Blair wins – so why is New Labour so nervous?
'While New Labour is going to trounce the Tories, it has yet to establish the authority of the new political elite.'
Why does New Labour seem so nervous and defensive all the time? The Tories are in meltdown, the election is a non-contest, Blair’s party is heading for a big win. Yet New Labour leaders look like scared rabbits.
They have accused the media of conspiring against them and refused to appear on some election programmes. Then, when Blair does turn up on Radio 4’s Today programme, he meekly allows John Humphrys to talk to him like a headmaster telling off a naughty schoolboy.
They see imaginary problems and pitfalls everywhere, even holding crisis meetings to discuss how many points John Prescott’s punch would cost them in the opinion polls, when anybody could see that it would play to their advantage. And when they have a winning political card, they often seem too scared to play it for all that it is worth.
For instance, New Labour could almost certainly clean up on the European issue if it went for the jugular against William Hague’s outdated Little Englander act. Yet, until today, Blair and Gordon Brown had hardly said a word on the subject – and even now their argument is hedged with ifs and buts. On many other issues, too, New Labour fights shy of pressing home its potential advantage. Why?
The explanation of all this lies in the difference between winning an election and winning authority over society. New Labour’s nervy behaviour shows that, while the party is going to trounce the Tories, it has yet to establish the authority of the new political elite.
The old British elite, fronted by the Conservative Party through much of the past two centuries, was deeply embedded in society. Its authority rested upon state and quasi-state institutions, from the army to the church, which enjoyed considerable legitimacy in the public eye.
The long-established authority of that old order has recently collapsed, as the current crisis of the Conservatives forcefully demonstrates. A new elite is emerging in its place. But New Labour and its friends in high places do not yet have the firm foundations required to stabilise their control over society.
Throughout the election campaign, and despite their huge lead in the polls, New Labour leaders have demonstrated an acute sense of their own isolation and vulnerability. That explains why they are so jumpy about bold policies, and so sensitive in response to media criticism. It also explains why they have appeared so preoccupied with the problem of ‘voter apathy’.
The debate about apathy, and the attendant fears of a low voter turnout, encapsulate New Labour’s quandary. After all, one might ask, why should Blair and co care if this is the lowest turnout in a UK general election since the Second World War, or if people mistrust politicians more than ever before, seeing as how they are going to win so easily anyway?
The problem is, however, that in order to establish its authority, New Labour needs to do more than win an election with the half-hearted support of around a third of the electorate. It needs to incorporate the public into a new political order, and make new connections between the government and the people.
In this sense the focus on apathy is not just about trying to consolidate more support for New Labour. It is also about constituting an opposition that recognises the legitimacy of the institutions of government.
The old Tory elite spent a lot of time and effort house training the Labour Party to be Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition, working within the system. Similarly, the New Labour elite needs to cultivate an acceptable face of opposition that will accept the regime’s rules. That is why New Labour and its supporters have often courted opponents like the new consumer activists, in an effort to bring them inside the Big Tent as ‘friendly critics’. It is also why, although they might not admit it even to themselves, some New Labour leaders would rather the disenchanted voted Tory or Socialist Alliance than shrugged their shoulders and stayed at home watching Survivor.
Blair will come out of this election in a very different position than Margaret Thatcher when she won her second term in 1983. Backed by the Falklands Factor, and with the unswerving support of the traditional ruling class, Thatcher exuded authority and dominated the political scene. By contrast, at the start of Blair’s second term, politics is going to be far more fluid and unstable. Not only is the life of the Tory Party in the balance, but the tensions within the New Labour alliance are likely to come to the fore without an opposition to unite against.
For Blair and Brown, the next four years are about trying to push through the changes and innovations necessary to consolidate the authority of the new elite. Their election manifesto sets out hundreds of far-reaching targets to push this process along. But the instability, opportunism and spinelessness that were so evident in Blair’s first government suggest that making it happen will be far from straightforward. The future is up for grabs, and there are both dangers and big opportunities in the offing.
Too much time is being wasted dissecting the day-to-day trivia of this banal and empty election campaign. Instead, it is time to focus more of our energies on a serious discussion of what is to come after the election, and what can be done about it.
The most important date in the diary is no longer really election day, 7 June; that contest is already over. It is Monday 11 June, the first working day of Blair’s second term.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked.
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