Sunday, 15 March 2015

New Labour’s Australian legacy?

Rob Manwaring from Flinders University discusses the impact of New Labour upon the Australian Labor Party.

New Labour remains a seminal case in the renewal (or, for some betrayal) of social democratic politics.  The Blair-Brown governments remain distinctive for a range of reasons; not least it was far more electorally successful than any of its European counter-parts in the 2000s. Gerhard Schröder’s ‘neue mitte’ fluttered briefly (1998-2005), Romano Prodi’s Italian centre-left had an even briefer reign in office 1996-98, then 2006-08. The Swedish democrats were out of office for much of this time, and it took the French PS over a decade to find office after Lionel Jospin’s single term as Prime Minister (1997-2002). Perhaps the closest rival to New Labour was Wim Kok’s Dutch ‘polder model’ (1994-2002). Since the heyday of the ‘third way’ debates; there have been ongoing debates about reinventing and renewing the centre-left; and New Labour remains a central point in these debates.[1] 

At the time, New Labour were seen as finding a formula that could adapt neo-liberal settings for social democratic ends after the breakdown of the Keynesian post-war consensus. New Labour remains attractive for some, although the cloud of Blair’s support for the Iraq invasion, and Brown’s somewhat faltering leadership casts a cloud over its appeal. Ironically, New Labour has come back to return to one of first influences - The Australian Labor party (ALP).

When New Labour emerged, Giddens and others noted how the young modernizers, including key figures like Philip Gould looked and learnt from Bill Clinton’s ‘New Democrats’.[2] To the irritation of a number of Australian political scientists, scholars of New Labour were criticised for neglecting another of the earliest influences - the successful Hawke-Keating Labor governments (1983-1996).[3] The Hawke-Keating was remarkable in that it adopted a range of neo-liberal tenets – albeit with a strong social democratic bent – during the high watermark of the Thatcher and Reagan years. New Labour in its early days wanted to learn how the Australians had managed to ‘modernise’ and adapt.

Perhaps rather strangely, British and Australian Labour governments have rarely over-lapped. And, until the advent of New Labour, the two sister parties had very little policy cross-fertilisation or direct ‘lesson drawing’. After the fall of Paul Keating’s government in 1996, the ALP chewed through 4 leaders and had to wait 11 years until Kevin Rudd took office. From 2007-2010, the two parties were in office, and there was some contact between them. What was striking is that when New Labour was keen to learn from Australia, the ALP, in turn, came to try and learn from New Labour.

A series of New Labour figures, including former Health Minister Alan Milburn, Blair advisers, Geoff Mulgan and John McTernan and former head of Demos Tom Bentley were key figures in helping the ALP drawn lessons from the New Labour years.

What is perhaps less well-known, is that the Australian policy learning from New Labour began before Kevin Rudd became party leader, and started at the state-level in federal Australia. Despite the ALP’s 11 wilderness years at the national level, during the 2000s at one stage, the ALP held office in every state and territory government in Australia. Steve Bracks in Victoria, Geoff Gallop in Western Australia and Mike Rann in South Australia were keen students of New Labour. In South Australia, Blair invited Mike Rann to London to look at the innovative social exclusion unit; and Rann (and also Bracks) developed and adopted New Labour’s social inclusion agenda.[4]

When Rudd finally took office in 2007, he was quick to establish a new social democratic agenda, and the ALP were generally tracking relatively well until the GFC hit. Rudd borrowed at least two key social policies from New Labour (and the ALP state governments): The social inclusion agenda, and the ‘national compact’ for reconfiguring the relationship between the state and the ‘third sector’.[5] Both policies were attractive to the ALP for a range of reasons, not least ‘social inclusion’ at least had the promise of renewing the centre-left’s traditional egalitarian policy mission. The ‘Compact’ was also a useful attempt to create a political circuit breaker with wider civil society. The social inclusion agenda in both Britain and Australia has been widely criticised – mostly for its moralistic, centralising tendencies and a shift away from tackling structural economic inequalities. Some argue that Rudd and others were uncritical in adopting from New Labour – it was perhaps the only winning formula available.

Yet, after much internal turmoil, the ALP could only survive two terms in office, despite Rudd offering a New Labour style – ‘new way’. It remains unclear in both Australia, and more widely, if the New Labour model of renewal is dead; or whether there are still (positive) policy lessons to be learned.

Rob Manwaring is a lecturer in politics and public policy at Flinders University.




[1] A. Giddens, 1998, The Third Way: The renewal of social democracy. Cambridge: Polity Press).
[2] Stephen Driver and Luke Martell, 2000, ‘Left, right, and the Third Way’, Policy and Politics, vol. 28, no. 2, pp.147-161.
[3] See David O’Reilly, 2007, The New Progressive Dilemma: Australia and Tony Blair’s Legacy, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan; Andrew Scott, 2000, Running on Empty: ‘modernising’ the British and Australian labour parties, Sydney: Pluto Press.
[4] Rob Manwaring, 2014, The Search for Democratic Renewal: The Politics of Consultation in Britain and Australia, Manchester: Manchester University Press.
[5] Luke Buckmaster and Matthew Thomas, 2009, ‘Social Inclusion and social citizenship- towards a truly inclusive society’, Parliamentary Briefing Paper no.8, Canberra: Parliament of Australia.

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