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Martin Jacques

New Labour

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Tomorrow will be the tenth anniversary of the day Tony Blair became Labour leader. The Labour party was in a state of desperation. It had just lost John Smith, two years after its defeat in an election that it had half-expected to win. By 1994, Labour had been out of office for 15 years, during which time Margaret Thatcher had changed the face of Britain. The depth of its crisis was why the party was prepared to turn to an outsider like Tony Blair.

He was not of the Labour tradition and never had been: he wore his relationship with the party lightly. The most formative influence on him was not Labour, but Thatcherism.

Shortly after his election he "renamed" the Labour party New Labour: this was not a rebranding exercise, but a deliberate effort to distance the party from the Labour tradition. It soon became evident that New Labour was a very different animal from the Labour party.

From the outset, Blair sought to demonstrate his strength as a leader by attacking the left - an easy target by then. In contrast, New Labour wore the clothes of Thatcherism effortlessly. There were continuities with the past - New Labour remains more committed to the state and public provision - but it operates on similar ground to Thatcherism, uses the same parameters and takes the the neo-liberal revolution for granted.

Radical hyperbole may have been integral to New Labour. But that is all it was: hyperbole. While Thatcherism was an original project, New Labour was essentially adaptive and imitative. At its core was a deep pessimism: there was no alternative to Thatcherism, except a milder version of the same. This was obvious when it was declared, after the 1997 election, that the main objective was to secure a second term: staying in office was the summit of New Labour's ambition.

The lack of any project to transform society explains the intellectual banality of New Labour. Again the contrast with Thatcherism could hardly be more striking. A radical vision requires big ideas that can inform and shape a bold strategy. Bereft of a project, New Labour did not need any big ideas: Blair made it clear from the outset that he didn't believe in ideology. Instead, New Labour's notion of ideas was as window-dressing rather than as part of a strategic perspective. It was Thatcherism's huge political ambition that informed and drove its thinktanks: in contrast, New Labour's thinktanks have been more like catherine wheels, transient, insubstantial and largely ineffectual.

With a hole at its centre, spin and control have assumed enormous importance for New Labour. The advisers that Blair placed throughout Whitehall were not policy experts but spin-doctors: this was not 1945 but 1984. We now live in a world of make-believe. New Labour has, more than any other government, been responsible for dissembling and dishonouring the notion of the truth, corroding the quality of our public life and contributing to the growing cynicism towards politics.

The contrast with Thatcherism is again striking. If you want to change the world, you must change the way people think: Thatcher understood this brilliantly. She transformed Britain by arguing openly and combatively, taking on the conventional wisdom, transforming the ideas in our heads.

To New Labour, this way of doing politics is an anathema. Even the defence of the public sector - the most obvious line of continuity between New Labour and the Labour party - has been articulated in the most limited way possible. Though large and welcome sums of public money have been invested in the public services in the second term, Blair has always emphasised that they were dependent upon "reform", where reform, used interchangeably with "modernisation", is synonymous with privatisation.

Indeed, New Labour has presided over a scale of privatisation of the public services that Thatcher could not politically have attempted. New Labour never argues any intrinsic case for provision being public rather than private, for the importance of the public realm: the argument is always reduced to one of efficiency, efficacy and method. Nothing more eloquently sums up the extent of its ideological retreat. In the same vein, even the laudable attempts to help the poorer sections of the population, emanating largely from Gordon Brown, have never been argued in terms of the merits of redistribution, but rather disguised in a welter of administrative measures.

There is, of course, one exception to much of the foregoing: Iraq. On this Blair abandoned his normal timid ity and caution, ignored the focus groups, took on his opponents and argued his case. It is the only occasion that Blair has behaved like Thatcher as a political leader. And she would, of course, have taken exactly the same position. Indeed, Iraq is a reminder of how rightwing Blair is: the yearning to be a wartime leader, the echoes of our imperial past, the fawning attitude towards the United States. His only resort to political boldness, though, could not have been a bigger miscalculation: Iraq will stand as his epitaph.

But what will become of New Labour? Sooner or later, the electoral tide will turn: perhaps it already has. And New Labour could well face electoral oblivion just as the Tories have. Blair and Thatcher both led their parties away from their traditions and their historical moorings. When Thatcherism became unpopular, the party had nowhere to go and it has paid a huge political price as a consequence. The same fate may well befall the Labour party. Its route back to traditional Labourism is now surely blocked, its membership is withering and its links with the trade unions fraying.

