by Michael Faulkner
May 18, 2008
New Labour is finished. No-one seriously believes that the project begun in the mid 1990s by Blair, Brown and a small group of like-minded “modernisers” in the Labour Party, has any future. What remains to be seen is whether it will be possible during the coming months and the next two years at most, to bring about the kind of changes in government policy necessary to restore sufficient confidence amongst former Labour supporters to secure victory in the next general election. There is little cause to be optimistic.
As I reported two weeks ago in this column, the Labour Party went down to its worst defeat in local government elections for more than forty years. The Tories captured the London mayoralty, enormously boosting confidence in their ability to defeat the government in a general election. A further test will come with next Thursday’s by-election in the parliamentary constituency of Crewe and Nantwich, in the northern county of Cheshire. The constituency was represented by the very popular MP Gwyneth Dunwoody, whose recent death occasioned the by-election. She was a Labour stalwart – a well known parliamentarian with a national reputation – who had a majority of over 7,000, making this a safe Labour seat. The Tories have not taken a seat from Labour in a by-election since 1982. The government is desperate to hold this constituency. They realise that if it falls to the Tories, it will all but seal Brown’s fate. The party has chosen as its candidate, Tamsin Dunwoody, the former MP’s daughter, in the hope that the name will work its magic on dispirited voters. A further sign of desperation is the resort to cheap trickery in the election campaign.
There is widespread anger amongst Labour’s core supporters over the abolition of the 10p tax rate. Apparently unable to assuage this on the doorstep, despite a hastily arranged mini-budget costing £25 billion designed to alleviate the impact of the 10p rate on the lowest income groups, the Labour campaign has sought to depict the Tory candidate (a wealthy businessman) as a “toff”, by dressing a couple of young male Labour supporters in top hats and tails to ridicule their opponent. Worse, they have attempted to play the anti-immigrant card by suggesting that the Tory candidate is opposed to “making foreign nationals carry I.D. cards.” There are many workers from Eastern Europe in Crewe, and, no doubt there is considerable resentment against them, particularly amongst working class voters. That the Labour Party should be exploiting these sentiments is a sign of the party’s desperation. I doubt that it will work in their favour. It is very likely that Crewe and Nantwich will fall to the Tories, and, if it does, it is difficult to see how the government can recover. It will put Gordon Brown in the same position as John Major prior to the 1997 election that saw the Tories swept from power. Should the election result turn out as I expect, one possible consequence could be a move in the party to replace Brown. But there is another aspect of the recent disintegration of New Labour that is worth considering.
In recent weeks several people who were prominent in and around Tony Blair have published – or are about to publish – their “memoirs”. To dignify these efforts with the title “autobiography” would be rather absurd. Here I need to make a confession: although I am an avid reader, particularly in the field of politics (including political biography), history and international relations, I have not read, nor do I intend to read, any of the books I am about to mention. I have read reviews of these books and lengthy extracts from them. That is quite sufficient to tell me all I need to know about them and their authors. Here I shall mention four of them and endeavour to explain why I consider the production of such “memoirs” to be symptomatic of the political malaise that grips New Labour, the government and much of British party politics at present.
A year or so ago Alasdair Campbell, Blair’s director of communications and spin doctor par excellence published his diaries. They were widely reviewed in the serious newspapers and from such reviews it was clear that they portrayed at the top of British politics a world of the most extraordinary shallowness; Campbell and Blair operated in a “laddish” environment characterised by arrogance, self congratulatory narcissism, and an almost brutish disdain for those who saw things differently. The book was supposed to have been a best seller, but it seems to have disappeared into thin air. Campbell made a great deal of money out of it.
More recently, Lord Levy, a former loyal Blairite and fund raiser for New Labour, has also written his memoirs. During Blair’s last few years in office, Levy became embroiled in a long running police investigation into possible illegalities in fundraising for the Labour election campaign – specifically, into whether or not peerages (seats in the second chamber – the House of Lords) had been promised to wealthy donors to party funds. The investigation was eventually dropped, but Levy apparently claims in his memoirs (a) that Gordon Brown as well as Blair, knew all about “cash for coronets”, and (b) when the heat was turned on Levy, Blair abandoned him to his fate. He is apparently a very bitter man and no longer plays tennis with the former prime minister or invites him to dinner.
