Not Quite New, Not Quite Blue


Much has been made of the similarity in language between Labour’s Manifesto today and Hilary Clinton’s campaign launch last night – but there is good a dose of Bill in there too. America’s 42nd president used to talk of being ‘in the future business’; Ed Miliband made his speech today with FUTURE emblazoned in capital letters behind him. He wants to focus on the next five years rather than get stuck debating New Labour’s record in government.  So what of Labour’s offer?

The first impression is that it is a safety-first manifesto. The emphasis today was on reassurance – that Labour would cut the deficit and that Ed Miliband is ready to be Prime Minister – rather than on eye-catching announcements. Rather like some of the ‘strategies’ I used to work on as a civil servant, it mostly pulls together existing policy into a single document.

This contrasts with the pre-briefing that has been done around the Conservative manifesto, much of which has implied that there will be some announcements tomorrow. This is best explained by the relative strengths and weaknesses of each party’s position. Labour feels the need to emphasise ‘responsibility’, as well as ‘change’. By contrast, the Tories are concerned to offer ‘hope’, not just competence.

At today’s launch, Allegra Stratton asked Ed Miliband how far he thought the manifesto moved his party on from New Labour. This was the rationale for Ed Miliband’s campaign and a theme he has returned to in the last week when (re)explaining his decision to run for the leadership. The manifesto answer seems to be: a bit, but not decisively in one direction.

There are certainly shades of Blue Labour. The manifesto adopts Blue Labour’s fundamental premise: that its goals are best pursued by reforming the way the economy works in more fundamental ways than New labour attempted. This lies behind the pledges on local banks, more and better apprenticeships, employee representation in the workplace and reforms the way various markets work.

There are also areas where the New and Blue shades of Labour would agree. The push for more devolution to cities builds on the argument made by both Andrew Adonis and Jon Cruddas that decisions need to be taken much closer to where people live. This shared terrain existed long before the Scottish Referendum put devolution centre-stage.

However, the manifesto is not the marriage between New and Blue Labour that some have been hoping for. Despite the talk of reforming the way the economy works rather than relying ever more on state redistribution, Labour goes into the Election promising both a mansion tax and the restoration of the 50p rate. Meanwhile, on public services, the emphasis on devolving budgets and decision-making to service users has been diluted, despite the best efforts of people like Liz Kendall and Steve Reed.

This all reflects the fact that political parties are themselves coalitions of different forces and political traditions. Ed Miliband’s biggest achievement has been holding together a broad coalition within his party, in the aftermath of an election defeat. The question now is whether will be able to pull together a similarly broad coalition with the wider electorate.