Why does New Labour stand for nothing?
Blair-bashers ignore New Labour's roots in both its party, and its times.
Although New Labour is extremely unlikely to lose the upcoming general election, nobody who counts seems to have a good word to say about it. Blair-bashing has become good sport for the commentators, as they line up to expose the prime minister’s character flaws: arrogant, a control freak, cares only about power and his own reputation, and lacking in political vision. New Labour is written off as style without substance; it had people fooled for a while, goes the argument, but now the ideological vacuum at its heart is revealed for all to see.
Former Blairites have built successful media careers by pointing out the government’s flaws. Ex-foreign secretary Robin Cook, who resigned over the Iraq war, has a column in the Guardian newspaper and appears as a talking head whenever the latest dodgy email hits the headlines. Former international development secretary Clare Short, who resigned after the Iraq war (having voted in favour of it), pops up to have a moan whenever Blair’s integrity is questioned. (A full account of Short’s views are in An Honourable Deception?, available from all good bookshops.) David Clark, a former government adviser, argues that Tony Blair is motivated by nothing but power, and is ‘psychologically incapable’ of building a fairer society (1).
The columnist David Aaronovitch has noted the growth of anti-Blair chatter among what he calls ‘dinner party critics’ (2). He quotes John Lanchester, novelist and one-time Blair supporter, who now judges that ‘the party’s record in government evokes a range of responses on the left – from mild gloom to clinical depression from irritation to rage, from apathy to horror’. Ben Ramm, editor of the new magazine The Liberal, writes that: ‘Few administrations have governed as prosaically as the incumbent Labour one, or with as little imagination, ideology and sincerity.’ Meanwhile the philosopher Ted Honderich deems Blair’s morality ‘muddy and ill-considered’, and concludes that ‘[his] main problem is that he is not very bright’ (3).
According to some, Blair has single-handedly diverted the Labour Party and Britain from the path of substantial, ideological politics. By these accounts, Labour is hiding its social democratic light under a Blairite bushel – all those old principles and values are still there, it’s just that the leadership dare not mention them. This is a favourite argument of Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, who argues that ‘a cabal of 1980s warriors prevents the party from talking about its values’: values such as public not private, opportunity not privilege, and putting the family before business (4). Roy Hattersley, who as Neil Kinnock’s right-hand man in the 1980s was key in bringing about New Labour, is now forever expounding the virtues of social democracy and lamenting Blair’s lack of principle. Labour leftist Mark Seddon argues that New Labour keeps people like him with firm political views off the benches, passing them over for ‘desiccated calculating machines’ (5).
Even those who remain New Labour allies urge Blair to come up with a bit more of that ‘vision thing’. Journalist Jackie Ashley says that ‘people need inspiration’: ’What Labour has to do is to stop flapping about with the relative trivia of daily eye-catching initiatives…and re-engage its heart.’ (6) Peter Hyman, who was Blair’s speechwriter and strategist for 10 years, now says that the problem with the ‘modernisation’ agenda, ‘as many of us kept telling Tony, was that it lacked values’ (7). Before he stood down as director of the London School of Economics, Anthony Giddens, who wrote Blair’s ideological handbook The Third Way, had taken to telling jokes about New Labour in his lectures. In 2002 he was urging the government to ‘develop its ideological thinking further’, and ‘set out more clearly the kind of society Britain should become’ (8).
Is New Labour guilty as charged? In one sense, yes. It does indeed lack a political vision, fumbling from one issue to the next and failing to inspire enthusiasm from either the public or its members. But this outbreak of Blair-bashing obstructs a sober understanding of the problems with politics today. By exposing the vacuity of New Labour, critics pose as guardians of real principles and values. Yet the hard questions are avoided. For all the critical questioning, Blair still presides over political life like a colossus. How could that be, if there are so many people with admirable principles fighting to be heard? Surely this is about more than one individual’s obsession with power and the media.
Although New Labour is often credited with driving political life, its role has been primarily responsive. New Labour has played a largely passive role in history, confirming changes after they had happened rather than forcing them through. We can only make sense of New Labour by understanding how it embodies the limitations of its party, and the limitations of its age. If we do this it becomes clear that the problems of British politics are something that everybody has to grapple with – dinner party critics included.
