For much of the last three years, the conventional wisdom has been that Britain’s New Labour was experiencing its slow death under Gordon Brown’s leadership. Few would have imagined anything other than David Cameron’s Tories winning this year’s general election in May. Yet at the time of writing, Westminster commentators are revisiting the draft obituaries of New Labour they had filed away.
The gap in the polls between Labour and the Tories has closed dramatically and is now as narrow as two points, compared with 26 points in 2008. Reinvigorated Labour MPs are starting to believe they stand a chance of winning one more time, while the first signs of panic are setting in at Tory HQ. Many are pondering the likelihood of a hung parliament; after all, the Tories need to win an additional 110-odd seats to claim an absolute majority in the House of Commons.
Australians watching events unfold in Britain will detect the obvious parallels with their own government. Since 2007, Kevin Rudd has been dominant in the polls. Rudd’s deft handling of the Global Financial Crisis would almost certainly assure Labor a second term. When Malcolm Turnbull was leader of the Opposition, the prospect of Rudd calling a double-dissolution election on an emissions trading scheme (ETS) was regarded as an existential threat to the Liberals – something that would consign them to the Opposition benches for a decade. Now, with the abject failure of Copenhagen, the stunning ascent of Tony Abbott and the clumsy handling of the home insulation scheme, Labor faces a tougher task to win a second term.
Beyond these similarities – a reminder of the role of Fortuna in politics – there is a deeper lesson. Whatever the result of the May general election in the UK, it will mark an end to the era of New Labour that began in 1997. A Tory government would underline this emphatically, and send Labour into a difficult period of introspection, if not self-destruction (the history of British Labour being what it is). Even a Labour victory is likely to be a merciful deferral: it would reflect lingering public fear about a return to Thatcherite brutality rather than resurgent public support for Brown. Either way, New Labour will be dead and history will be clearing its throat. Despite an unprecedented 13 years of continuous Labour rule in Britain, the Blair–Brown governments have represented lost opportunities and disappointment for progressives. New Labour has been a long exercise in unfulfilled expectations.
Hopes were high when Tony Blair arrived at Downing Street in May 1997. The largest parliamentary majority since World War II, seemingly endless public goodwill, a Labour Party no longer internally divided, a Conservative Opposition paralysed by its heaviest defeat since the Great Reform Act of 1832: these all augured well for New Labour’s ambitions of radical reform in education, welfare, health and the constitution. Blair, his ministers and sympathetic commentators spoke with conviction about “The Third Way”, a new political philosophy that transcended the old political divide between Left and Right, between democratic socialism and liberal capitalism. There seemed to be no limits to Blair’s capacity to reinvent Britain following the long harsh years of Thatcher, to inject a new optimism following the meekness of John Major’s government.
Failure is, of course, the fate of all grand political projects. “A spectacular fall,” as British political scholar Dennis Kavanagh has noted, “seems to be a badge of being a great prime minister.” Blair had his fall with Iraq. By this measure, Gordon Brown may also lay claim to being a tragic figure. He was, after all, the chancellor of the exchequer who engineered the City of London’s light-touch financial regulatory regime, only to be confronted by the Global Financial Crisis. He was also the chancellor who masterminded massive investments in education and the National Health Service, only to leave an epic fiscal deficit as his legacy.
This is not to deny New Labour’s accomplishments. A social democratic restoration of public services, a decade of strong economic growth and the transformation of Labour into a centrist party of government are no small feats. But to many, New Labour amounted to a continuation of Thatcherite neo-liberalism, and its Third Way notions of responsibility and community disguised what were paternalistic social policies in welfare, and law and order. New Labour may have devolved power from Westminster to new national parliaments in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, but constitutional reform failed to include fully democratising the House of Lords, not to mention any meaningful electoral reform. And then there was the spin, the preoccupation with presentation at the expense of policy, which culminated in Blair’s invasion of Iraq. This short-coming has sometimes overshadowed the genuine substance of the New Labour project.
Australian Laborites appreciate New Labour’s ambivalence all too well. If a fall should be the mark of greatness, then Australian Labor had it in 1996, when Paul Keating was evicted from the Lodge, ushering in a decade of Howard conservatism. And it could be said that New Labour was really an unacknowledged emulation of Australian Labor. The marriage of social justice and economic efficiency by a modernising social democratic party, which is arguably New Labour’s key legacy, was something comfortably accomplished by Hawke and Keating by the time Blair had taken office.
That brings us to Rudd Labor. There are, to be sure, some similarities between Rudd Labor and New Labour. Both swept to office with high expectations of social democratic renewal. Both are hyperactive media machines with tendencies to centralise political power. Both experienced first terms in office that left many of their supporters disappointed.
Rudd has, in fairness, had to contend with the Global Financial Crisis. Steering Australia through it is the signal achievement of Rudd’s first term. However, Rudd, with his recent acts of public contrition, has missed an opportunity to cement this in the electorate’s mind. The failure of the ETS and the surprising resurgence of the Liberal–National Coalition point to a failure of narrative. For all that Rudd purports to be a Labor leader in the tradition of Hawke and Keating, and for all he has invoked the language of nation-building, he hasn’t managed to articulate a coherent guiding vision or philosophy. Rudd has claimed he is the heir to these two former leaders, our liberalising economic modernisers, while at the same time denouncing neo-liberalism. A more self-assured nation-building prime minister wouldn’t have squandered the opportunity to define the ETS as a deep structural economic reform – as an investment in an Australian economy of the future – rather than allowing his opponents to portray it as a “great big new tax”.
Rudd is said to believe he will have an opportunity to pursue more ambitious reform in a second term. Perhaps so. The Henry tax review, when it is finally released, could conceivably provide momentum for a post-Global Financial Crisis narrative. Rudd’s proposed overhaul of hospitals also suggests that the prospect of a transforming, nation-building prime ministership shouldn’t be dismissed just yet. If they should be implemented successfully, the health reforms would redefine Australia’s federal system of government. At the same time, failure is a real possibility. The Rudd government has struggled to deliver on big reform to date. If the states don’t co-operate, Rudd must take his federal takeover plan to referendum – a tough proposition and one that will deliver to Rudd’s leadership either immortal glory or terminal defeat.
But, in politics, leaders must make their own luck. That most celebrated of counsels to princes, Machiavelli, wrote that Fortuna favours those who aren’t afraid to bring her to heel: she submits not to the timid and cautious, but to the spirited and audacious. In recent months, confounded by the collapse of Copenhagen and rattled by the rise of Abbott, Rudd should find in health reform something to re-focus his leadership. He may yet overcome the vicissitudes of fortune.
Rudd can’t ever expect to return to the 70% approval ratings he once enjoyed. It is rare for a government to enjoy an easier ride in its second or subsequent terms than it does in its first. Looking back, the New Labour experience demonstrates that political capital, even for the most popular of leaders, only diminishes with time. If he defeats Abbott later this year, as remains likely, Rudd will have to battle against one of the general laws of politics.
- 17 March
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