More self-delusion than socialism at the Labour Party conference.
Foiling predictions of slow-handclaps and walkouts, Tony Blair’s speech at the Labour Party conference went down a storm. He received a seven-minute standing ovation, and the hall rang to cries of ‘we want Tony’. Even the trade unionist Bill Morris said that Blair had ‘made a start’ towards winning the party back.
Blair stood by his decisions over Iraq and public service reform, offering the soundbite: ‘I’ve not got a reverse gear’ (a prosaic version of Thatcher’s ‘not for turning’). In spite of the applause, Blair’s speech left many Labour critics unsatisfied. It’s not about forwards or backwards, they said: what’s needed is a swing of the steering wheel.
Individuals in and around New Labour have recently been calling for a return to leftist values and ideology. Chancellor Gordon Brown’s speech seemed to give them something to smile about. Kevin Curran, general secretary of the GMB, welcomed it as a ‘Labour speech by a Labour chancellor with socialism at its base for the agenda at home and abroad’ (1). The choice between Blair and Brown is now seen as representing a choice between New Left and traditional Left.
It is ridiculous to think that Brown’s references to ‘Labour’s values’ and ‘our history’ equal a return to Old Labour. The red flag of the past is not a banner to march behind; it is a comfort blanket for those who are disillusioned with New Labour, but don’t know where else to turn.
There is a deep self-delusion behind the calls for New Labour to renew, reform, relaunch, or any other ‘re’. In a conference fringe meeting, ex-cabinet minister Robin Cook called for a renewal of ‘value-based politics’, and for the party to go ‘back to the left’. Ex-health secretary Alan Milburn called for a ‘return to conviction politics’, based on the idea of ‘creating a fair future for all’ (2).
There seems to be a notion that Tony Blair somehow forgot ideology and values on the road to New Labour. He left them in a ditch somewhere, perhaps to lighten his load or because he couldn’t see a use for them. Now figures in the Labour Party are realising that ideology was important after all, and are trying to retrace their steps to pick it up again.
The connection between values and policies is somehow forgotten. Some think that Blair has the policies, he just needs the ideology to dress them up in: ‘the PM himself seems to recognise the need for a new more progressive language to match the ambition of his programmes’, writes Polly Toynbee (3). Others argue that Labour is now agreed upon the values, it just needs to work out how to put them into practise.
Ideology becomes little more than empty phrases. Take ‘fairness’, for example. Opening the conference, Labour Party chair Ian McCartney said that policies will ‘need to be judged on our own test of fairness’; ‘A Future Fair for All’, was the conference slogan. We keep hearing about ‘fairness’ this and ‘fairness’ that (‘fairness remade’, was Blair’s offering yesterday) – you begin to forget what it actually means. This is not an ideology or value: it is a label, or a brand. Values can’t be drawn up just because you feel you need some.
Even on its own terms, ‘fairness’ is found lacking. Fairness is a fluffy word, of the kind that parents use when dealing with their children – and children use when complaining that ‘it’s not fair‘. ‘Equality’, by comparison, is a hard, concrete word, the kind of word that people have marched behind. Nobody would march for ‘fairness’.
For some, though, just hearing the words seems to be enough to inspire. After Gordon Brown’s speech one leftwing MP, Roger Berry, said: ‘It was lovely to hear my own views articulated. I felt my erogenous zone was being massaged.’ Nobody could believe that Gordon Brown is NHS founder Nye Bevan in disguise, but they are happy to lie back and listen to talk about the tradition, fantasising that he might mean it.
There is, of course, no Old Labour to go back to. The whole point about New Labour is that it was a party built to go ‘beyond left and right’, to take the Labour Party into an era where state socialism was no longer an option. New Labour cut its teeth – indeed, defined what it was – by destroying the old Labour Party, by scrapping Clause Four and cutting back the influence of unions.
In today’s post-political world, it is clear that socialism will not win the next election; the welfare state cannot be resuscitated; the unions have lost their sway. Yet some still try to dress new policies up in old clothes: Labour MP Claire Ward argued on Newsnight that foundation hospitals were actually a form of ‘common ownership’.
Meanwhile, Gordon Brown may tickle the tummies of the party faithful in Bournemouth, but when it comes to fighting an election or planning policy it will be a different story. Even his speech, in substance, was New Labour through and through. There were no proposals to nationalise industries or strengthen workers’ rights. The message was that reform must go on: ‘our obligation should be to transform the welfare state from the old safety net that offered just minimum standards to a modern enabling state maximising opportunity, and…enlarging peoples options and choices.’ (4)
Brown is one of the chief architects of New Labour and the author of vast swathes of domestic policy. More than anybody else, he personifies the politician-as-manager, seeking to reduce every issue to tests and targets. Yet many Labour members seemed to forget this, wanting to get swept away in the rounds of applause.
Leftist critics are parasitic on the Labour Party – they hope, beyond all hope, that the party will somehow transform itself. Even when they realise the seriousness of the problems with New Labour, they still cling to the party as a drowning man clings to a raft. They imagine that values and ideology will spring up again, or that Brown will return Labour to its roots.
Also, for all that Blair is criticised, his critics are strangely dependent upon him. Many seem to think that Blair messed it up, and so only he is capable of sorting it out. ‘Tell us what you stand for, tell us where you are taking us!’, go the cries. ‘Now, more than ever, Tony Blair has to spell out New Labour’s purpose’, wrote Alan Milburn: ‘He has to communicate our values and vision for Britain.’ (5)
Even in leftist Fringe meetings, one journalist reported that ‘there was scant appetite for removing him: the odd maverick rebel was quickly drowned out by large majorities’ (6). Critics appeal to Blair to try to win the party back. Tony Woodley, general secretary of the Transport and General Workers Union said: ‘He said he will listen, but he has got to show he will respect the party.’
Blair is still at the centre of things, but he is increasingly alone. While high-up New Labourites are jumping ship, the whole project gets reduced to Blair’s personal leap of faith. ‘New Labour for me was never a departure from belief. It is my belief’, he told the party conference (7). Blair often doesn’t even try to justify his policies – he just asserts that ‘I am what I am’, or ‘I really believe this’. Yesterday he said: ‘All you can do in a modern world…is to decide what is the right way and try to walk in it.’ (8)
He warns that to leave the path of modernisation that he has marked out would be ‘suicide’ or ‘catastrophic’ – invoking something like divine retribution as punishment for not following his heart. Blair’s blinkered mysticism is a sign of the depth of New Labour’s ideological crisis.
While Blair has his eyes fixed upon the horizon, striding on regardless, his critics look back at the past through rosy spectacles. Neither approach holds the key to renewing political life.
(1) The Times (London), 30 September 2003
(2) Shift the political geography to the left, Guardian, 26 September 2003
(3) At last Blair is beginning to grope towards Jerusalem, Guardian, 10 September 2003
(4) Full text: Gordon Brown’s speech, 29 September 2003
(5) Shift the political geography to the left, Guardian, 26 September 2003
(6) What the party faithful really want is a better Blair, Guardian, 1 October 2003
(7) Full text: Blair’s conference speech (part 1)
(8) Full text: Blair’s conference speech (part 2)
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