Sooner or later, the electoral wilderness beckons, perhaps for a very long time. The price of New Labour - and Blair's leadership - could be very high indeed.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1264791,00.html

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But what will become of New Labour? Sooner or later, the electoral tide will turn: perhaps it already has. And New Labour could well face electoral oblivion just as the Tories have. Blair and Thatcher both led their parties away from their traditions and their historical moorings. When Thatcherism became unpopular, the party had nowhere to go and it has paid a huge political price as a consequence. The same fate may well befall the Labour party. Its route back to traditional Labourism is now surely blocked, its membership is withering and its links with the trade unions fraying.

Sooner or later, the electoral wilderness beckons, perhaps for a very long time. The price of New Labour - and Blair's leadership - could be very high indeed.

In normal circumstances New Labour would be on the verge of electoral disaster. Any party led by such a corrupt and dishonest politician should indeed be facing defeat. However, New Labour has been helped by the consequences of Thatcherism. As Martin Jacques points out, the Conservatives lost control of the centre and her successors have been unable or unwilling to recapture that ground. Blair’s strategy has been to move further and further to the right. Unwilling to leap frog New Labour the Tories have been pushed to the fringes. This has made it impossible to capitalize on Blair’s political problems over Iraq. After all, they wanted to go to war without a UN resolution, let alone a dodgy dossier.

Blair’s theory was the left had no where else to go. They would vote for New Labour in order to keep out the Tories. That worked in 1997 and 2001 but no more. People on the left would rather not vote than support Blair’s New Labour. What is more, New Labour has seen a dramatic decline in party membership. They will have difficulty finding enough people to canvas in the next election. I therefore expect New Labour to lose a lot of seats in the next election. They will do particularly badly against the nationalist parties in Scotland and Wales. Respect will take votes from them in the inner cities and university towns enabling the Liberal Democrats to make significant gains.

New Labour under Blair will still be the largest party after the next election. However, he will not have an overall majority. Like Chamberlain in 1940, I suspect none of the opposition parties will be willing to form a coalition with them without a change of leadership. Depending on who they chose as leader, New Labour, will gradually move back to a left of centre position. Meanwhile, the Tories will be trying to find a leader that can recapture their roots that might put them back in power by about 2015.

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The truth is that New Labour was not a new party, but an uneasy coalition, which has delivered very different things to different social groups. There is the rather rootless Tony Blair party, with some very loyal MPs (Peter Mandelson obviously being one), which has appealed to large numbers of middle-class, socially conservative voters. And there's the larger, but slightly less influential middle-ground Labour faction, supporting the chancellor's agenda, and focused on helping people at the bottom of the pile, largely through stealth taxes and public service investment.

Over the past seven years, the Blair party and the Labour party have coexisted and the country has had a form of Thatcherism, softened, ameliorated and refashioned for a soppier age.

The problem posed by the Iraq war was that the inner hypocrisy of this arrangement was embarrassingly exposed. Blair at war, bending the rules, aligning himself with Bush, ruthlessly using the Murdoch press against the BBC, was no longer a leader the centre-left could pretend was one of theirs. He was just too blatantly Thatcherite.

This has created mayhem right across British politics. Michael Howard's problem is not just that he is opportunist - all opposition leaders are that. It's that he is facing a younger, more appealing and considerably more ruthless rightwing prime minister. No wonder the man is flailing and no wonder his party is a mess.

To the left, and making up ground in the country, are the Liberal Democrats, who are becoming the home of all those progressives who can't stick Blair any more. If their steady rise in local elections and byelections translates into a further lurch ahead in the general election, this will be another unintended consequence of the Blair effect.

All of this causes Blairite tacticians to grin and rub their hands. They don't take the Lib-Dem threat seriously, and they gloat at the befuddled chaos of the Tory party. Come on, they say, it works.

Well, it works if you are happy to go with the flow of an ever more consumerist, rightwing, market-driven society, internationally allied to Republican Washington, and to do so on the back of a fragmented, unstable new politics in which traditional parties are morphing and dissolving. But many of us are not.

