Peter Mandelson’s rather buzzword heavy article in today’s Guardian could put you off the Progressive Governance conference, but while the New Labour weakness for nice-sounding but rather empty phrases shows no signs of disappearing, thankfully there is some meat under all the lettuce.
As the Clinton Democrats argued in the 1990s, we have to “reinvent government” for the modern age: not slimming down or privatising the state, but renewing and enhancing public institutions. A decade on, this idea remains just as relevant to the progressive left. The cornerstone of the new progressive agenda must be the radical development of the “enabling state” principle.
Or in other words – reform of the welfare state is to be the central issue for Newer Labour.
The attempt of Mandelson to rebrand the ‘Third Way’ offers an easy chance for cheap jibes but anyone on the left who complains about drift and who wants to know what the thinking for the third term is going to be and how to influence it, needs to be involved in this discussion.
And while I have never been a fan of the language of New Labour, nor some of the political style of the party in government, there is a real sense that those behind the ‘project’ have realised that they need to re-engage with those to the left of them.
Read Tony Blair’s launch speech and tell me there is not at least an attempt to re-connect:
Within the Labour Party, some ridiculed the Third Way as an attempt to define a wholly new politics “beyond the Left and Right”. We need to root our ideas firmly in the Labour modernising tradition of Gaitskell, Crosland, Healey and Kinnock, as well as the liberal tradition of Keynes, Lloyd George and Jenkins.
The fear of many on the left is that Blair will use such rebranding as a left cover for a neo-liberal agenda. But surely it is time that those of us who have had a cynical approach to New Labour re-enter the debate with some positive and fresh ideas?
Those who claim to stand up for the weak and disadvantaged in society and for ordinary working families, have to ask ourselves whether or not the state has been delivering for ‘our people’? If the answer is negative then surely we have a stake in any debate about reform of that state, otherwise we leave the field free to the real enemies of public services.
The fear of many on the left is that when Blair talks about reform, he really means introducing market mechanisms and that his and his allies first instinct is that private is best – such a view is not without foundation of course.
But surely the left has learnt from the debacle of the 1980’s that merely raising the red flag of opposition does nothing to help our cause – inside or outside the Labour party.
If there is an olive branch being offered by the Labour leadership, if there is a genuine interest in debate over reform of the state and a desire that a pro-good government alliance should be constructed, then surely the sensible left will want to be involved?
It is time for some imaginative thinking – new ideas for making public services work better for those who need them most.
We might not like everything that the likes of Mandelson and Blair suggest as remedies for the failures of the welfare state but the left cannot deny that they are right to focus on reform of the state as the key issue for progressives.
Surely you don’t have to be a Blairite to agree with this statement from the PM:
Social democrats need to develop a political response to the failings of the post-war ‘big state’. Despite the enormous civilising achievements of post-war Labour Governments, and rejecting the analysis of neo-liberals that state failure is a bigger problem than market failure, the central state has too often under-performed as the primary agent of greater equality and meritocracy in society.
Our purpose in modernising public services is not merely to respond to the demands of the modern consumer, but to recognise that centralised state-funded and provided services need to do more to combat poverty and promote social mobility in post-war industrial societies.
As always of course, it is much easier to point out the challenges than meet them, to ask the questions than answer them. But surely it is time for the Labour left to put aside the bravado of ‘reclaiming the party’ and join the process of redesigning it.
Update: British Spin makes some pointed criticisms of the “technocratic, self selecting elitism” behind the Progressives conference. He has a point but then I imagine the debate will continue beyond this get-together, who knows maybe even at the party conference.