• New Labour – Not Labour

    New Labour’s current travails have prompted a number of people to recall a piece I wrote for the New Statesman in 1999 – it was a review of Paul Routledge’s biography of Peter Mandelson – and to ask if they can see it again. So, here it is.

    “When Peter Mandelson’s resignation from the cabinet was reported in New Zealand – a resignation apparently caused by Paul Routledge’s investigations – he was described to a public which had never heard of him before as “the architect of New Labour”. “Yes,” said my New Zealand friends, who had noticed the capital N, “but what is New Labour?”

    As many have remarked, the capital N is significant (though the New Statesman style sheet sticks resolutely with the lower-case version). It signifies that “New Labour” is, and was intended to be, much more than might have been expected as a rational response to four consecutive election defeats and to the huge social and other changes which have taken place in Britain over two decades. Those changes, whose pressing necessity by the end of the 1980s was surely evident to all but the most purblind, would have taken place in any case.

    The modernisation of Labour, the reappraisal of Labour policy, the rethinking of the relevance of Labour principle to modern circumstances, the recognition of people’s aspirations as well as their needs, the positioning of Labour as a political force which empowers rather than limits, the reaching out to a new majority – all of this was already being undertaken by many Labour thinkers and activists who did not see the need for that capital N.

    The truth is that “New” Labour is more than a renewal or modernisation or updating of Labour. It is a project born of the conviction that Labour was dead – in the sense that it would never again be electable. Something new – in the sense of a complete break – was required. It was the completeness of the break that mattered. New Labour defined itself by not being Labour. Issues on which the break could be highlighted were actively sought. New Labour is not Labour renewed. It is Labour rejected, Labour renounced. New Labour is a negative. New Labour is, and is meant to be, Not Labour.

    We do not need to look far for the genesis of this belief. There is a constituency out there which is instinctively Not Labour. They knew immediately what the three-letter word beginning with a capital N really meant.

    They are the people who had always wanted a party that would salve their consciences, would give them a sense of moral and intellectual superiority, would provide them with the illusion that they were – under the skin – blood brothers of the dispossessed, without threatening the comfortable privilege which they enjoyed and expected. They are the intelligent, well-meaning, agreeable dinner party companions who reveal that, despite their socialist convictions, it turned out that the local school was simply not academic enough or little Johnny was just too sensitive and so, after an appropriate struggle with their consciences, they had to send him to a fee-paying school.

    These people had always had a problem with Labour. They did not like Labour’s sharp edges. They voted Labour in a good year, but also flirted with the Liberals, might even have supported a liberal Tory, and enthusiastically supported the Social Democrats for a time. They are found disproportionately among the liberal professions, the universities and the media. They are people who love to, and are often paid to, think, talk and write about politics.

    Peter Mandelson, as Routledge’s book shows, understands this world very well. It is his world. It is in numerical terms a small world, but it is disproportionately important in shaping the political agenda. It is also a world which, despite its smallness, has the self-confidence (not to say arrogance) to believe that it is all there is, or at least all that matters. (It is one of the paradoxes of a complex society like Britain that it is possible to have an existence which is almost completely insulated against the lives and experiences of large numbers of other and different people.)

    And so Not Labour was born – a party shorn of all those aspects that might frighten the bien-pensants. It was, from the outset, an exercise in exaggeration, in overkill. Yet what determined the 1997 election result was that Thatcherism was a busted flush, John Major had been permitted by the electorate’s casual decision in 1992 to demonstrate conclusively that he was not up to it, and the voters were determined to secure a change. The question of renewed Labour or new Labour was simply not a major factor.

    But a Labour Party that had been brought, understandably, over years in the wilderness to the belief that any sacrifice was worthwhile for the sake of election victory had given up any will to contest what they were told by the experts. If embracing Not Labour was the price of victory, then so be it. The possibility that the sacrifice may not have been necessary was not allowed to intrude into the euphoria when victory finally came.

    Yet sacrifice it clearly was. Much that is important and valuable to British politics and British democracy has been jettisoned. The prospects of acting on a non-establishment view as to how British society might be reformed have been fatally undermined. Democratic choice has been limited. Not Labour is self-consciously a centrist party whose purpose is to marginalise and starve of sustenance parties to the right – and the left. The only competitors allowed will be those who provide, for marketing purposes, merely an alternative brand of centrist politics.

    That is how it will seem, and rightly, to many Labour activists. For many of them (and I think particularly of members of the cabinet), the last decade has been a painful period, over which they have yielded up more and more of what it was that mattered to them as individuals and as a collective. This has involved more than the process of compromise and pragmatism which is central to all democratic politics. It is even more than the less savoury treacheries, large and small, that individuals make in secret for the sake of personal ambition. What was required of all those Labour activists was a sustained, deliberate and collective abandonment of what had brought most of them into politics in the first place.

    Battle-scarred as they are (and the scars are in private as well as public places), most remain nevertheless grounded in Labour politics. For them, Not Labour is a device, a means to an end. Increasingly, they look from one to another, mutely asking for a sign that the sacrifice will soon be at an end and that the real business of government can begin.

    It is beginning to dawn on them, however, that Not Labour is the end and not the means. When they look for reassurance that normal business is to be resumed, they discover a leadership whose instincts, particularly under pressure, are to reinforce the Not Labour message. Their leader’s response to some small local difficulties on returning from abroad is his announcement of new policies which will be “strict and authoritarian” – the authentic voice of Not Labour.

    This is not an accident. When Peter Mandelson was famously or notoriously swapping horses in the race for the Labour leadership, it was not just presentational skills he was looking for. Gordon Brown was not instinctively a Not Labour man. Tony Blair was and is. In Blair, Mandelson found his political soulmate – someone who effortlessly and instinctively treads the same path that Mandelson, perhaps more consciously, had mapped out. It is not necessary to dislike Mandelson personally to try to lay this bare. Indeed, the Routledge book is on occasion seriously vitiated by the cheap shots – born no doubt of deep loathing – that he takes at his subject.

    On the contrary, Peter Mandelson can be a delightful and charming companion. His charm is an important part of his armoury. It is not an exaggeration to say that he seduces those with whom he wishes to work closely – not in a physical sense, but for the purpose of establishing a sort of emotional thraldom. The bonds between Blair and Mandelson – emotional and political – will not be broken easily.

    Nothing in politics is permanent, and Not Labour will fade away sooner or later. But it looks set for a good run. I think I can claim to have seen it coming. It is not for me.

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