Monday, 6 February 2012


This month, Liam Byrne has written a pamphlet for Progress entitled: The new centre-ground: how can progressives win a new majority? It is quite clearly designed to be a rationale behind the 'centrist' policies that Mr Byrne and other Progress Labour are propounding.
In this Rant I review Mr Byrne's pamphlet, and conclude that it does not offer a satisfactory solution to the problems it identifies.

So, OK, I am now going to criticise an article by Liam Byrne.
My former History students would laugh, because I always taught them to look at the provenance before they judged a document’s validity, and they would have told me not even to try.
Mr Byrne, this pamphlet tells us, is chair of Labour’s policy review, and shadow secretary of state for work and pensions. He is a member of the boards of all sorts of bodies I have never even heard of. And the list of acknowledgements runs onto a second page and reads like a Who’s Who of world politics.
He is a Labour leading light … so who am I to contradict him?

The new centre-ground: how can progressives win a new majority?
Moreover, this is not a shallow document. It authoritatively scans the history and future of ‘third way’ politics, taking its exemplars from all over the globe.
Its basic tenet is that it is the ‘progressives’ who know how to win elections because – at critical times in our history – they have managed to build ‘the broadest possible coalition’, whilst, at the same time, ‘holding firm to traditional values, but freeing the political mind for new solutions’.
Byrne’s two British heroes of this ‘progressive’ genius are Beveridge, who envisioned the Welfare State out of the depression of the 1930s, and Tony Blair, who brought New Labour to power after 18 years of Thatcherism.
And the way back to power today, argues Byrne, is, similarly, ‘bold and imaginative revisionism’.

So, what does this ‘bold and imaginative … reconstruction’ involve?
To tell you the truth, at this point things then get slightly disappointing, because – as you will realise – what follows is nothing particularly new.

The first lesson of this reimagining, Mr Byrne tells us slightly confusingly, is that we must go back to the New Labour tenet that elections are won in the centreground:
  • ‘The revisionist’s lesson? Change as the world changes. That is why, after the third way, we need a new way back to a new centreground … elections are won in the centre-ground, building an alliance around the basic values of aspiration, responsibility and community that unite our traditional supporters with the voters that tend to switch sides.’
(I find the phrase ‘a new way back’ a fascinating conceit, but let’s press on).

Five lessons for progressive renewal
Mr Byrne then outlines five critical ‘lessons for progressive renewal’.
Again, don’t hold your breath for anything new:

1. ‘Fiscal realism’
By this, Byrne means a ‘strong, credible and committed determination to bring down the deficit’, along with Labour’s five point plan to kickstart jobs and growth – to grow the economy out of deficit.

2. ‘Good growth’ in the economy
Byrne remarks, validly, that at the next election: ‘unease with the right’s handling of the economy can mean victory for the left’, adding that ‘crucially, we have to be on the side of the entrepreneurs.’
‘Good’ economic growth will demand ‘fundamental changes to foster longer-term horizons and better corporate governance in the boardroom. Our economy needs a new balance, between sectors, and in who gets what.’

3. A ‘new welfare state’
By this, Byrne means much more than a system of benefits, and his new welfare state would include tackling unjust wage inequalities between men and women, creating better chances to secure decent housing, introducing a ‘living wage’ and ‘a toughminded reform that insists that where people can take a job, they do’.

4. ‘Civic inventiveness’
i.e. renewing communities through grassroots reinvigoration

5. And, finally, ‘New politics’
This will be based on devolution, and reforms ‘which deliver personal control and influence over the way public services are delivered’.

That, in a nutshell, I trust, is a fair summary of Mr Byrne’s points.
And you will immediately realise that it is a consolidation of Labour’s existing policies, rather than an announcement of anything new.

So what is wrong with Mr Byrne’s suggestions?
See what you think of these three caveats:

1. Are these policies DIFFERENT enough?
Do you not find these ideas – particularly phrases such as ‘determination to bring down the deficit’, ‘on the side of the entrepreneurs.’, ‘where people can take a job, they do’, and ‘personal control and influence over the way public services are delivered’ – virtually indistinguishable from the rhetoric used by the Tories to justify their heinous, regressive ‘reforms’?
Are people really going to be able to distinguish between Cameron’s ‘Big Society’ and Bryne’s ‘Civic Inventiveness’?
And, let’s be honest, Cameron has already stolen our promises about ‘tackling unjust wage inequalities’.

