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New Labour: still something left to offer?

Much has been written about the demise of New Labour; newspapers have declared its downfall; books have been written dissecting 'what went wrong' with the New Labour project; Gordon Brown, the Labour leader, has been denounced and pronounced a deceptive dud

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Much has been written about the demise of New Labour; newspapers have declared its downfall; books have been written dissecting 'what went wrong' with the New Labour project; Gordon Brown, the Labour leader, has been denounced and pronounced a deceptive dud. Yet single digit poll deficits suggest that New Labour are still an electorally viable proposition. So what exactly is it that Labour are offering the country, and how are they different from the Tories?

Labour's manifesto launch was heavy on positioning and low on new headline-catching policy. Set in a bright, modern-looking, yet-to-be-opened hospital, Gordon Brown repeatedly drove home the message that Labour are the party of the future, and of the middle classes. 20-year-old social media-ite Ellie Gellard opened proceedings, and implored supporters to help Labour's campaign go viral. Unlike the New Labour of old, there were no big spending promises. Like the New Labour of old, the manifesto is a pragmatic document, with a focus on feasible pledges, and with renewed commitment to many of New Labour's old flames, such as foundation hospitals and academy schools. In a further throwback to the heady days of 1997, the manifesto contains a commitment to constitutional reform - promising a referendum on the introduction of the alternative vote system, and promising a fully elected House of Lords. There is also a commitment to being 'tough on crime', through 'intervening earlier', in the 'problem families' of this land.

However, whilst the manifesto launch is interesting in terms of providing a snapshot of how the Labour Party wants to be viewed, does anybody truly believe that Labour would put these measures through? The 1997 Labour manifesto promised to get rid of the hereditary peers in the House of Lords. Despite a huge majority in the Commons, they failed to enact it. This pledge was repeated in the 2005 manifesto, and once again, they failed to enact it. They've missed their commitments to reduce carbon emissions by 20% by 2010, to increase levels of social mobility, and to halve child poverty by 2010-11. I could go on.

As such, in trying to understand what The Labour Party are about, it might be better to concentrate on the general feel of the manifesto, instead of the specific pledges given. In that sense, the document appears to be advocating an activist state. Lord Mandelson, the Business Secretary, is running the election campaign, and has pledged that a Labour government would adopt a more interventionist business strategy, providing funds to encourage firms in certain sectors, such as the much vaunted biotech and sustainable energy industries. Labour have created nearly 4300 criminal offences since 1997, and their manifesto's 'tough on crime' posturing suggests that there will be more of the same.

Of course, this is not Labour returning to the big state policies of the 70s - they won't be nationalising the utilities any time soon (assuming you don't consider the banks to be utilities). It does, however, present the real dividing line between the Tories and Labour. It's not the difference between a party who'll cut the deficit, and one who won't; they will both have to one way or another. The Tories' policies promote 'big society' - getting people involved in the running of the currently publicly-run amenities, such as hospitals and schools, and would prefer to cut expenditure to lower the deficit. Labour, however, are committed to and would intervene in our lives more heavily and directly, and would be likely to put more emphasis on raising taxes to lower the deficit. Their union backers will ensure that they will, as will Gordon Brown's micromanaging tendencies. This is the time-honoured UK election narrative, and one which appears to be persisting despite the respective New Labour 'call me Tony' and Conservative 'hug-a-hoody' PR 'revolutions'.

But this leaves open the question of what role Labour will play in the coming Parliament. The poll results in marginal constituencies suggest that the Tories will form a majority government. However, it's also very possible that there will be a 'balanced', or 'hung' Parliament, with either the Tories or Labour the largest party. In this situation, anything could happen. We might have a minority government, with a single party operating like a normal government, and gaining support for initiatives from other parties as and when necessary. We might have a coalition of parties, with a government being formed from personnel from two or more parties (the Lib Dems being likely coalition partners), with aims encompassing those of the parties in the coalition. It's also possible that such a Parliament would prove unworkable, and it will be dissolved, forcing politicians to call another election very soon after. The roles Labour may play within these situations are multifarious, and very different to the role we're used to.

Labour are a party tainted by their years in power. 13 years is a long time for any party, even one aided by the messianic appeal of Blair and the media savvy brilliance of Alistair Campbell. That, after the Iraq War and the recent financial crisis, and lacking in inspirational figures, Labour are still in the running in this election, is more of a testament to the anti-politics mood in the country, and the Conservative Party's persistent 'nasty party' image, than any positive fact about the Labour Party. The truth is that the New Labour project abides, and under a hung parliament may yet have much of their brand of pragmatic state activism to contribute to the governance of this country.

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