• Tragedy

    One of the fascinations of politics is that it unfolds over different time scales and at different levels. At one end of the scale are the personal and short-term; at the other, the matters of policy and principle, the history and development of ideas and of political movements.

    It is no surprise – given the symbiotic relationship between the practitioners of politics and of political reporting at any given moment – that the latter should habitually focus on the human-interest immediacy of the movements in individual political (and other) fortunes as they swing up and down. A case in point, last weekend, were the reports detailing the latest turn in the career of Peter Mandelson.

    The on-again off-again career of Lord Mandelson has provided much innocent entertainment for observers and a rich seam of copy for political commentators over the years. Yet, even so, it is surprising that the momentous events of recent weeks, which could herald a seismic transformation of the British political landscape, could have been viewed through such a narrow lens as was seen in the articles about Lord Mandelson’s latest transformation.

    It is true that Andrew Rawnsley ended his piece by briefly taking a wider perspective. The story was not, we were solemnly assured, one of unalloyed triumph. Peter Mandelson, we were told, genuinely cared about the Labour Party; its probably imminent demise was enough to turn the moment of his greatest success into a personal tragedy.

    We can readily agree that the demise of the Labour Party would be a tragedy – but surely a tragedy on a much greater scale than of one individual’s personal disappointment. It is doubtful, after all, if many tears will be shed for Lord Mandelson. Many – including all those whose allegiance to the Labour Party over recent years has been sorely tested, as well as those who have rejected Labour in favour of other promises to defend their interests – will see the noble Lord’s disappointment as being richly deserved.

    This is not a tragedy in the Shakespearian mould – a fatally flawed individual being undone by his inability to deny the power of the flaw that drives him. This is a tragedy that is likely to engulf an audience of millions, not just the leading members of the cast.

    Peter Mandelson is rather in the position of a ship designer whose vessel is revealed to be unseaworthy. He is consoled by observers with the assurance that they know that he did not mean it to ship water and, having arranged a lifeboat for himself, he then persuades the captain to stay on the bridge until the ship goes down.

    New Labour was, after all, Peter Mandelson’s project par excellence. He signed others up for the journey, and was initially fortunate enough to engage a brilliant skipper for the project. But, when a new captain proved to be no seaman, and the ship’s design faults meant that it foundered, disappointment is hardly an adequate sentiment. Those who entrusted their lives and life-chances to the seaworthiness of the vessel are entitled to require the designer to accept responsibility for, as well as disappointment at, the loss – and at the tragedy that is theirs.

    We are surely now in a position to judge the New Labour project, not according to the claims of its progenitors, but in the light of its likely final outcome. The project started, after all, with an overwhelming parliamentary majority, a popular and telegenic leader, a huge appetite for change and a real sense of excitement and anticipation in the country – all delivered by an overwhelming election victory.

    What has happened in the twelve short years since then is not the familiar story of a government that gradually loses support and – having used its opportunity to best effect but nevertheless having been exhausted by its efforts – is defeated by newly revitalised opponents. The immediate future facing the Labour Party is one of virtual extinction as a party of government. It may take a generation for Labour to recover – if it does so at all. In the meantime, the effective voice of the democratic left – the most consistent and reliable generator of change and reform we have – will be stilled.

    That is the real tragedy – not to be expressed in terms of individual careers – but in the destruction of one of the main forces in our democratic politics. Without it, our whole politics will be poorer. Faith in our democratic institutions and processes will be weaker.

    It is an outcome, a tragic outcome, that is the inevitable and predictable consequence of deliberately removing Labour from its value base and from its supporters. It is the direct result of treating power as an end in itself, of seeking power for the purpose of simply perpetuating it. New Labour not only failed to take a once-in-a-century opportunity; it turned its back on the idealism and creativity that, under President Obama, is reinvigorating American society and politics. This is the end result by which Peter Mandelson should be judged. You bet it’s a tragedy.

    Bryan Gould

    15 June 2009

  • 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

  • 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.