What Labour was
Patrick Diamond, editor of the recent book New Labour’s Old Roots, argues that the germ of New Labour existed from the start. There has been a strong pragmatic streak in the Labour Party, with a succession of modernisers who, like Blair, freely adapted their politics to the needs of the times. The Labour Party was never a hotbed of theoretical analysis, preferring instead those British values of practical application and common sense. In the late 1940s, Herbert Morrison, deputy prime minister in the 1945-51 Labour government, heralded the maxim that ‘Socialism is what a Labour government does’ (9).
Ultimately, Labour leaders were primarily concerned with keeping the British economy moving and defending British interests in the world. Diamond’s collection of essays includes a 1952 piece from Denis Healey, a key Labour figure in the postwar period, arguing that alliance with America was key to defending Britain’s interests.
There weren’t many hotheaded radicals among Labour’s old leadership, most of whom preferred a go-slow, God-fearing version of ‘socialism’. ‘Socialism…is an excellently conceived and resolute effort to Christianise government and society’, judged Labour leader Ramsay MacDonald, during the party’s radical, formative years in the early twentieth century (10). As with New Labour, old Labour leaders were fonder of talking about the ethics of equality than with spelling out what this meant in practice. By the tranquil decades of the 1950s, Labour modernisers were planning reforms similar in appearance to those eventually made by Tony Blair, turning the party away from the politics of class.
A 1956 piece in Diamond’s book by the moderniser Anthony Crosland mumbles about the difficulty of defining socialism: ‘[socialism] simply describes a set of values, or aspirations, which socialists wish to see embodied in the organisation of society…. But exactly what degree of equality will create a society which does sufficiently embody them, no-one can possibly say. We must reassess the matter in the light of each new situation.’ (11) Certainly people shouldn’t get their hopes up: ‘It is…futile and dangerous to think in terms of an ideal society, the shape of which can already be described, and which will be reached at some definite date in the future.’ (12)
The historic role of the Labour Party was to mediate conflicting social interests. For most of the twentieth century, the Conservatives were the natural party of government, in power when all was going well; Labour was the substitute party, which came into its own at times of economic and social crisis, to manage and contain class conflict. In practice this often meant winning the working class over to unpopular measures, such as cuts in wages and living standards, in order to restore stability to the British economy.
The first Labour minister in cabinet was Arthur Henderson in 1915, whose role was mainly to dissuade the unions from striking in order to maintain the war economy. Labour first came to power briefly in 1924, and again in 1929, a period of 25 per cent unemployment and growing strikes and stoppages; in the eyes of many members of the ruling class, it was Labour’s links with the unions that could save the country from collapse. As the Tory leader Andrew Bonar Law put it, ‘Trade union organisation was the only thing between us and anarchy’.
Labour Party leaders sought to show that they were ‘responsible’ and ‘fit to govern’, which generally meant avoiding radical measures and urging working people to tighten their belts for Britain. The Labour Party only reluctantly supported the 1926 general strike, and was soon counselling retreat, warning that it could discredit the party and set back the ‘struggle for socialism’.
In 1931 Labour prime minister Ramsay MacDonald cut public spending and unemployment benefit, raised national insurance contributions and devalued the pound (though, in this case, the party refused to accept MacDonald’s measures and he was forced to form a ‘national government’ mainly composed of Tories). Even Clement Atlee’s 1945-51 reputedly Labourist ‘golden age’ was pretty prosaic at heart, playing the primary role of restoring profitability in the British economy. Atlee maintained rations, introduced wage restraint in 1948, sent troops to break strikes and imprison militants, and devalued the pound in 1949.
The Labour government’s nationalisation of railways, mining and steel improved workers’ conditions, but had a practical rationale: to support infrastructural industries that were key to the British economy, but unprofitable in their own terms. Even the ‘jewel in Labour’s crown’, the National Health Service (NHS), was proudly maintained by Tory governments over subsequent decades, suggesting that it was not the bastion of socialism claimed by some.
In the 1920s, the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky mocked Labour leaders’ cloying efforts to be part of the establishment, which involved dressing up in feudal court dress and adopting the airs and graces of parliament (13). When it came to foreign policy, Labour ministers were at least as gung-ho in defending British interests as were the Tories. The recent speeches made by Labour members in parliament about the party’s long-standing anti-war tradition have little basis in fact. Atlee was in power in 1945 when Britain’s ally America dropped the A-bomb on Hiroshima, and he ordered the development of the British bomb without consulting the cabinet, never mind parliament.
