I have had these T-shirts for over 25 years now. They were first thrown at me as a young activist at the 1996 conference to wear for the leader’s speech. My very first, it felt like I was at a religious revival meeting – at the end we were all shouting and cheering with mad anticipation of a Labor victory and ousting Thatcher’s Tories from power.
We drank in every exciting and delicious moment of hope that change was in the air. When the exit poll came, I still couldn’t believe it – having been so sure in 1992 that we would win, I had learned to hold my breath. It wasn’t until the discussion turned to whether Billericay would go to work that I found a phone booth, called my mother, crying with joy, and staggered home. No immediate WhatsApp deliberations and commiserations for us – finding out what was going on was a much longer and more complicated process.
Like my grandmother telling me about World War II and silk parachutes and rationing, I still tell young activists of those heady days when a Labor Prime Minister pledged to end child poverty and meant it. I don’t need lines or to hear “Things Can Only Get Better” – a song most of us shunned for a schmaltzy rewrite of “Three Lions” – because as an over-enthusiastic volunteer, I had the honor of making tea for real Labor Cabinet Members at conferences. Indeed, catering and organizing events, rather than being political strategists, were the roles deemed acceptable for women in our movement then – and still too often now.
I also know that we fetishize or mythologize New Labor at our peril. Our ability to learn from our history that change is possible must not come at the expense of our understanding that this success was in its time – and that if we are to win again, we must be of this weather, this time, in word and deed. Duplicating New Labor in tone, content or even style, however tempting, will not win the next election because the world has changed so much, and so has the public.
During his tenure, Tony Blair never sent a single email. Today, social media has created jobs, torn apart basic democratic truths, and changed the way we as human beings interact beyond recognition. At the time, it was still believed that politicians had red lines; John Major may have faced the Cash for Questions case and Neil Hamilton, but no one doubted his inherent decency. We now have Boris Johnson and the occasional use of dead cat distractions corroding any potential goodwill towards all parties. In 1997 there were a million people on waiting lists – saving the NHS was first and foremost about money. Today, repeating ‘NHS, NHS’ to people makes little sense in a world where funding is pledged on all sides of politics and where we need to reform our health and social care services.
After driving most infectious diseases out of our country by creating a national health service, the new health inequity is about keeping people out of hospital altogether and keeping them physically and mentally healthy. New Labor led efforts for multilateral disarmament. Today, Brexit, terrorism, dictators and the climate emergency mean that internationalism will require more international structures and citizen movements, not less, to share the risks.
It is not just because the world is different that New Labor should be seen for its past successes rather than as a contemporary playbook.
Twenty-five years ago, government from the center was plausible. But that didn’t make it a good idea then, or a good idea now. It means recognizing, whether it is Iraq, the PFI or the New Deal, that New Labour’s engagement with the public to understand the impact of their decisions has had no serious effect. Twenty-five years later, it is now even clearer that government cannot be remote from the public; whether it’s education, welfare, the impact of the cost of living crisis, or reducing carbon emissions, the public must be a partner, not a customer, for policy works.
It requires a radical rethinking of not only what we offer people, but also how we do it. Ironically, the value of winning arguments for new ideas and new ways of working is the one lesson of New Labor that is never discussed. New Labor hasn’t just listened – proposing action on crime or anti-social behavior to reflect focus groups – it has also led.
In the 1990s, few discussed or thought a minimum wage or an end to child poverty was plausible, but New Labor came out in favor of them anyway. Now, as people ponder red and blue walls, talk about message discipline, and obsess over viral reach, there’s a danger we’ll forget that good oppositions become brilliant alternatives when they make political time and are not just looking to ride out a storm.
The collapse of Sure Start, the abandonment of child trust checks and the instability in Northern Ireland show how quickly progressive success can be pushed aside without defenders.
To keep up to date with all the latest opinions and comments, sign up for our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter. click here
As many are still obsessed with New Labour, it risks becoming the political equivalent of Friends: replayed endlessly as new generations distinguish between right and wrong while failing to produce new ideas. I keep these dog-eared T-shirts as a reminder of what’s possible, and a warning to never assume we have the answers – or even understand the problem.
Labor cannot keep repeating the same policies or fighting again and again hoping for a different outcome. Every generation must come to terms with the bitter truth that securing true step change requires sustained reimagining, effort and commitment in and out of the office – which is much harder work than chewing up old glories. Twenty-five years later, the T-shirts may be faded, but my determination to be part of this process of renewal, revision and radicalization is stronger than ever.
Stella Creasy is MP for the London constituency of Walthamstow