John Prescott, former deputy prime minister, is also a former trade union leader. On achieving office under Blair, he abandoned all the trappings of his working class past (except his Liverpudlian accent) and became his leader’s staunchest champion. He has also written his memoirs in which he apparently expresses regret for cheating on his wife and confesses to being a sufferer from the over-eating disorder, bulimia. He also claims that Blair and Brown frequently engaged in screaming matches with each other – something already widely known.
Cherie Blair’s memoirs are about to be published. As with the other offerings, lengthy extracts have appeared in those newspapers that consider the “revelations” involved to be matters of serious political interest. Much has been made, for example, of the revelation by Mrs. Blair that she was so embarrassed at the thought of Her Majesty’s staff at Balmoral (where she and her husband were guests) discovering her contraceptive “devices” when they unpacked her bags, that she did not take them with her and as a result became unintentionally pregnant. Mrs Blair is a very successful barrister, with some knowledge of international law, but she prefers (in a recent interview about her memoirs) to avoid giving her opinion about whether the invasion of Iraq (which she fully supported) was illegal. She stood firmly behind her husband over the war, she said. She also claimed that she and her husband were both socialists.
Why, you may wonder, should we bother about such things? I think that the publication of these “memoirs”, with their authors’ and publishers’ claims to be offering serious insights into the workings of the political system, exposes the shallowness and absence of any serious progressive content in the New Labour project. The Labour Party has a long and chequered history going back more than a century. However one assesses its record, in and out of government, it cannot be denied that from its ranks have come some of the most able people in the history of British politics. Many of them made serious contributions to the theory and practice of social democracy in books, many of which have been forgotten, but which nevertheless made a serious impact in their time. The few I shall mention were, in the main well known politicians, mainly members of parliament, whose reputations were made primarily as parliamentarians and only secondarily as political theorists.
From the 1930s to the 1970s Labour politicians such as Clement Atlee, John Strachey, Stafford Cripps, Ellen Wilkinson, Konni Zilliacus, Harold Laski, Aneurin Bevan, Richard Crossman, Anthony Crosland, Tony Benn (now in his 80s) and Michael Foot (still alive, in his mid 90s) were just some of the outstanding figures whose role on the political stage, inside and outside parliament, helped to shape the Labour Party. They were all accomplished writers and, in their different ways, on both the right and left of the party, contributed to the social democratic discourse.
From the other side of the political divide, the dominant Conservative figures of the first half of the 20th Century, contributed in their histories and memoirs to the chronicle of the times. Notable amongst them are of course Winston Churchill, Anthony Eden and Harold Macmillan. However one views their work and that of their Labour counterparts, they stand in stark contrast to the dominant political figures of today. The comparison says all we need to know about the debasement of political life presided over by New Labour.
Blair, before his departure from office, on being asked how he thought he might be remembered, replied “as a failed celebrity.” He, and so many of his cronies and acolytes, were fascinated by celebrity. The Labour Party’s social democratic heritage was deliberately obliterated. For Blair, the party became no more than a vehicle for his ambition. His ambition was not without political content. He and his supporters, including Brown, abandoned social democracy and the Keynesian tradition that underpinned it, for the neo-liberalism of the so-called free market. Dizzy with success after the 1997 election victory, the majority of the newly elected MPs were prepared to give Blair the benefit of the doubt and failed to see that he cared not a jot for the Labour Party. Most of them acquiesced in his humiliating embrace of George W. Bush and followed him into the illegal Iraq war.
Now, with the economic downturn upon us, life for millions is getting hard. The bubble of house price inflation has burst; fuel and food prices are rising fast. The middle classes are deserting New Labour in droves and turning to the Tories who offer them little different but now appear fresh and energetic where New Labour appears old and stale. But, most important, Labour’s core voters seem to be abandoning them too. The latest opinion polls put Labour on 23% – below the Liberal Democrats. This is their lowest rating since the collapse of the early 1930s – something that would have been unbelievable less than a year ago.
If Labour loses the Crewe and Nantwich by-election, as seems likely, there will be pressure amongst what remains of the rank and file of the party, and from the trade union movement which still funds the party, for a change of course. Brown is in denial about just how serious the crisis is. I think that the only hope for a change of course in a more progressive direction is a change of leadership. This might not be enough, but without it there is no hope.
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