroactively applied to Blair and Brown respectively.
It’s much easier to move on from the New Labour project if it is imagined as a revolution, where neoliberals took a progressive social democratic party and turned it into a vehicle to advance the aims of their opponents. However, it is the very myth of New Labour as iconoclastic interlopers that is keeping the party from reimagining social democracy in a manner which accepts New Labour for what it was – very well marketed Labourism. As Murphy states:
The crystallisation of ‘modernisation’ in the mid-1990s has thus foreclosed our ability to imaginatively reconstruct other attempts to update Labour for the modern world, and alternative pathways available to the party.
Whilst Futures of Socialism is not sweepingly iconoclastic like David Edgerton’s The Rise and Fall of a British Nation, it is no less important for understanding the Labour Party. It’s always easier to present Labour history as a cyclical process, or a full blown blueprint for how the party should change to win (and win to change). Futures of Socialism not only changes our understanding of modernisation, but Labour history itself. It’s a book that has sparked much debate, and will hopefully lead to even more investigation of New Labour that deals in reality rather than myth.
Futures of Socialism (ISBN: 9781009278812) is available for £85 from Cambridge University Press