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Triangulating to defeat

Jon Trickett MP on disappointed hopes and winning back Labour's missing millions

New Labour is caught in a classic electoral pincer movement which spells potential disaster. In 1997 we benefited from the support of a wide social coalition. We now face a twin movement. Our core support may never vote Tory, but many are showing every sign not voting at all. On the other hand those people who switched from Thatcher to Blair now look anxiously at their insecure lives and wonder about converting to Cameron.

Successive election reverses in the 1980s had led New Labour to triangulate to the right in order to gain power in 1997. This worked well at first with the 1997 landslide and our early achievements: the windfall tax on the privatised utilities and the drive towards full employment, the refinancing of the public services, devolution, the minimum wage and progress in Northern Ireland.

There were those in the leadership who even seemed prepared to envisage social democratic transformation. In September 2003, Gordon Brown told us that we are "best when we are boldest, best when we are Labour." In the same speech, he asked us to remember that "to transform lives you have to transform society".

But deep in New Labour psyche was the ever present fear that British political culture is inherently conservative and imposed severe limits on the capacity of a Left government to maneuver. And so triangulation ceased to be a simple electoral tactic and became instead a governing strategy The reforming thrust of the early years dissipated into a disappointing timidity.

Tony Blair acknowledged the frustrated reality of the country's hopes and aspirations, as well as of its disappointment. "Great expectations, not fulfilled in every part, for sure", he said, at the time of his retirement.

There was, however, much more space to be bold than New Labour allowed. The country had decisively rejected the Tories. The Conservatives actually lost a further 900,000 votes between 1997 and 2001.

Whilst there had been no return to the Tories, by 2005 4 million Labour voters had stopped voting New Labour. Disappointed hopes and unfulfilled aspirations detached them. Asked which party they felt most comfortable with, they said Labour, and yet could not bring themselves to vote New Labour. They stayed at home on polling day, or they voted for non-Tory alternatives to Labour.

Labour's missing millions did not move back to the right as New Labour theory told us. But they were hit by the destabilizing social effects of unregulated and uninhibited free markets. They felt disappointed by the government's failure to provide the security they sought.

In the place of the New Labour promise of a modernised Britain, we saw the re-emergence of an Older Britain: a country of ancient hierarchy, a sclerotic class system where what your parents did counts for more than who you are, unrestrained markets, dominant private interests, fragmented communities. Insecurity for many; unheard of wealth for a few. 19th Century solutions for 21st Century problems.

The richest 30,000 in Britain now earn £33 billion per year and yet pay little or no tax. New Labour ministers saying we should celebrate ‘huge riches', appearing to demonise council tenants and incapacity benefit recipients, marketising education and health systems, proposing loyalty oaths to the monarch, refusing to address two tier labour markets, with the penetration of finance capital into house buying thereby jeopardising millions of peoples' mortgages.

These policies are neither New, nor are they Labour. They are neo-liberal either by accident or design. They will not reconnect with our core vote nor will they allay the anxieties of the many people in the South of England who voted for us in 1997. This disappointed progressive consensus urgently needs to be reanimated . This will not be done by triangulating to the Right. Even David Cameron understands this.

At the time that Tony Blair left office, New Labour poll ratings had sunk to the lowest levels for 12 years. It was noticeable that Gordon Brown's emergence as Prime Minister with the single watchword of 'Change' led immediately to a poll surge putting us into a double digit lead. As time has passed, and particularly with the re-emergence of Blair-like statements from leading Cabinet ministers, our poll ratings have sunk catastrophically.

Labour's future now looks perilous. We see further rises in the number of core Labour identifiers saying that they will not vote. Amongst manual workers 62% felt that things had become worse over the New Labour years and that 58% felt that 'nobody speaks out for people like me in Britain today'. Equally, the same poll revealed that 52% amongst the hard working middle class, uncertain and anxious about its own position in an increasingly insecure world, feel unrepresented. A staggering 80% of the ABC1 social group feel that it will be more difficult in the future to afford a home of their own.

Cameron is triangulating leftwards and some are contemplating voting Conservative again. Yet pollsters reveal continuing strong support for Labour policies such as more public spending on Education and Health.

The present political situation is unstable. New Labour faces either defeat or must offer a new prospectus. The modernising left argues that a Britain is waiting to be born, one which can best be expressed by Labour's values of fairness, a cohesive society and individual liberty.

It's time to break with New Labour timidity. The modernising left, will sit quiet no longer hoping for a more progressive face to emerge from within the obscurity of New Labour's bunker. Our party wills the change that we are being denied. Our country needs it.