Yet this is only one side of the story. The Labour Party of old wasn’t all about pragmatism and moderation. In emphasising the continuity with the past, Patrick Diamond has an ulterior motive: as special adviser to the prime minister’s office, his aim is to legitimise what he refers to as ‘”New” Labour’ by presenting it as the pinnacle of revisionist battles in Labour’s history. In fact, there is a big difference between old and new Labour. The old Labour Party was founded on a mass working-class movement struggling to improve its condition: hence the name.
The origins of the Labour Party can be traced back to 1899, when the Trades Union Congress (TUC) put forward a motion for the creation of a separate political organisation to defend the interests of labour in parliament, the Labour Representation Committee (LRC). The LRC also had a number of more middle-class socialist affiliates: the Fabian Society, led by Sidney and Beatrice Webb; Keir Hardie’s Independent Labour Party; and the Social Democratic Federation. But these were really hangers-on; the trade unions staffed and financed the organisation and provided its social base.
This was a time when Britain’s economy was weakening in the face of international competition, and trade unions found that they were vulnerable to employers’ attempts to restore profitability. Until this point, most unions had been allied with the Liberal Party and had concentrated their efforts on economic bargaining, a method that in the fair weather of Britain’s imperial expansion had yielded substantial gains.
The LRC grew as social unrest mounted in the early twentieth century. A significant step was the 1901 court decision to award damages to Taff Vale Railway against the union, so making unions liable for economic costs incurred to an employer during a strike. Affiliations flooded into the LRC, and it set up a fund to finance MPs. By 1906 the LRC had secured the election of 29 MPs, who joined with 22 Liberal-Labour MPs (trade unionists standing as candidates for the Liberal Party) to form the Labour Party.
At this stage the Labour Party lacked any definite political position: its aim was merely ‘to organise and maintain in parliament and the country a political labour party’, and trade union ranks were more Liberal than socialist. Yet it was implicitly a radical move, recognising that middle-class parties were inadequate for defending working-class interests and that without political gains, such as protective legislation, workers would be on the losing side in economic battles. The Russian revolutionary VI Lenin commented that the Labour Party was ‘the first step…towards a class-conscious policy and towards a socialist workers’ party’.
The period around the First World War was a time of revolutionary ferment, with Bolshevik Russia leading the way. Today this seems like a different world; its passionate slogans mean little to twenty-first century ears. It was this radical period that coloured the early Labour Party and provided it with its first real statement of political intent, the 1918 constitution. This included Clause Four, written by Sidney Webb, which committed Labour to the ‘common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange’. The constitution also gave the unions control over party conference and the National Executive Committee (NEC).
Although Labour Party heads were conservative in temper, they were sometimes forced to take on board the demands of the party’s base. The Labour left threw out Barbara Castle’s 1969 White Paper ‘In Place of Strife’, which proposed legal curbs to prevent trades unions from taking industrial action. In 1978, unions rejected Labour prime minister James Callaghan’s limit on wage increases, and later that year brought the country to a halt in what became known as the ‘Winter of Discontent’. Rubbish went uncollected, and ambulance, fire and water services were reduced. The resulting chaos helped to bring down Callaghan’s government and inaugurate nearly two decades of Tory rule.
The old Labour Party was therefore afflicted with a deep contradiction. In theory, it sought to defend working-class interests, and so implicitly presented a challenge to the status quo; in practice, it sought to downplay conflict and maintain stability. Clause Four may have embodied radical times, but its role was to contain them. Labour’s history is marked with battles between leaders and members, between the right and left wing. This underlying tension is embodied in the separation between the Labour Party leader and the Parliamentary Labour Party on the one hand, and party conference and the National Executive Committee on the other. Thus the conclusions reached by a trade unions-dominated conference were kept safely away from the business of governing and electioneering.
Old Labour may have been almost as pragmatic and conservative as New Labour, but it was at least based on real interests and movements in society. Both right and left wing took their cue from social forces: a policy such as Clause Four embodied working-class demands, and a policy such as ‘In Place of Strife’ embodied the needs of British industry. By contrast, New Labour’s policies come out of thin air, dreamt up over coffee in a Whitehall seminar rather than built on the back of real interests. In order to explain the emergence of New Labour, we have to look at how Old Labour’s bad habits were transformed in new times.
