Gordon Brown’s latest proposal for a “third option” in Scotland sounds suspiciously familiar. The more Brown and Blair keep talking, the more we are reminded of what New Labour and the “third way” got wrong, and a comparison with today’s politics is instructive.
New Labour was the political superpower of its day, reaching into Tory heartlands with its soft left policies. They reigned supreme and made bad decisions: Blair’s failure to plan for post-war Iraq is exhibit A, while the financial crisis happened on Brown’s watch. Like innumerable leaders before them, the feeling of impunity caused them to overreach and they broke their party: the result is Jeremy Corbyn and the current Conservative ascendancy.
The Conservatives are now winning in seats Labour have deserted, following the SNP’s example in Scotland. In the Copeland by-election the Prime Minister had a great personal victory. It appears to be a new (little ‘n’) Conservative age, competitive everywhere south of the border thanks to Brexit and the Prime Minister’s personal popularity, and increasingly competitive north of it too thanks to the independence debate and Ruth Davidson. The party is absolutely right to fight for every vote and keep in touch with every voter. There is a need to bring the country together.
The party that believes in competition in the markets has accidentally obtained a near monopoly on power in Westminster. Despite the narrow mathematical majority in the Commons and no majority at all in the Lords, Labour and UKIP’s useless leadership means that Theresa May sometimes appears as powerful as Tony Blair did in his pomp. But as the threatened backbench rebellion over self-employed national insurance shows, the Prime Minister has a much more difficult hand than Blair did. Not just the Parliamentary arithmetic, the decisions themselves are much tougher, still hemmed in by the fiscal mess Labour created the last time they were in office and confronted by the complex opportunity of Brexit.
The Government will soon face a dramatic choice, whether to accept the increased immigration that other countries will demand in trade negotiations, or forgo those trade deals. If we get the trade deals we need (including with the EU) and if Brexit is the success we hope it will be, then the party can take the credit for that and the country will reward it. But there could well be short to medium term economic pain if we leave the EU without a deal; if that pain is severe the Conservative Party will be put on the defensive – by the public and press if not by the other political parties.
It could respond in two ways: by banging the nationalist drum and blaming everything on the EU (the leaders of which make that all too easy to do), or by agreeing those pioneering free trade deals with countries around the world and accepting the quid pro quo of more immigration where necessary (harder to do but more in keeping with Conservative tradition). The Conservative Party at the time of that decision may well be quite different from the party we know today. It has always been a malleable coalition between social conservatives and social liberals, authoritarians and libertarians, Thatcherites and one nation types. But as it adopts the Labour and UKIP voters with nowhere to go, the internal chemistry of the party itself is changing in unpredictable ways.
The danger is that the party becomes more protectionist, less open to the world. The bonds that hold it together are strong and internal tensions seem to make it stronger, whatever the talk (by Blair among others) of the new paradigm of ‘open versus closed’ rather than ‘left versus right’. Party disunity was the dog that didn’t bark following the referendum. But Labour was a strong unit too, and Blair broke it by adopting Thatcherite economics and eschewing its traditional socialism. Thatcher once said that Blair was her greatest victory because he accepted the fundamentals of her economic policies. He never lost an electoral battle in part because he had already lost the war.
As the Conservatives start to win in Labour heartlands, the lesson from Blair and Brown is that the party needs to be sure it is winning by persuading the voters of its own principles of liberal economics and free trade – Thatcher’s principles – not the other way around.
Robert Flint is a member of Bright Blue and a previous conservative GLA candidate. The views expressed in this article are those of the author, not necessarily those of Bright Blue.