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Global Viewpoint

Brown, Blair, and Labour's legacy in Britain

After a 13-year run, Britain’s Labour Party is out of power. How should we assess its legacy?

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New Labour as such is dead, and it is surely time to abandon the term itself. Yet some of the core social and economic trends to which it was a response are still in place and significant parts of its policy framework remain relevant.

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The party in the future will still need to attract mainstream, affluent voters, against the background of a changing political field where the electronic media and the Internet have a growing role. It makes eminent sense to aim to reduce the dominance of the financial sector in the economy and encourage a renaissance of manufacturing, especially in areas linked to reducing carbon emissions and improving energy security. However, the UK will continue to be a postindustrial economy, with service and knowledge-based occupations dominant.

Welfare reform will brook as large as ever, even more so when efficient spending will be a priority. The problem of sustaining progressive policies in respect of immigration and multiculturalism without losing voter appeal will remain, as will that of how to reduce citizens’ anxieties about crime.

So, too, will that of finding an appropriate balance between civil liberties on the one hand and protecting against the very real threat posed by international terrorism on the other. Keynes is in fashion again, but there can be no return to Keynesian demand management as practiced several decades back. The challenge in front of us is to preserve, and enhance, the flexibility and creativity that markets engender, while turning these qualities to long-term and socially desirable goals.

Where does Labour go from here?

Fundamental rethinking is needed and a fresh set of policies has to be created. The key problem for Labour out of power will be to minimize the internal squabbling that afflicts so many parties, especially on the left, following an election defeat. Ideological reconstruction could have a decisive role here.

The starting point should be to redefine the role of the public sphere. "Blairites," it could be said, leaned more toward the market than "Brownites," who were keener on the state. However, the public sphere is distinguishable both from markets and the state, and can be used as a platform for reconstructing both. A groping toward this notion appeared in Labour’s attempts, following the financial crisis, to reintroduce the idea of mutualism into political debate. These rather primitive efforts should be further developed and applied to the task of constructing a form of responsible capitalism, coupled to a sophisticated approach to issues of sustainability.

Anthony Giddens, former director of the London School of Economics, was the intellectual guru behind New Labour’s “Third Way” that brought Tony Blair to power.

© 2010 Global Viewpoint Network/Tribune Media Services. Hosted online by The Christian Science Monitor.