Monday, 11 January 2010

Revealed: The unlikely tale of how Patricia Hewitt invented 'New Labour'

Who first coined the idea of New Labour, and indeed of the contrast with Old Labour too>

Peter Mandelson? Tony Blair? Gordon Brown? Phillip Gould?

You might very well think so. But I would beg to differ.

Not a lot of people know that Patricia Hewitt appears to have been responsible for the very first published use of the term, and as far back as 1992 too. I make that claim with a reasonable degree of confidence, having once had reason to double source it with both the Oxford English Dictionary and Peter Mandelson, who might together be regarded as having near Papal authority in this matter.

I disagreed with the attempt to reopen the question of the party leadership last week. Hewitt and Hoon will not be the toast of the PLP tonight. But, while Luke Akehurst focuses on another bit of Trot-spotting in noting Hewitt's Bennism in 1980, perhaps her role in the birth of New Labour is worth putting on the record too.

The very first published description of the concepts of "New Labour" and "Old Labour" in embryo came two years before John Smith’s death, in the Nuffield General Election study of 1992, written by David Butler and Dennis Kavanagh.

By 1990 Labour increasingly resembled a social democratic party on Swedish or German lines ... The party had become sympathetic to the market as a means of creating wealth, to labour laws that gave rights to workers rather than unions, and to measures to protect the environment. Labour was confident about its main agenda – jobs and economic recovery, education, health, training and transport ... Labour was now perhaps divided less on traditional left-right lines than between old Labour and new Labour. Old Labour was identified with the values and interests of the past, with high taxes, public ownership, trade unions, council housing, heavy industry and the north. New Labour sought to identity the party with skills training, new ways of working, improved public services, greater rights for women and families, and protection of the environment”

I realise that this is the sort of anorak information that many of you may well expect to be at the fingertips of the Next Left blo. However, in this case, I owe the knowledge to a bit of personal history.

Back in the day, in that now distant new dawn of 1997, I was two years out of university and commissioning the politics and economics lists at Macmillan. Rather excitingly for me, that included publishing the great Nuffield study, and of the great landslide year too. Naturally, that first draft of election history and analysis has to be written after the election is over. But we were ready to launch by bonfire night of 1997, hosted at the much-missed Politico's bookshop under the propreitorship of Mr Iain Dale. (Whatever happened to him, I wonder).

At the 1997 launch, the authors' having been the first to write about New Labour, five years earlier and two years before the death of John Smith, was mentioned by their VIP speaker, Mr Peter Mandelson. The book is based on anonymous insider interviews to help to get the inside story of the campaigns but, with the passage of time, Dennis Kavanagh was happy to attribute the comments as being based primarily on an interview with Patricia Hewitt who, having been press secretary to Neil Kinnock, was the deputy director of the new ippr think-tank from 1989 to 1994.

Since publishing houses take an interest in political etymology, I wrote to the Oxford English Dictionary to put this pioneering claim to the test. I haven't had cause to write to a dictionary before or since, but I do recommend it if you ever get the chance. You can get a rather better class of correspondence. The OED reply noted that there had been a long run adjectival references to 'the new Labour party' were a consistent feature of the speeches of Neil Kinnock, and of Harold Wilson in 1963 too, that this was the first established reference to new Labour as a compound noun. (At that point at least; I have not checked whether a pre-1992 claim has been staked since).

What interests me most now about that embryonic definition of New Labour is less its authorship than its content. I cited the Nuffield study quotation in an Autumn 2008 article 'After New Labour' for the journal Renewal, noting that

So there were always different strands within New Labour and different versions of what New Labour could become. The very first published discussion of the ideas of New Labour and Old Labour came two years before John Smith’s death, in the Nuffield General Election study of 1992 ... The description of an embryonic New Labour agenda, later attributed to Patricia Hewitt (then deputy director of the ippr), was fleshed out in Reinventing the Left, edited by David Miliband, a rather Scandinavian, greener, more feminised and pluralist model description of 1990s social democratic revisionism on the eve of New Labour. (Miliband, 1994).

The form which New Labour took as a political project from 1994 was very much a product of the Blair, Brown and Mandelson triumvirate, with their key advisors including Phillip Gould, David Miliband, Ed Balls, Alastair Campbell and Roger Liddle among those who could claim a significant hand in shaping various aspects of the project.

But the idea, believed by the Labour left and the Tory Modernisers too, that New Labour was a cabal project is a myth. By the mid-1990s, there was a broad majority coalition in the party for New Labour modernisation, if many different emphases about what that woudl mean. (How otherwise would Blair have won a majority of the trade union and affiliate vote in 1994?). The New Labour coalition was a broad one in 1997, and certainly through Labour's first term too. Policy commitments including the minimum wage, signing the European social chapter and attacking youth unemployment through a windfall tax on the privatised utilities helped to bolster trade union support for Labour, beyond the commitment to dislodge the Conservative governments, while the soft left and old right could see it as the route to the European social democratic revisionism which Tony Crosland had advocated 40 years earlier.

And it was the breadth of that coalition which made it much more than a brand decontamination exercise.

As I wrote in Renewal:

New Labour presented itself as a ‘year zero’ project yet the ‘clause IV’ moment of 1995 built on several earlier organisational, ideological, policy and electoral shifts: the expulsion of Militant, the shift of defence and European policy, and the introduction of "one member one vote" under Neil Kinnock and John Smith; the push to elect a decisively greater number of Labour women to Parliament; Giles Radice's "Southern Discomfort" Fabian pamphlets on electoral strategy and the ippr’s Commission for Social Justice had helped to coalesce opinion around a modern social democratic argument. 

To note that the Blair leadership and the public projection of New Labour came after all of this is not to underestimate their importance. Blair shifted gear on each front, replacing a ‘how little change is necessary to win’ approach with a ‘breakout strategy’. New Labour was more than a marketing exercise in brand decontimination. It encompassed a historical critique of how to avoid the serial fate of Labour in power, brought down by economic crisis and government-party splits; a policy argument about how social democracy should deal with the challenges of economic globalisation; and (in its early phase, at least) an argument about the need to modernise the British state and do politics differently. 

The 1992 Nuffield description placed considerably less emphasis on the centrality of issues of taxation, crime and economic.

But it is a reminder that there are a range of issues - the economy, the environment, democracy and liberties - which Labour now knows it must rethink again.

Different futures for social democracy can not be excavated from those mid-1990s debates. That thinking needs to be done again.

Both Ed Miliband and James Purnell have made contributions to that this weekend, as David Miliband has tried to do previously.

Political sociology is changing in a way which may challenge the assumptions of the 1990s, as Will Straw writing for Fabian Review ahead of the new year conference next Saturday, and which Anthony Painter is studying in a new Demos project on the next progressive majority.

None of this thinking is covered, or should be cowed by a lazy 'death of New Labour' label, which has often risked leaving any idea of 'renewal' simply frozen. So perhaps it is worth remembering that the need to update the appeal of social democracy to winsufficient support to govern was always the start of a debate, and never the final word.

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