Political journalists are herd animals. Like deer bolting at the sound of a snapped twig, they have consulted the polls, glanced at their calendars, and have now begun urgent attempts to divine the worldview of the likely future prime minister, Keir Starmer.
Articles about Starmer’s ‘vision’, or lack thereof, did the initial heavy lifting. However, writers on Starmer’s Labour have also turned to the living past. From the Times to the Guardian, New Statesman to the Spectator, comparisons with Tony Blair, and speculation about his enduring influence, have become a recurring trope.
It is true that, as the only Labour leader to have won an election still with us, Blair haunts Starmer. Moreover, neither has discouraged the comparison, even sharing a stage in July. Veterans of the New Labour era, such as Deborah Mattinson and Pat McFadden, are in positions of influence over electoral strategy and macroeconomics, while Blair himself intervenes on everything from AI to net zero. Looming over the upcoming wrangling about the 2024 manifesto is Gordon Brown’s review of devolution and the House of Lords.
Yet any historical parallel has the potential to mislead if stripped of relevant context. This is a particular danger with something as mythologised and contested as New Labour. It is also a danger if we define the analogy too narrowly, a risk one might take by speaking of “Clause IV on steroids”, or by reading 2024 through the essay question “1992 or 1997?”
New histories of New Labour
My new book, Futures of Socialism, shows that we must look further back, into the 1970s and 1980s, to understand both where New Labour came from and what its emergence meant for social democracy in Britain, past and present. It offers a fresh, original account of Labour’s ‘modernisation’ debates from 1973 to the 1997 landslide.
As Fabians will know well, ‘modernisation’ is the catch-all phrase for Labour’s trajectory after it ceded power to Margaret Thatcher in 1979. It usually refers to the reforms of Neil Kinnock, John Smith, and especially of Blair and Brown. This ‘modernisation’ has well-known, well-worn staging posts: the 1983 electoral disaster, Kinnock’s battles with Militant, the adoption of the red rose logo, Clause IV, the landslide.
These were pivotal moments, and Labour undoubtedly needed to adapt to social, economic, and cultural change. But this story endures partly thanks to New Labour’s creators, who saw themselves as modernisers overcoming the bastions of ‘Old Labour’ to save the party. It also persists because Blair’s critics found it convenient to attack a ‘vanguard’ of right-wing ‘modernisers’ for abandoning socialism.
Rather than rehearse these old, factionalised stories of New Labour as either salvation or betrayal, I went back to the archives. Diving into the vibrant, fractious, and now quite strange world of the left at the close of the millennium, the book tracks political and ideological change using various sources: the papers of politicians, parties, and pressure groups; newspaper and periodical back catalogues; and the many, many books and pamphlets on the “future of the left”.
One telling example comes courtesy of John Rentoul, the Independent’s veteran columnist and Blair’s biographer. In 1989, he wrote an essay for New Socialist, Labour’s now defunct in-house journal. Rentoul was responding to Kinnock’s policy review, another of those well-known landmarks in Labour’s ‘modernisation’. The Review dropped nationalisation pledges, shifted tack on European integration, and abandoned unilateral nuclear disarmament.
Rentoul’s essay explored alternative manifestos for ‘modern socialism’. In one playful passage, he imagined the year 2000. Whom, he asked, will Neil Kinnock, now ‘Grandfather of the Nation’, praise in hindsight? Potential candidates included the “market socialist philosophers of the Fabian Society”, Patricia Hewitt, Giles Radice, Gordon Brown, Austin Mitchell, Ben Pimlott, Carmen Callil, and the publication Samizdat.
Some of these names are familiar characters in Labour’s ‘modernisation’ – Brown most obviously. But many others are not. Carmen Callil, the founder of the feminist press Virago? Austin Mitchell, the Eurosceptic Croslandite MP? The now long-forgotten intellectual journal Samizdat? In 1989, Rentoul did not know which would become significant. Nor did anyone else.
Rentoul’s essay illustrates a wider point. In the late 20th century, British socialism confronted profound threats, opportunities, and transformations: electoral defeats, neoliberal advances, globalisation, deindustrialisation, European integration, changing gender roles and a new politics of race. Scores of thinkers and politicians thus argued that Labour must ‘modernise’.
