• Not In My Name

    Those, like me (and almost everyone I know in the Labour Party), who have been critical over the years of New Labour and its record in government might have expected that the passage of time would bring with it a kinder judgment. And in my case, in particular, it might have been thought that – twelve thousand miles away – distance would lend enchantment.

    How, then, to explain that the more we take the long view of the Blair and now the Brown government, the sharper seem the contours of its failures and betrayals? How is it that the features of its landscape that grow – as our perspective lengthens – in shocking, anger-making prominence are those shameful episodes at home and abroad which cumulatively are a complete denial of what a Labour government (or any British government) should have been about?

    There have been of course many good and decent day-by-day achievements of this government. Across the whole range of political issues, I do not say that Britain did not do better under Labour than it would have done under most alternatives. But these achievements have been molehills, judged against the towering peaks scaled by New Labour in its rejection not only of Labour, but of any decent and civilised values.

    The first – and for that reason perhaps most unexpected – contravention of civilised norms was the Iraq war. The damning judgment of that doomed enterprise has been repeatedly rehearsed, but to read the charge sheet again is still a shocking experience. A British Prime Minister, claiming the right to moral leadership and an almost religious duty to confront evil, sucked up to a soon-to-be discredited US President and helped to launch an invasion of a distant country – an invasion based upon a lie, and one that flew in the face of international law, undermined the United Nations, alienated the whole of the Muslim world, seemed to validate the claims of terrorists and those who recruited them, destroyed the country that was invaded and killed hundreds of thousands of its citizens, took many young soldiers to unnecessary deaths, and rightly reduced Britain’s standing in the world.

    The New Labour government still refuses to acknowledge that any of this was wrong. It will not even countenance an independent inquiry into how such a fatal mistake was made.

    It may seem improbable that the scale of the Iraq calamity could be matched in any other area of government. Yet, as the reasons for and scale of the global recession become clear, it is also increasingly apparent that another global (as well as British) disaster can be laid – substantially if only partly – at the door of the New Labour government.

    It was, after all, that government which enthusiastically endorsed the virtues of the “free” market, which turned its back on the need for regulation, which celebrated the excesses of the City, which proclaimed that it was “intensely relaxed about people becoming filthy rich”. The government that should have protected the interests of ordinary people was dazzled by the super-rich; unsuspecting Labour supporters found themselves thrown on the tender mercies of a market-place that was cleared of any limits that might have restricted the rich and powerful. There have been no more enthusiastic cheer-leaders for the culture of greed and excess than New Labour ministers.

    On the central issue of politics – the willingness of government to use its democratic legitimacy to intervene in the market in order to restrain its excesses – the New Labour government ensured that the dice lay where they fell and applauded as they did. It was Tony Blair who, standing shoulder to shoulder with Rupert Murdoch, proclaimed that the future lay with the “globalisers” and that those who wanted to reclaim some control over their lives were “Isolationists, nationalists and nativists”. It was Gordon Brown who removed the major economic decisions from democratic control and handed them over to unaccountable bankers.

    That betrayal of those who looked to a Labour government to help them has seen a rapid widening of inequality and a sharp intensification of social disintegration. It is the jobs, homes and lives of ordinary people that have borne the brunt. The country is a weaker and poorer place as a result.

    But even that failure pales by comparison with the latest revelations about the abandonment by New Labour of any pretence to civilised standards. We now know that this government connived with the Bush administration to hold people illegally, to kidnap them in secret, and to torture them while in custody – all in the name of a war against the forces of darkness. The perpetrators of these outrages seem to believe that they can be washed clean by simply declaring their superior morality.

    Nothing more clearly distinguishes those beyond the pale than their willingness to use the secret, illegal and cowardly infliction of pain to terrify, cow and bend to their will helpless people being held without charge or trial or legal redress. It beggars belief that any British government could, in a supposed democracy, do so, and not even bother to respond to its critics. It is simply incredible that a Labour government claiming to represent the values of the Labour movement could believe in these circumstances that it has any right to remain in office.

    For me, this is too much. I am sick to the stomach. I disown this so-called Labour government. I protest.