There is no doubt that Tony Blair can now sack who he wants to and bring back who he wants, too. But as he seeks to further recast the government in his image, it feels uncomfortably like a dance on rotten floorboards.

http://www.guardian.co.uk/comment/story/0,...1266304,00.html

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While the government presentation remains slick, the labour movement appears either mesmerised by the seemingly omnipotent government machine, or wholly turned off by it. As a result, once mandatory accountability has been replaced with carte blanche for government - and the prime minister particularly - to do as they want.

Remember this occurs at a time when Labour party membership has hit a new low of below 215,000. The last time membership was at this level was when Ramsay MacDonald split the party more than 70 years ago. Paradoxically, donations have doubled to more than £9m, thanks to rich businessmen. Just two of them were responsible for £3.5m of "high-value" donations.

What, if anything, does this tell us about the state of the labour movement, and, in particular, the Labour party? Well, it is blindingly obvious that we are haemorrhaging members at the same time as the unions are doing likewise. We can also see that rich individuals are dining at the table where trade unionists used to eat.

This is entirely consistent with the "New Labour project" and its avowed intention to break party-union links, and to remould our party into theirs - modelled on the anodyne Democratic party of the United States, with all that entails.

Many will say that this is a pessimistic view, that we have had two landslide victories, that the Tories are a shambles, that organs like the national policy forum are successful. All of this is true in parts; but, as Blair is fond of reminding us, we need to look at the big picture. What exactly does that portray?

First, it shows a leader who, as he says, is not a Tory. After all, he carries a Labour party membership card. Yet the policies he advocates - on the public sector, on trade unions, on the allegedly feckless poor - are without doubt neo-Thatcherite. His foreign policy bias, and particularly his closeness to Bush, put the Thatcher-Reagan alliance in the shade.

Second, we have a cabinet which has followed its leader in contempt for the party and its organs. We should remember that on the big issues of the last parliamentary year, the national policy forum, the national executive committee and annual conference were all overridden - on Iraq, foundation hospitals and top-up fees.

Third, look at your local council, with Labour representation often decimated, and policies dictated from Whitehall. When, for example, did a local council have any real leeway on its housing stock? What role does it now have in education? Does local government have a role at all in the eyes of the government?

Fourth, Labour members should gaze around the room at your next branch or constituency meeting. Consider yourself lucky if the branch or constituency still meets. Take in the dwindling number of attendees, and the lack of what was once described as "political" activity.

Next, consider the personality cult that surrounds the prime minister. He is often described as "presidential" but that is euphemistic. His power is personal, and wielded whimsically; his support is sycophantic.

Finally, talk to your friends, neighbours, workmates. Ask them for an opinion on Labour, and do not be astonished by the vituperation in some of the replies. We are truly, for many people, akin to the Tories in the depths of their sleaze period. That of itself is both repugnant and dangerous. Tie it to the loss of councillors in many areas (our key workers), and we risk the same downward spiral which the Tories faced.

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What worries me further is that there would appear to be no way back for the Labour Party. Having no internal democracy and being dominated by a sycophantic elite there appears no way of dislodging this Thatcherite clique which has caused so much damage and missed so many opportunities for promoting social justice.

The really frustrating thing is that clearly the electorate have been ready for a left wing agenda for the last 10 years.

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What worries me further is that there would appear to be no way back for the Labour Party. Having no internal democracy and being dominated by a sycophantic elite there appears no way of dislodging this Thatcherite clique which has caused so much damage and missed so many opportunities for promoting social justice.

The really frustrating thing is that clearly the electorate have been ready for a left wing agenda for the last 10 years.

The only good thing about having a right-wing political leader in power is that it usually creates a strong left-wing opposition. The early years under Margaret Thatcher resulted in the election of a left-wing leader of the Labour Party (Michael Foot) who was not afraid of talking about socialism. It is often forgotten that Foot was ahead of Thatcher in the polls until the Falklands War. The media was united against Foot and after he was defeated he was replaced by Neil Kinnock (also left of centre at the time). Kinnock posed a serious threat to the establishment. Instead of relying on smear tactics a new strategy was employed. This involved “turning” the leadership. This was done by several members of a group with links to MI5 and the CIA called British-American Project for a Successor Generation (BAP). This group included Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Mo Mowlam, George Robertson, Chris Smith, Philip Gould and Jonathan Powell (Blair’s chief of staff). Over the years Mowlam and Smith have been dropped but the rest remain as key members of the campaign to create a right-wing group that goes under the name of New Labour.

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