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Robin Cook and New Labour

David Clark

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The reaction to Robin Cook's death shows that he was much more than a great parliamentarian and a reforming minister. In this age of public disaffection there are not many politicians who can expect their funeral cortege to be applauded in the street by hundreds of mourning citizens. As the tributes that have poured in testify, he struck a chord with people from across the political spectrum who feel that British politics has lost its way.

Cook was also the standard bearer for an important tradition of Labour thought, and this is perhaps the most significant political issue raised by his passing. What happens to this tradition now may determine whether Labour is able to renew itself in office or is set on an irreversible course back to opposition.

The section of the party that identified most strongly with Cook is very far from the old left of lazy caricature: the sort of people who prefer the purity of opposition to the difficult compromises of power. Indeed, its origins lie precisely in the rejection of that outlook in the early 1980s by what came to be known as the "soft left". In a very real sense, it was Labour's original modernisation project and laid the groundwork for the successes that followed.

Its starting point was a recognition that Labour's traditional political base was too narrow to sustain progressive change, and that broadening its appeal should be the party's top priority. Cook himself would gently mock those who complained about Tony Blair on the basis that he was attracting Conservative voters. That was a sign of success, not failure. Labour needed to stand on a platform that was electorally viable, but it should also be one that remained rooted in its distinctive political values.

By the early 1990s this tendency had coalesced around a fairly clear set of political ideas. Labour should locate itself firmly within the European tradition of social democracy, with everything that implied. Europe and its social model would be embraced as an antidote to the deregulatory, minimal-government dogma of Thatcherism. The state ownership of industry, as opposed to public services, would be abandoned, but social partnership and stakeholderism would be advanced as ways of balancing and humanising market relations. The British constitution, which had come to be seen as a structural impediment to radical change, would be transformed by a new politics based on decentralisation and democratic reform. In its most ambitious variant, supported by Cook, this included electoral reform and a willingness to work with other parties.

This was the common sense of mainstream Labour at that time, so much so that Blair continued to identify himself with it, in each of its specifics, for a surprisingly long time after he became leader. Indeed, in its early period in office, New Labour remained remarkably true to this vision, supporting a national minimum wage, adopting the European social chapter and legislating for devolution. It was only gradually, and without discussion, that it was displaced by what we now understand as Blairism, and we realised that the social-democratic baby had been thrown out with the old Labour bathwater. The idea that we knew what we were getting when we voted for him is a cleverly spun myth, just like the idea that Labour was heading for oblivion before he took over.

It is a preferred tactic of Blair and his sympathisers to stigmatise their critics on the left as recidivists who wish to return Labour to a failed past. What they hope to obscure is the fact that the argument advanced by Cook, and the disillusioned modernisers who supported him, is that Blairism is failing on its own terms, not old Labour's.

The promise of a new politics has foundered on broken commitments to hold a referendum on electoral reform and create a democratically elected second chamber. In many ways, Blair's political style, with its instrumental view of power, and preference for the clever procedural fix over honest debate, reflects the very worst of old Labour. On Europe, Blair has taken a Eurosceptic lurch that has led him to call on our partners to abandon the very social ideals that once made integration attractive to Labour. In fact it has become increasingly hard to see how Blair's European policy differs from the one pursued by John Major.

On economic and social policy, the principle that "what works is what counts" is quickly set aside when it conflicts with third-way positioning. In many cases PFI hospitals and schools do not represent good value for the taxpayer. The experiment with privatised rail services has clearly failed, and any sensible government would demand a return to public ownership on pragmatic grounds. Very few of the structural deficiencies that progressives have long identified in British capitalism - short-termism, underinvestment, low productivity, weak manufacturing - have been adequately addressed. Yet shareholder value still rules.

Perhaps most importantly, Blairism is proving increasingly unable to sustain the broad coalition that put Labour in power and on which it promised to build a "progressive century". Labour may have a working majority, but it will be making a foolish error if it thinks it can continue as before on a mandate secured with the support of only one in five voters. It needs to restore trust and create some common political ground with its lost voters before it is too late - after all, wasn't that the purpose of modernisation in the first place?

The real dividing line in the Labour party is not between old and new, left and right; it is between pessimism and optimism. The Blairites have become fatalistic about the world they inhabit and are no longer willing to take risks by probing the boundaries of what is possible. They think this is just about as good as it will ever get. Their opponents believe, as David Marquand argues in this week's New Statesman, that there are other paths of modernisation, including ones that offer more radical possibilities.

It is this optimism that sets Cook and his admirers apart from the Blairites. It's not that this government is bad, even if it has done bad things: Cook himself used to say that this had been a more successful Labour government than any other bar Attlee's, and he was right. It's just that it has proved too timid and unimaginative to make the best of the extraordinary opportunities available to it to forge a new and enduring progressive settlement.

Towards the end of his life Cook began to see in Gordon Brown someone who shared this sense of frustration. Of course they did not see eye to eye on every issue. Brown remains in the middle of what we can only hope will prove to be a temporary detour from the European path. But in his talk of a "progressive consensus" and a new constitutional radicalism there is the possibility that Labour could come closer to achieving its real potential. That is perhaps reason enough to hope that he becomes prime minister while there is still time for us to find out.


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