The end of Blairism?

Personality looms large in New Labour because it is a marketing initiative, not a movement.

UK prime minister Tony Blair’s promise that he wouldn’t serve a fourth term, made at the close of last October’s Labour Party conference, has come back to haunt him. In January 2005, journalist Robert Peston’s book Brown’s Britain quoted chancellor Gordon Brown saying to Blair in the summer of 2004: ‘There is nothing you could say to me that I could ever believe.’ Not a great statement of political difference, Brown was only complaining that Blair had once again gone back on his word that he would stand down in the chancellor’s favour. Blair had reportedly been thinking of quitting late in 2003, hurt by poor polls, but was talked out of it, and recovered his confidence that summer.

The turnaround in Blair’s personal satisfaction rating with the voters is remarkable. In 1997, he satisfied 83 per cent - higher than any prime minister since records began. But today his personal rating stands at a rock bottom 29 per cent. ‘Vote Blair, Get Brown’, had been a Tory Party slogan in 2001. This time around former foreign secretary Robin Cook revived it, noticing that more people would vote for a party led by Brown than one led by Blair. More remarkably, the Labour Party election strategists agreed. At a press conference on 6 April Blair endorsed his chancellor’s future job prospects, and has sought to pull back behind his cabinet team in the campaign - despite the fact that just two months earlier Brown had been frozen out of running the election strategy in favour of Blair loyalist Alan Milburn.

Anthony Minghella’s Batman-angled, gauze-lensed and ‘Two Johns’-scripted election broadcast cast the prime minister and the chancellor as a pair of old blokes, reminiscing about the glories of yesteryear (1997, Labour’s first election win in some 20 years). There could be no clearer sign that even as Blair is favourite to win the election, Blairism is a spent force.

The rats are leaving the sinking ship. Geoff Mulgan reflected on his seven years as an advisor to Number Ten with a scathing assessment: ‘There is little evidence of any shift towards progressive values among the British public.’ Mulgan judged that although the Labour communications machine was ‘expert at day-to-day rebuttals’, it ‘was less good at changing hearts and minds in the manner of Margaret Thatcher’. ‘The primary designers of New Labour came from communication and marketing backgrounds’, Mulgan wrote. ‘They did a fine job of rebranding the party…but the very factors that made it a success as an electoral project weakened it as a transformative project.’ (1) Mea Culpa! In fact Mulgan’s distancing himself from Downing Street today is the price he has to pay to influence a Gordon Brown-led Labour government tomorrow. He was, after all, an advisor to Brown before joining Blair’s team.

And just as the Blairites are wallowing in self-doubt, there is a curious nostalgia for Old Labour. In East London the fairground huckster George Galloway pits Old Labour against Oona King’s New Labour (see Behind the ‘Battle of Bethnal Green’, by Brendan O’Neill). Retiring Hackney MP Brian Sedgemore announced that he was also leaving the Labour Party: ‘I’m renouncing Tony Blair, the Devil, New Labour and all their works.’ Looking back on his 25 years as a Labour MP Sedgemore urged ‘everyone from the centre and left in British politics to give Blair a bloody nose at the election and to vote Liberal Democrat to ensure the tawdry New Labour project is dead’. He added: ‘Look at Blair standing in the shadow of Gordon Brown and you can see the power ebbing away from him. He is now an empty husk who should be thrown on the scrapheap of history.’ (2)

It needs to be said that the criticisms of Blair and the New Labour project, both those emanating from the Labour left and from Brown’s supporters, are mostly fake.

The Old Labour party was much more right wing than either Galloway or Sedgemore remember. It never balked at waging war on Muslims, or shied away from endorsing capitalism (though it did have this in common with the Respect Coalition - the Trotskyists did all the leg-work at election time). The nostalgia for ‘Old Labour’ is not a recollection of the past, but something that is worked up in the present. Over and over again, Blair summoned up an image of the ‘forces of reaction’ that were holding back ‘New Britain’. As people lost belief in the New Labour project, it seemed as if all those things that he decried - the labour movement, traditional values and institutions - were actually positive. It became fashionable to contrast Old Labour virtues with New Labour shallowness. But there is no Old Labour anymore; it is just the shape of New Labour’s bad conscience.

