The Political is Personal: New Labour and the Corrosion of Character

by Carl Rowlands

15 June 2015

With the current leadership contenders squaring up on the basis of who can be more business-friendly, tough on immigration and increasingly open to ‘public sector reform’, there is talk of a return to New Labour. The right of the Labour Party, having been partially stymied by the Miliband leadership, now practically controls the flow of events and appears to have a grip on the surrounding (and possibly defining) discourse of the 2015-20 opposition. But at this point, it may be worth taking a step back and investigating what New Labour actually was.

Modest beginnings and steady development.

The first Blair ministry in 1997 included only around six ministers who could be described as truly Blairite, or in some way dedicated to Peter Mandelson’s ‘project’. Back in 1997, there was a striking continuity between the John Smith (and Neil Kinnock) version of Labour. There was a large contingent of Gordon Brown’s supporters, many of whom were hardly the stormtroopers of ‘fearless’ public sector reform, old Labour right-wingers (George Robertson), ex-Bennite Keynesian leftists (Robin Cook, Clare Short, Frank Dobson), a large grouping of middle-of-the-road social democrats (Margaret Beckett, Mo Mowlam, Harriet Harman) and even one or two actual Bennites (Michael Meacher).

Looking at this list, one could just about argue that New Labour was, beyond the rewriting of Clause IV, simply a case of repackaging. Many of these politicians had forged their political identities in the late 1970s and early 1980s as radical trade unionists, activists or municipal socialists.

If New Labour didn’t necessarily extend across the top team of the party back in 1997, then what was it? It was founded primarily in the party apparatus, in the different offices and regions which comprised Labour’s core infrastructure. Appointments from 1994 onwards were increasingly captured by insiders who then appointed more insiders. Starting from Labour Students, the likes of Jim Murphy, Stephen Twigg and James Purnell established a mafia-like grip upon the levers of a machine which was to rapidly propel themselves into Parliament, and into positions of influence through the 1997, 2001, 2005 and 2010 elections. Naturally, this New Labour elite also featured other dynamics; as the prodigal sons of the then-closeted Peter Mandelson, one might surmise that many enjoyed a ‘casting couch’ relationship with their erstwhile mentor. Additionally, there was the network of consultancies and think-tanks: the ‘post-collective’ thinking of Demos, the ‘radical reformism’ of the IPPR and of course, the ‘stormtrooper’ ethos of Progress.

To understand the current state of Labour and the limited demographic profile of most of its current parliamentary group of MPs, it is necessary to understand the manipulation of the party behind the scenes from the late 1980s onwards. This was a period in which the Labour left’s influence dwindled to a tiny fringe, and the majority of branches – especially in the North and Scotland – virtually conceded control over selection of candidates to London.

The evaporation of the Labour left.

Here comes the tricky part. Those who know, or are ‘of’ the left of the Labour Party, would probably have to concede that remorselessly effective execution has never been an especially strong characteristic. The brilliance of Peter Mandelson has been grossly exaggerated – in his career he has been deeply involved in three big defeats – 1987, 1992 and 2010 – yet he gave an impression of competence, sharpness and being able to communicate to a wider audience. From the late 1980s through to the 2010s, the Labour left has manifested itself through the Campaign for Labour Democracy, the Labour Representation Committee, and a myriad of different organisations. While they have helped individuals and some organising groups, they’ve failed to make gains in the party. Perhaps worse, they have failed to reflect on their failure. This is indeed possibly an unfair criticism, given that Labour has, on the whole, been entirely unaware of what its mistakes have been – but nonetheless, it reflects that Labour left operate within Labour, and have problems differentiating themselves.

By the time Tony Blair had stepped down in 2007 and Brown had assumed his ill-fated premiership, there was no basis for a broad-based shadow cabinet as perhaps there had been in 1997. The balance of Labour MPs had changed, and has continued to change, with only limited redress as unions belatedly started to force their candidates into winnable seats in the last few years. Arguably, Labour has been in an internally-directed state of perpetual motion towards the right since 1988, independent of outside pressures.

The Brown administration left a residue of ambiguity, switching between populist left rhetoric and  unconvincing – if alarming – authoritarianism, which allowed a certain amount of leeway for the more cautious, social democratic wing of the party to regroup. Ed Miliband’s victory was indicative that some senior figures wished to stabilise the party along Kinnockite/Brownite lines. The administrative core of the party – its officials and MPs – hated this idea from the start. Ed Miliband was a stranded leader, offered little or no support by his right-leaning shadow cabinet, and forced to rely upon his own people, rather than a party machine which despised him as an interloper.

