• Saving Labour

    I surely cannot have been the only reader to stop short mid-sentence at Nicholas Watts’ statement (Guardian, 13 January) that Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson had “wrenched Labour out of the wilderness”. The trio may have a number of achievements to their credit but the claim that they saved the Labour Party is – at the very least – open to question. It is precisely this kind of apparently casual but seriously misleading assertion which – unless challenged – can quietly become part of the accepted wisdom. History should not so easily be re-written.

    By the time Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, the Labour Party had substantially recovered from the nadir of its fortunes in 1983. That recovery owed a great deal to the leadership of Neil Kinnock. Under Kinnock, the Party had stopped the rot by 1987, had begun to divest itself of outdated policies, and had averted the real risk of falling behind the Liberals and Social Democrats. It had made further strides towards electability by 1992, and lost that election against many predictions only because – despite his substantial qualities – Kinnock could not seal victory by reaching out to that further range of middle-class opinion which had succumbed to the claims of the Tory media that he was nothing but a garrulous working-class boyo.

    It is very much to Kinnock’s credit that he recognised this and relinquished the leadership accordingly. Although I had my reservations about John Smith (and would have hoped for a more positive approach to the prospect of government), few can doubt surely that Labour was, under new leadership, heading for a comfortable victory at the next general election.

    The reasons for that optimism are, and were, not difficult to substantiate. General elections are almost always lost by the governing party. By 1994, the heyday of Thatcherism had long passed. Mrs Thatcher herself had been deposed by her own party some years earlier because the electorate was increasingly out of sympathy with her extreme views and policies. John Major had won an unlikely victory in 1992 but had failed to convince the electorate that he was made of the right stuff to lead the country.

    My own view is that when voters woke on the morning after the 1992 election, they were dismayed to realise that they were faced with another five years of Tory government. From that moment onwards, the die was cast. They were determined to secure a change of government at the next opportunity.

    It was certainly a signal achievement of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson “project”, (what later became “New Labour”), to persuade a Labour Party starved of electoral success that only a wholesale abandonment of its values and policies would guarantee victory. But this was a piece of sleight of hand. Not only was aping the Tories not needed; the electorate was actually very clear that it wanted change and a decisive move away from the Thatcherite agenda.

    This contention is supported by what actually happened in the 1997 general election. No one would doubt that Tony Blair was an electorally attractive candidate and that his appeal could well have added a margin to the Labour victory. But the real story of the 1997 election was that, after 18 years of right-wing and (especially after the debacle of the Exchange Rate Mechanism) incompetent government, Tory voters were disheartened and stayed at home. It was that lack of commitment, and the recognition that change was inevitable, not the abandonment of Labour principles, that accounted for the “landslide”. If, under a first-past-the-post system, your opponents stay at home, you win big.

    The real issue in assessing the role of the Blair/Brown/Mandelson trio in the Labour Party’s history is to ask, not what did they do to bring about election victory (which was largely assured by the time they arrived on the scene), but what did they do with power once the general election had delivered it to them. The answer to this question is much less flattering to them than Nicholas Watts’ claim about their “wrenching Labour out of the wilderness” would suggest.

    Every day that goes by makes it clearer that the contribution of New Labour in government has been to provide an unexpected, unwarranted and unnecessary prolongation to the Thatcherite era. New Labour has assiduously followed George Bush in foreign policy and Alan Greenspan in economic policy. On the central question of politics – the relationship between government and the market – New Labour has settled decisively on the side of the “free” market, with the consequences we are now living with. We should be very careful about investing those responsible with encomiums of praise for allegedly saving what is valuable in left politics.

    Bryan Gould

    18 January 2009

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