    Bryan Gould

    20 February 2009

    This article was published in the online Guardian on 22 February.

  • 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.

  • The End of New Labour?

    The local election results, and the subsequent opinion polls, suggest that the game is up – not just for Gordon Brown, but for the Labour government. It seems unlikely now that recovery is possible. If anything like the local election result is repeated in a general election, Labour could be out of power for a decade or more.

    This may, in other words, be one of those watershed moments in British politics when an apparently well-entrenched political hegemony is suddenly seen to be vulnerable and is about to be replaced by another. In my own political lifetime, I can recall several such moments, when the commentators’ solemn pronouncements that the status quo was unlikely to change were suddenly falsified by an overwhelming swing in political fortunes.

    It may not be premature, therefore, to begin thinking about an obituary for Blair/Brown and their New Labour government; for, make no mistake, Labour has not only won as New Labour and governed as New Labour – it will have lost as New Labour too.

    It is of course true that no government goes on forever. The cumulative disappointments that inevitably attend the exercise of power mean that any government’s survival for three terms is a signal achievement. In judging New Labour, we should not, therefore, be too harsh about the fact that they may now face defeat.

    The obituary writer might however linger longer over New Labour’s legacy. The body politic is, after all, like a tree trunk. A dendro-chronologist is able to derive a huge amount of information from a cross-section of the trunk; each ring is a detailed record of climatic conditions, natural disasters, liability to disease, and so on.

    Similarly, the political scientist or historian can see in the development of a given society the imprint and permanent record of each particular political era. British society today still lives with the legacies of the great Labour post-war government, the trauma of Suez and the “never had it so good” prosperity of the Macmillan era, the confusions and struggles – at home and in Europe – of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, and the harsh – some would say bracing – certainties of Thatcher.

    What, then, when the dust has cleared and a sober assessment is possible, will the tree rings show about New Labour? What mark will they have left on British society? If, as New Labour enthusiasts proclaim, the new doctrine was a break with the past and a new beginning, surely what remains will be of considerable significance? And – given the unparalleled opportunities offered by huge parliamentary majorities, a virtually defunct opposition, a charismatic and gifted proselytiser as leader – the government’s programme of reform will have left a particularly lasting legacy?

    Sadly, where the tree ring marks the point where the New Labour era ended and another has begun, it is likely that its outline will be blurred and in places non-existent. The “break with the past” will hardly be visible. There will be a broad continuity between what went before and what came after; the New Labour interlude will stand out hardly at all.

    There will be clearer marks at places – the Northern Ireland peace process to set alongside and offset the Iraq war for example – but the broad themes will show little change. The tolerance – even encouragement – of inequality, the blind faith in market provision, the exaggerated respect paid to the rich and powerful, the abandonment of the weak and powerless, the impatience with public service and the public sector and organised labour, the reliance on spin rather substance, the belief that the purpose of government is to keep power rather than use it, all represent themes that have changed little in what may well be seen by future commentators as merely an interregnum between Thatcher and Cameron.

    It is a sad reflection of this ethos that one suspects that there may be many in New Labour whose main response to Gordon Brown’s travails will be one of schadenfreude. Some will say that if only Tony Blair had remained at the helm, everything would have been different. But, like Mrs Thatcher before him, Tony’s supporters will conveniently forget that he was forced out because he had lost the confidence of his party and the country.

    Gordon has had to reap what Tony had sown. I was one of those who hoped and believed that Gordon could save the Labour government, that an injection of more recognisable Labour values might restore some faith in a doomed enterprise. But Gordon has been simply overwhelmed by the torrent of disappointments and resentments of erstwhile Labour supporters. His personal qualities or lack of them have become the lightning rod for all those who wanted change but did not get it.

    There is a certain rough justice in this. The New Labour project proved itself to be adept at winning elections – at least for a time. Where it has failed, as readers of the tree rings will one day confirm, is in using government’s power to bring about the change that was needed and that they promised. Instead, they wasted their opportunity and delivered more of the same. All of those who framed the New Labour project are implicated in that failure.

    Bryan Gould

    This article was published in The Guardian (online) on 12 May 2008
    12 May 2008