The making of New Labour
Blair is often accorded superhuman powers to direct the course of British politics. But New Labour was very much a product of its times: it reflects the collapse of both the left and the right. New Labour is little more than a collection of individuals who took advantage of an empty political stage.
Collapse of the left
The distancing of the Labour Party from its working-class, trade-unionist roots was a long process that stretched over the twentieth century, but which came to a head in the 1980s. The reign of Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher, from 1979 to 1990, went against the grain of twentieth century history: as a time of high unemployment and social conflict, these were precisely the conditions in which the country tended to look to the Labour Party to resolve the crisis. Yet there was a massive decline in the manual working-class vote for Labour, from 62 per cent in 1959 to 38 per cent in 1983. Labour lost the south and the Midlands, and retreated to its northern heartlands.
The 1980s Labour left was largely white-collar and public sector. As its isolation from society increased it became shrill and self-delusional, with leftist Tony Benn claiming the disastrous showing in the 1983 election as a ‘victory for socialism’. Meanwhile, the elite moved to a more direct mode of confrontation, taking on the unions and smashing the miners in the 1984-5 strike, while the Labour Party watched helplessly from the sidelines. It seemed that Labour’s traditional role in mediating different social interests was no longer viable.
During the 1980s, though, revisionist New Labour types pussyfooted around in the Labour Party, waiting for the old left to collapse rather than attacking it head-on. Neil Kinnock was a prime example of this. He took over as Labour leader after the 1983 election and made moves to reform the party away from its class base: he brought on pollster Philip Gould as his adviser, Peter Mandelson as director of communications, Patricia Hewitt as his press officer. By 1987 his cabinet included former student politicians Jack Straw, Robin Cook and former civil servant Frank Dobson, all of whom would become New Labour figures.
Yet Kinnock kept swinging erratically between policies, and agonising about how to reform. He moved against the leftist organisation Militant in 1985, but this was largely a symbolic assault – and in any case was justified on the basis of defending ‘real Labour’. According to Philip Gould, Kinnock spent much of the period in deep depression, gripped with a fear that he would be ‘lost for words’ (14).
The New Labour figures who came into the party in the 1980s played a largely cosmetic role, changing the party’s communications and presentation but leaving policies and structures untouched. Gould describes how, in the 1987 general election, modernisers had inaugurated a communications revolution that gave the party a ‘new identity, the red rose’ and the ‘campaign grid’. But this ‘revolution’ only scratched the surface: ‘[Labour] had modernised its communications, but not its policies or the party itself’, he said. ‘The engine had been polished, but it was still a Victorian relic.’ (15)
Figures such as Philip Gould were, apparently, often pulled in to head the party’s campaigns, rather than forcing themselves to the forefront. Gould claims that he ended up running the 1992 election almost by default: ‘there was no timetable; no day-by-day campaign grid; no strategic plan’ (16). The party was ‘tired’ and wracked with paranoia and infighting. Gould and Hewitt sat in Hewitt’s attic and drew up a plan, largely because nobody else would.
Old Labour was burning itself out, and New Labour sat and waited until it had quite finished. Peter Mandelson left his job as director of communications in 1990 after his methods were starting to grate with the party faithful, who complained of too much ‘glitz’ and ‘unaccountable outsiders’. John Smith took over the Labour Party leadership from Neil Kinnock following the Tory victory in 1992, and died two years later. Mandelson came back into the limelight then, when the coast was clear to support Blair as leader.
Collapse of the right
The new right helped to smash the left, but in defeating its enemy it exposed its own malaise. By the early 1990s the Tories were embroiled in scandals, resignations and backbiting. Attempts to regain the initiative with moves such as John Major’s ‘Back to Basics’ campaign, which promoted traditional family values, floundered almost before they had begun.
When Tony Blair took over the Labour Party in 1994, it faced almost no opposition. One Labour Party worker’s description of the 1997 election was telling: ‘My overwhelming sense was of waiting…. waiting for the Conservatives to hit us really hard – and we kept waiting. I remember there was a period of two days – because that was the only time I ever came close to hitting a panic button – when they hit us on trade unions…. We then fully expected them to come and hit us with a couple more good right hands, and it never came.’ (17)
The attack from the Tories ‘never came’. New Labour didn’t fight its way into power; it coasted. Blair rose not through scheming and control-freakery, but due to the dire state of his rivals.