Even less plausible is the view that mild-mannered Gordon Brown will jump into a phone booth, take off his jacket and glasses to reveal Super-Labour. Brown needs to manufacture a political difference between himself and Blair, as a justification for the transfer of power. Otherwise he risks being dragged down by the prime minister’s falling approval ratings. Happily for Brown, the party is more than willing to project their own aspirations for a new beginning on to the personality rift between numbers ten and eleven Downing Street. Policy wonks like Geoff Mulgan, MPs like Robin Cook, commentators like Polly Toynbee and Jackie Ashley are all dreaming of a new beginning. ‘It has been a long road’, wrote Ashley, ‘but Labour is back’ (3).

But reports of the death of New Labour are exaggerated, or at least confused. The rational kernel of all of the criticisms levelled against New Labour was that it never was a movement at all. There is not a ‘New Labour’ party with mass support. Rather, the ‘communications and marketing’ people took hold of the empty husk of the Labour Party. The question of Tony Blair’s personality has loomed so large because of the absence of a defining ideology or mass movement that would distinguish New Labour. Today’s party is, ironically, a product of Margaret Thatcher’s campaign to dismantle the organised labour movement in the 1980s. Blair’s success was precisely due to his travelling light, without the political baggage that made his predecessors so obviously wedded to the past. Attempts to define his political creed, briefly called the ‘Third Way’ (between Old Labour and Conservatism) were quickly dropped due to a lack of content.

In a 1997 document titled ‘The British Spring - A Manifesto for the Election After Next’, Geoff Mulgan and other contributors to the Demos think-tank tried to imagine the new values of New Britain. They identified ‘authenticity’, ‘which encourages everything from environmentalism and the search for a better balance between work and life, to distrust of unethical and dishonest institutions’, and ‘post material and feminine values such as empathy, community and connectedness’ (4).

Were they loved-up on Es (ask your dad)? And were they really saying anything more than today’s New Labour election slogan, ‘Forwards not backwards’. Who was it that was campaigning for inauthenticity, or a worse balance between work and life or for unethical and dishonest institutions? New Labour thrived on these empty slogans because it was a product of a post-ideological age, in which the sense of forward motion was more important than the goal. This was the era in which the French president François Mitterand ran on the slogan ‘Avec Le President’, and America’s Bill Clinton promised to ‘Build a Bridge to the Twenty-First Century’ (‘you were going there anyway’, quipped comedian Rory Bremner).

But if Blairism is finished, then where is the political movement, or the ideology that will fill the void? At this point the Brown camp and the Old Labourites fall silent. Well, the Respect Coalition does call for public ownership of public services, though that does seem a little modest - no nationalisation of the top 200 companies, for example. And what is Brown’s alternative? Counter-cyclical public spending? Labour market deregulation?

Pointedly the complaints against Blair are framed in the same apolitical manner as were his complaints against John Major’s Conservative Party. Instead of campaigning against capitalism, New Labour campaigned against ‘corruption’ (a campaign that Brian Sedgemore helped with his trenchant criticisms of ‘fat cats’, incidentally). Moral rectitude took the place of ideological alternative. And so it is today. The biggest complaint that anyone has against Blair is not his policies, but that he is a liar.

One of Blair’s biggest sins in the eyes of his Old Labour critics was that he gave an opening to the Liberal Democrats. The party that was formed out of a coalition of the Liberals and the breakaway Social Democratic Party (SDP) was anathema to Old Labour, which painted the SDP as ‘traitors’ to the party. Blair grasped that the Liberal Democrats could be used to dislodge the Old Labour political machinery, and was prepared to risk being called a traitor for it. But today radicals like Brian Sedgemore and commentator Tariq Ali think nothing of jumping on the Liberal Democrat bandwagon just to tweak Tony Blair’s nose.

The gadfly attitude to party loyalties, with MPs regularly passing back and forward between Labour and the Lib Dems, becoming independents, like Ken Livingstone, and then rejoining, is very New Labour. Old Labour politicians like Nye Bevan poured scorn on such characters (he called Sir Hartley Shawcross ‘Sir Shortly Floor-Cross’). These late-blooming political consciences disguise the fact that all of Blair’s critics have been complicit in the evacuation of principle from public life that he led. And far from offering an alternative to New Labour, they offer more of the same. The fact that disillusionment with New Labour takes the form of a preoccupation with Blair’s character demonstrates that it is in the end a continuation of the politics of the personality he inaugurated, only in mirror-image.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. See his website here.

(1) My time in the engine room, Geoff Mulgan, Guardian, 23 April 2005

(2) Brian Sedgemore: ‘I urge everyone to give Blair a bloody nose at the election’, Independent, 26 April 2005

(3) An act of rebranding that has brought Labour to life, Jackie Ashley, Guardian, 14 April 2005

(4) The British Spring, Demos, 1997, p 11

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