Turbulence ahead.

The irony is, of course, that Ed Miliband was himself parachuted into a safe seat, on the same basis that many others were, in the clear expectation that he would support the prevailing political line. The real sense of resentment towards Ed Miliband was based on the feeling that he had betrayed New Labour and the basis of his political existence. The money from rich donors, having slowed somewhat during Brown’s leadership, soon slowed to a trickle. This led to Labour being comprehensively outspent by the Conservatives in the runup to the 2015 election. Labour’s voice, not always clear, not always consistent, was always going to be smaller.

In the aftermath of a poorly-conceived campaign, there is scant consolation on offer to the left of the party, and it is unlikely that any of the current candidates, once victorious, will pay much heed to the few MPs who comprise the left bloc of the parliamentary party. The possibility that a neo-Blairite leadership might offer proportional representation (PR) may help piece together a coalition on a temporary basis; yet evidence from Germany suggests that dreams of a left pluralism, as envisaged by the sunny liberalism of Compass, may still only realise a minority electoral status in the absence of a self-confident and assertive form of democratic socialism – and this, of course, is in a country where there is a sizeable force to the left (Die Linke). Such a model of a right-wing Labour party, having accepted much of the Conservatives’ stance on austerity and privatisation, would be especially prone to haemorrhaging votes from all sides. It is doubtful that the promise of PR would sustain a political force through the resulting turbulence.

Making the best of a bad situation?

It’s always risky making political predictions. I suggest that Labour’s electoral problems are not necessarily terminal problems; that a more energetic and hopeful vision of the British Isles, combined with Harold Wilson-style political acumen, might actually succeed in enthusing an electorate enough to ensure a minority Labour administration at some point, given the likely trajectory of a Conservative government. One answer to the different demands within Labour’s incredibly broad coalition would be to allow different voices to emerge. There has not, for example, been a high-profile Eurosceptic in the party since the early 1990s, illustrating that one of the biggest mistakes made during Ed Miliband’s catastrophic party management was to focus on a presidential style, rather than attempting to broaden the range of accents and personas representing Labour in the media.

A very simple change would be the encouragement of mavericks and outliers on different issues, with Labour policy then being seen as partially determined through a process of debate, rather than direction from an Oxbridge-based central elite. This would allow people with different sympathies to identify themselves with Labour in one way or another. Belatedly, Labour may finally realise that it needs the likes of John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn more than they need Labour. Unfortunately, however, apart from a few exceptions, mavericks in Labour politics are not what they used to be.

One of the big understated problems, as a result of continued right-wing mobilisation over the last 20 years, is that Labour has chronic personnel problems. Put simply, it is about who they actually are, what they represent and what they believe (or, if you like, the absence of a system of values). Because the Labour right mobilised from within student politics, the voice of Labour has become, at best, couched in the tones of a seminar, and at worst, becomes a braying form of condescension.

Yet it should be restated that anything which raises the profile of the left – such as a stalking horse leadership contender – can and does have the effect of educating, if not mobilising, the television audiences and red-top readers who might not otherwise be exposed to socialist ideas in any form. It’s a somewhat rotten job, but arguably, someone has to do it. At the same time, it is divorced from the real battles of mainstream politics, those orchestrated by Big Media. We can’t blame the Labour left for this. Yet the fact that many Labour leftists tend towards Marxism, when even social liberalism is beleaguered in what passes for Labour ideology, leaves a large space on the left between Blairism and Marxism – a space where, arguably, most Labour voters reside, and where the SNP and Greens have made particular inroads.

New Labour 2.0.

The emergence of zombie voices in the few days following the defeat, as if choreographed by a particularly lugubrious ringmaster, was especially symbolic. Labour cannot now escape its 1997 past, as it escaped its 1983 past, through the repackaging of itself as New Labour. Its attempt to adopt ‘One Nation Labour’ as a brand was weakly formulated, and then discarded, like so much other detritus abandoned in the last few years. As a result, Labour’s electoral problems may become especially acute as it becomes beset by more or less credible challenges to its working-class vote across the country. Renewal will be extraordinarily difficult to achieve; it is impossible to see how austerity can be reconciled with any kind of functioning Labour party. If Labour cannot defend the common wealth, then ultimately we will need to find another way to do so.

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