All style and no substance
The features of New Labour so harped upon by critics – its arrogance, superficiality, and managerialism – can all be derived from the fact that it grew in a political vacuum. These weren’t traits that the party intentionally sought; indeed, the founders of New Labour went to great lengths to find a substantial, defining concept to keep it together and command people’s allegiance.
In search of the ‘vision thing’
New Labour looked long and hard for a defining vision. But its problem was that it was little more than a collection of talented and motivated individuals, not a movement with deep roots in society. As such, it drifted from one idea to another, lacking an anchor or an established course.
Blair’s regime came in the wake of the collapse of left and right. As a result, it was principally defined by what it was not – not old left, not Thatcherite right, not the past – rather than what it was. It could say what had failed, but found it more difficult to say what would work instead. The result was a pick-and-mix of policies: when he took over as leader, Blair talked about ‘breaking through old left-right barriers’, saying in 1995 that ‘New Labour is neither old left nor new right. We understand and welcome the new global market. We reject go-it-alone policies on inflation and the macro-economy. We stand for a new partnership between government and industry’ (18).
New Labour ideologue Anthony Giddens argued that the Third Way was about ‘reconciling opposites’, bringing together concepts such as state and market, equality and diversity, rights and responsibility, which had previously been heralded by different political camps (19). But the primary reason that New Labour could unite these ideas is that they no longer meant anything in society. Because there was no left proposing state socialism, and no right defending the free market, it was easy to say: okay, let’s have both. When political movements aren’t demanding their right to protest, there appears to be no contradiction between rights and responsibilities. But the fact is that, once these words are no longer political battle cries, they lack broader resonance.
The ties that bound ‘the Project’ were personal rather than political. Tony Blair, Alastair Campbell and Philip Gould went on holiday together, and thought up policies in each other’s houses and French villas. Because they were working in a vacuum, they saw the development of new political ideas as a question of brainstorming. In his account of the period, The Unfinished Revolution, Gould is constantly moaning that ‘we still lacked a defining concept’, or ‘we needed a central compelling argument’. He and fellow New Labourite David Miliband sat up late at night wondering: what could this defining concept be? Where could they find it?
If they clicked their fingers and got into the right mood, perhaps they could just dream up a new politics. The New Labour title was Gould’s in 1989: ‘I suggested a concept to get Labour on its feet again. I called it New Labour.’ (20) The phrase ‘A new life for Britain’ was invented by Campbell, sitting with Gould on a beach in Majorca (21) – and Campbell can also take the credit for the 1997 election slogan ‘New Labour, New Britain’. It was Tony Blair’s idea to make a show out of abolishing Clause Four, to show definitively that the party had changed.
But while the old Clause Four reflected the ambitions of mass movements in society, the new one was entirely the product of Blair’s imagination. Gould describes the debates about the form of the new Clause Four: ‘Matters came to a head one Sunday afternoon with Tony Blair sitting on his bed, Alastair Campbell, Jonathan Powell and David Miliband perched around the room, while Blair’s daughter Kathryn’s party was going on downstairs.’ In the end, they couldn’t agree on the answer, except that they didn’t like the draft that had been drawn up by the Labour policy team. In the end, Blair wrote it himself.
Brainstorming can’t provide a new politics. If words don’t represent movements in society, they are only words. New Labour may have made an effort to be serious and inspiring, but it could only come up with fluff. Compare the old and the new versions of Clause Four. The old was: ‘To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.’ While it leaves open the form and means of achieving this ‘best obtainable’ system, the clause is concrete and concise, and would spark disagreement among political rivals.
By contrast, the new Clause Four is vague and inoffensive, as if you had asked the manager of the local charity shop to list their beliefs. It goes: ‘The Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. It believes that by the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few. Where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe. And where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.’ Most Labour Party members, even MPs, would struggle to remember this.
To mark the tenth anniversary of Blair’s first conference speech as leader, when he called for Clause Four to be scrapped, the Fabian Society solicited suggestions for a Clause Four mark three (22). No doubt partly miffed because the original clause was the work of its old leader, the Fabian Society nonetheless touched a truth in its statement that: ‘There is little in the Labour party’s statement of values that is seriously objectionable to anyone from the mainstream of British politics. Labour Party members cannot identify enthusiastically with the new Clause because it misses out key elements of what makes politics important to them.’ (23)
New Labour’s lack of roots led to its strange new language, which tends to resist direct translation. When terms are concocted by an isolated political elite, rather than drawn from common currency, it’s no surprise that they are elusive and jargonised. Take the ‘progressive consensus’, for example, Tony Blair and chancellor Gordon Brown’s current description of their project, which seems to be something to do with everybody going forward together.
