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)