I can see why Mr Byrne wants these policies so badly. He believes that, in order to win the next election, Labour must reconquer the middle ground so successfully occupied by Cameron. But – if this involves simply saying more-or-less what the Tories are saying – where does that leave Labour?
Is our manifesto at the next election really going to be merely: ‘Tory-without-the-bite’. The danger of such a stance is that it is only a hair’s breadth from the ‘Tory-without-the-aspiration’ verdict that Luke Bozier passed upon Labour … before he left to join the Tories.

2. Are these policies RADICAL enough?
At one point, Mr Byrne tells us that: ‘the Asian century is arriving far faster than anyone expected’, and he raises the spectre that ‘the next 20 years will be the story of the “rise of the rest”… and the fall of the west’.
Faced with the growing dominance of China and a double-dip recession which few people expect to improve, one has to wonder whether the ‘five point plan for jobs and growth’ is up to the job.
Mr Byrne simply does too good a job of painting the problems. Given his bleak description of how society and social norms have collapsed, will mere ‘civic inventiveness’ be enough to correct it? Given the collapse of capitalism into exploitation, will a ‘living wage’ and the other sticking plaster policies he suggests protect us against ‘predator’ businesses and the assault of global competition?

Given the ‘end times’ situation facing Britain’s – indeed, western Europe’s – economy and society, is a re-occupation of moderate, safe, centrist policies going to be enough to inspire the electorate to think that Labour has the answer to the problems facing Britain?
I do not think so.
Labour needs to think BOLDER if it is to envision a ‘bold and imaginative’ course which will save us from a slide into third-world status.
Which brings me to…

3. Are these policies GENUINE enough?
Mr Byrne is a professional politician, and he lays out his aim early on in the pamphlet … to win the next election.
Which, I would suggest, is exactly the way NOT to get elected.
The public are not interested in giving Mr Byrne his old job back – they have only just thrown him out. And if they think Labour is moving into the centre-ground of politics just to win the election, I cannot see them giving Labour much of that much-vaunted ‘credibility’.
I suppose I’m arguing that, in order to get elected, we need to exhibit principles as well as pragmatism.

The Beveridge Report in 1942, and Blair’s New Labour in the 1990s, did not arise because politicians sat down and devised an election strategy which built ‘the broadest possible coalition’, encompassing ‘traditional values’ with ‘new solutions’.
The Beveridge Report was formulated during a war which threatened to destroy Britain altogether; and – given the international wrangling in the Eurozone, the predations of multinational corporations, and the ever-growing challenge from China and the other BRIC countries – this is beginning to feel awfully like an economic war.
Visionary new ways arise from disaster and chaos, and the consequent yearning for a new way from the grassroots of society … who then vote for the politicians who best express their aspirations.

If we are going to capture the public, do we not need to be looking at such as the yearning for a better way which is slowly emerging from movements like UKUncut, rather than
basing our policies on (e.g.) a poll which suggests that 39% of the public feel that centre-left governments spend too much, where 'only' 33% think they don’t.

Mr Byrne is correct in many ways. The New Labour ‘third way’ project is dead and done with.
His argument is nuanced, and full of ideas and telling points.

But, unfortunately, this pamphlet is not any solution – it is not the ‘bold and imaginative’ reconstruction Mr Byrne himself tells us is needed. Rather, his key premise – that the winning political party will be the one which can occupy the centreground – is a reversion to the old orthodoxy of New Labour ... which jars uncomfortably with his assertion that success will require ‘a willingness to challenge even the most sacrosanct of orthodoxies’.

At the end Mr Byrne – whilst eschewing ‘the politics of protest’ – calls instead for ‘the patient theoretical reconstruction of the progressive movement’ … an acknowledgement that this pamphlet is far from the end of the solution to Labour’s problem.
And thus Mr Byrne ends by resorting to the wishful thinking he has earlier denigrated, advising us to ‘light a candle’ in the darkness.

Personally, I suspect that 'challenging
even the most sacrosanct of orthodoxies’ was a better idea.

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