A number of commentators have noted that Blair’s habit of leaving verbs out of sentences makes it unclear exactly who is going to do what to whom. ‘Your family better off’, ‘your child achieving more’, ‘your community safer’, read Labour’s 2005 election pledges, as if these things could somehow just occur of their own accord. Vague, feel-good adjectives have multiplied, as have terms for efficient-sounding procedures. In the current Labour manifesto there is a promise to ‘make the contract of rights and responsibilities an enduring foundation of community life’, to ‘strengthen clinical governance in the NHS’, and to ‘build new ladders of social mobility and advancement on the firm foundations of stability, investment and growth’.
When New Labour tries to put the rhetoric into practice, it crashes against the hard rocks of reality. The Millennium Dome was supposed to be a ‘spiritual beacon’, an ‘opportunity for renewal’ – in Blair’s words, ‘Britain’s opportunity to greet the world with a celebration so bold, so beautiful, so inspiring…’ (24). But it’s one thing to say you want to give Britain a new sense of purpose, another thing entirely to display that purpose before the nation. Mandelson trotted off around the world looking for ideas, even meeting Mickey Mouse in Disneyland. But somehow that elusive vision just couldn’t be found.
The only New Labour ideas with solid content weren’t political at all. Instead, they were about managerialism, and the reduction of politics to the day-to-day grind of administering society. ‘Modernisation’, ‘social inclusion’, ‘community’ – all of these key New Labour ideas are basically about keeping society ticking over and holding alienated individuals together. New Labour thinkers defined the point of politics in prosaic terms. In his 1996 book The Blair Revolution, Peter Mandelson said that Blair was ‘working through a credible strategy for successful government’. In 1997, New Labour adviser Geoff Mulgan said in Life After Politics that politics was ‘a way to solve problems and…a means of providing security and a stable sense of belonging’. The pledge cards with which Labour fought the 1997 election promised small, tangible improvements to the running of things.
Anthony Giddens’ The Third Way is perhaps one of the most dispiriting documents in existence. It’s basically an instruction manual, a series of sociological recommendations for how it would be possible to run society. Giddens weighs up every issue not on its principles but on its contribution to social order. Meritocracy might seem like a good idea, he says, but it ‘would create deep inequalities of income, which would threaten social cohesion’ (25). In another section he ponders which type of family structure would be best: the traditional family is long gone, but you wouldn’t want too many unconventional families because of the evidence suggesting that these aren’t good for children. Better go for the middle ground, a ‘democratised family’ that is open and negotiable but where both sides have a sense of responsibility.
As Alan Finlayson argues in his perceptive study, Making Sense of New Labour, the Third Way was a ‘description of the present society that could also provide an ethic’; ‘political thought is subordinated to sociology’ (26). The Third Way reflects the end of the ‘politics of redemption’ – rather than aiming towards a transformation in society, it merely seeks to ‘update’ politics to ‘a changed world’.
But the point isn’t that New Labour suffered from a pathological lack of imagination, or that its leaders had managerial personalities. Instead, the Third Way reflected the general state of political exhaustion at the turn of end of the twentieth century. With the cessation of the battle between left and right, there was no longer any fundamental choice about how society should be organised. Margaret Thatcher’s TINA – there is no alternative – became the order of the day. But while for Thatcher TINA embodied the confidence of free-market fundamentalism, TINA quickly came to represent a shoulder-shrugging acceptance that market economy is here to stay – though nobody was very enthusiastic about it.
Political horizons were lowered to tinkering with what exists. Hence this gloomy prediction from Francis Fukuyama’s 1992 End of History: ‘The end of history will be a very sad time…. [T]he worldwide ideological struggle that called forth daring, courage, imagination, and idealism, will be replaced by economic calculation, the endless solving of technical problems, environmental concerns, and the satisfaction of sophisticated consumer demands. In the post-historical period there will be neither art nor philosophy, just the perpetual caretaking of the museum of human history.’ This wasn’t just about Blair; it was about the zeitgeist. What New Labour did was turn the temper of the time into a how-to manual for government.