Importantly, they came up with different answers and competed for influence. Kinnock, Smith, Blair, and Brown were among them. But so were politicians from Frances Morrell to Michael Meacher, and outsiders including consultants, trade unionists, academics, feminist theorists, journalists, think tankers, and campaigners.
What does this suggest? For one thing, that New Labour was not the inevitable outcome of ‘modernisation’. Had the dice fallen differently, the left could plausibly have taken another modernising path. In the late 1980s, for example, the ‘modernisers’ included the Labour MP Bryan Gould. A Eurosceptic and committed Keynesian – so not very New Labour – he tapped into fashionable neo-corporatist ideas to advocate employee share ownership plans and consumer empowerment, and receiving glowing coverage in the New Statesman and Marxism Today as a result.
Similarly, early 1990s ‘modernisers’ included centre-left feminist policymakers like Hewitt and her parliamentarian ally Harriet Harman. Stressing changing gender relations in the labour market and the family, they argued that a modernised left should refocus its social policy towards flexible workers and women.
Futures of Socialism does not just recover old ideas from obscurity. It is a political history: it asks why some ideas shape powerful people, and why others do not. One chapter explains why scattered arguments that linked modernisation to 1980s antiracist politics did not catch on within the upper echelons of the party.
In addition, Futures of Socialism overhauls our understanding of New Labour itself. It uncovers direct links between this pluralistic ideological ferment and Blair and Brown’s policy platform.
For instance, New Labour’s sweeping claims about ‘globalisation’ as a driver of modernisation were anticipated by 1970s socialist economists, such as the Bennite-adjacent thinker Stuart Holland. Its historic constitutional reforms – brand-new parliaments and assemblies in Edinburgh and Cardiff, the Human Rights Act – owed much to campaigns to modernise the constitution after 1987. Finally, New Labour’s focus on the ‘knowledge economy’ drew from an entrenched social democratic obsession with modernising the economy.
All of this has implications. It is still true, and still important, that Blair and Brown conceded significant ground to the ascendant neoliberal right in their quest for power. Nonetheless, it is historically untenable to frame New Labour as merely a surrender to Thatcherism – or, indeed, as simply a fatalistic response to constraints. It was one product, if not the inevitable result, of this collective reinvention of social democracy.
What can this history tell us about Starmer’s Labour today? In a LabourList article on Starmer’s perceived lack of vision earlier this year, I identified two takeaways.
First, if it is too entrenched, a vision can become a millstone. Futures of Socialism catalogues many politicians getting trapped in agendas that outlived their initial plausibility. The Alternative Economic Strategy (1973–83) is one example; New Labour’s pre-2008 celebration of the London financial sector’s ‘innovation’ is another. Starmer’s office should avoid cornering themselves into an overly rigid agenda.
Second, a plausible and coherent vision will, by strategic necessity, emphasise some ideas and shut down others. The left often has a surfeit of policies. The usually more urgent question for an opposition leader is what to champion, and what to cull.
These two takeaways are challenging to reconcile. Any solution will be politically controversial: we will all give different answers to the second question. We cannot discount the role of contingency (or dumb luck) either. But strategically speaking, it would be wise for Starmer’s team to disentangle these competing logics by first staking out their territory for the next election campaign, and then preparing the ground for a potentially changed context, whether before or after 2024.
Today, Labour’s agenda seems most developed on the green transition, backed up by pledges on industrial policy and significant – if watered-down – spending commitments. There is also an emerging agenda in areas from planning reform to workers’ rights. In an interesting break from Blair, Starmer has pointedly chosen to speak the language of class.
However, there are reasons why critics, such as James Butler in the London Review of Books, speak of Starmer’s ‘radiant ambiguity’. Labour’s policy offer on the NHS, post-Brexit trade, care work, migration, welfare, higher education, prisons, and public sector pay is underresourced and underdeveloped, and in some cases divisive. There are also tensions between different aspects of Labour’s agenda, such as devolution and planning reform, or investment and macroeconomic credibility. All could become derailing or defining crises.
Starmer won’t keep everyone happy. If he does win power, though, he should keep some old think tank reports in a drawer – and not just from the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, but also from the Fabians, the IPPR, Demos, and Common Wealth. In time, he may need them.
Image credit: WTO via Flickr