The end of the affair?
‘Eight years ago, I offered new leadership – fresh, idealistic, energetic, but untested. You voted for change and gave me a chance to serve.’ (27) This nostalgic reminiscence opens Blair’s foreword to the current Labour manifesto. It is common today to contrast the heady excitement when New Labour came into power with the cynicism of today – and to blame Blair’s arrogance and selfishness for the growing difficulties.
There was certainly a lot of grand rhetoric around in 1997, with transcendental statements about ‘renewing Britain’. One Labour Party election broadcast went: ‘in our rapidly changing world we seem, somehow, to have lost our sense of purpose. Now, someone has emerged who is determined to give it back to us…. Give Tony Blair your mandate on 1 May and let him give Britain back its sense of purpose.’ (28) But this was a mystical and groundless sense of potential – as if Blair could electrify Britain by the power of his personal enthusiasm, erasing its sense of stagnation, decline and social disengagement.
Inasmuch as New Labour was arrogant, this was the heady sense of power that comes with having a free hand, with thinking ‘we could do anything we want’. In Blair’s Britain (1999), Hal Colebatch notes that New Labour came to power ‘when the social and cultural conditions were in a state of extraordinary liquidity’ (29). It faced no pressure, and was free of ties to any particular parties and constituencies, policies and ideas. The twenty-first century was a blank sheet. The Derek Draper scandal – when a New Labour rising star was accused of offering clients access to the ‘people who count’- showed that this sense of having a free hand could certainly feed arrogance and contempt. But because New Labour’s power was built on the absence of rivals, rather than their own strength, it was liable to dissipate at any moment.
Most of the support for Labour in 1997 was made of similarly flaky stuff. It was born of disillusionment with the old lot, rather than a detailed knowledge and appreciation of Blair’s political principles. Of this, New Labour was only too aware. Philip Gould said that the sentiment in his focus groups amounted to ‘I am going to give them a go’. Blair was a fresh face, somebody different. But Gould warned that ‘support for Blair is highly fragile, and could be shattered at any time’ (30) – which is exactly what happened.
Within a few months of power, Blair was fielding accusations that his government was run by slimy operators such as Mandelson and Campbell, and that its policies were ‘just a recycling of what had gone before’ (31). By 1999, journalist Nick Jones was documenting their sins in Sultans of Spin. By 2001, Philip Gould was writing memos lamenting that the New Labour brand was ‘badly contaminated’, becoming an ‘object of constant criticism and, even worse, ridicule’ (32).
The fact that all sides can talk about Blair’s relationship with the British people as a marriage – apparently going through a ‘rough patch’ – suggests that this was only ever a fragile emotional bond. A marriage of convenience not conviction, and so destined to break down.
The poverty of criticism
If New Labour is a product of the present moment, so too are many of its critics. They are merely reacting to the present limitations of political life, without trying to understand or move beyond them.
Blair-bashers are an unconscious expression of the fact that the Third Way is not a satisfying answer to the problems of human existence. There is more to life than maintaining social order and caretaking the museum of human history, and we want politicians to be more than efficient managers. For this reason, David Aaronovitch’s riposte – ‘if you really can’t get down from your high tables and your high horses, the least you could do is to stop moaning through the mouthfuls’ – just doesn’t cut it. He gives lists of government achievements, as if we should just be grateful for the fact that ‘The incomes of the richest fifth of households fell by about one per cent, but the incomes of the poorest fifth rose by about one per cent’.
But rather than critiquing New Labour, and explaining why the party is how it is, critics are merely lashing out. Blair embodies the problems of politics, so his character defects are seen as the reason for widespread dissatisfaction. Troubles in British political life are put down to his alleged selfishness and duplicity. Just as New Labour defined itself against what it wasn’t – not left, not right – so too do New Labour’s critics. They aren’t Blair – shallow, self-seeking and vacuous – so by implication they are moral, upright and principled. But only by implication, because in actual fact critics leave themselves standing on ground as shaky as New Labour’s. They don’t actually define what they do stand for, which would mean setting a stall out for themselves.
Complaints belie a childish impotence. ‘The world is not as we would like it to be’ is the only statement here. People say that they feel ‘let down’ by New Labour; they had such hopes in 1997, when Blair made all those big promises about how he would really change things. But he hasn’t and they now feel let down. Perversely this reinforces Blair’s position of power, because all eyes are on him to sort things out.
Although people are disgruntled with Blair, they still make him the sole object of their appeals. ‘I came to show Tony Blair how I feel’, was the phrase on many lips at Britain’s biggest ever anti-war demo in February 2003. They marched under banners reading ‘not in my name’, a sign of people ducking out rather than taking charge. Beneath all the anger, many of those who attack Blair are appealing for his help with their child’s special needs/local hospital/whatever else. It’s almost a request for the laying on of hands, as if by touch alone Blair could make problems vanish. Thus can Blair be both maligned and all-powerful at once.
Blair’s response to critics is often to take aside the angry mother or the angry war protesters and say that he feels their pain, and that they should try to empathise with his position too. At the Labour Party spring conference, he said: ‘I understand why some people feel angry, not just over Iraq but over the many difficult decisions we have made. And, as ever, a lot of it is about me.’ Behind this is the recognition that the critics lack bite; that they are grizzling children rather than men and women who know their own minds.
We need to get real. We could use fewer knee-jerk responses and more attempts to try and understand the narrow horizons of politics today. It is only by becoming conscious of the state of British political life that we can begin trying to master it, and build a genuinely new kind of politics. Blair-bashers’ infantile sniping just perpetuates the problem; they leave Blair at the centre of politics, and consign themselves to the sidelines watching history go by.
Nor should there be any sympathy for nostalgia, for those such as Labour leftist Tony Benn who gaze at past battles through misty eyes. Old Labour is dead and gone, and it was never that good in the first place. In their eulogies for social democracy, Benn and Hattersley are merely preying on the inadequacies of Blair while conveniently forgetting their past failures. We need to consign Old Labour to history and move on.
The question is not just what are we against, but what are we for? This isn’t a question that can be answered by clever individuals; there is no blueprint that can be discovered by effort alone. In the end, new slogans can only emerge from new social movements that are fighting to improve things. In the meantime we can try to improve the political climate by challenging the ideas that are holding us back, and by starting some adult, face-to-face arguments about what kind of society we want to live in.
A good first step would be to cut the umbilical chord to Blair and New Labour, and stop blaming them for every problem of life. Blair didn’t cause it all, and he won’t solve it. Only we can find a way out of the present impasse.
(1) A weak man who bends to power, not political vision, Guardian, 29 March 2005
(2) Labour’s Unthinking Opposition, Observer, 3 April 2005
(3) All quotes from Labour’s Unthinking Opposition, Observer, 3 April 2005
(4) ‘New Labour gives you no chance to vote for a vision’, Guardian, 2 March 2005
(5) How I was kippered by my party, Guardian, 16 March 2005
(6) ‘Most people’s hopes are not located in their wallets’, Guardian, 3 March 2005
(7) Quoted in New Labour gives you no chance to vote for a vision, Guardian, 2 March 2005
(8) Where Now for New Labour?, Anthony Giddens, Polity, 2002
(9) Quoted in New Labour’s Old Roots, Patrick Diamond (ed), Imprint 2004, p5
(10) Quoted in On Britain, Leon Trotsky, Monad Press, 1973, p67
(11) New Labour’s Old Roots, Patrick Diamond (ed), Imprint 2004, p92
(12) New Labour’s Old Roots, Patrick Diamond (ed), Imprint 2004, p91
(13) On Britain, Leon Trotsky, Monad Press, 1973
(14) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999
(15) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p81, 83
(16) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p113
(17) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p343
(18) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p237
(19) Where Now for New Labour?, Anthony Giddens, Polity, 2002, p39
(20) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p95
(21) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p266
(22) Fabians launch new Clause IV debate, 16 September 2004
(23) Tony Blair needs the clash of genuine debate if he is to rejuvenate his party, 16 September 2004
(24) Blair’s Britain, Hal Colebatch, p72
(25) The Third Way, Anthony Giddens, p102
(26) Making sense of New Labour, Alan Finlayson, p124
(27) Labour Party Manifesto 2005
(28) Making sense of New Labour, Alan Finlayson, p53
(29) Blair’s Britain, Hal Colebatch, p12
(30) The Unfinished Revolution, Philip Gould, Little Brown and Co, 1999, p226?
(31) Sultans of Spin, Nick Jones, 1999
(32) Quoted in The Control Freaks, Nick Jones, 2001
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