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New Labour

Simon Jenkins

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Is there any point to the Labour party? It meets this week in Brighton a shadow of its once-mighty self. Delegates used to be greeted with trumpets and drums, with the cries of orators and the braying of demonstrators. Union barons strutted the hall with their entourages. Executive elections were cliff-hanging tests of party power. When conferences passed resolutions they stayed passed. The earth moved.

Labour conferences now resemble the last chapter of Animal Farm. Old Boxer has gone to the knacker’s. No one dares speak. Some animals are more equal than others. Napoleon is reading Tit-Bits and dressing his sow in watered silk. The ruling pigs are drinking with the old enemy, the humans. In truth they are indistinguishable.

I cannot think of a political institution so transformed as Labour in my lifetime. Its party conference once reeked of power. It was an exhilarating cauldron of beer, argument and conspiracy. There was standing room only at Tribune meetings as Arthur Scargill, Tony Benn and Ken Livingstone heaped hilarious scorn on all and sundry. Conference was a glittering tourney, a grand coalition constantly renegotiating itself. It was unpredictable and it mattered.

The force is spent. The heroes of the left have taken to pipes and slippers. Knights, bishops, rooks are gone and pawns move only on message. A Labour government no longer approaches the autumn season in a state of frenzied anticipation. Ministers no longer wrestle their policies from “Composite Resolution 22 as amended by the Amalgamated Union of Carthorses”. Those days are over. Conference has all the vitality of a Commonwealth heads of government meeting.

The reason is Tony Blair. Those nostalgic for old Labour should remember how they ridiculed it at the time. The taming of Labour was Blair’s doing. It was he and the modernisers who, through the early 1990s, goaded the leadership into reform if Labour were ever to attain government and be taken seriously.

Blair was then a bright-eyed revolutionary with a project. He systematically undermined the union link. In 1982 he had jeered at the Social Democratic party as “unelectable because they isolated themselves from organised labour”. Ten years later he did just that. He campaigned for Labour to accept Thatcher’s union reforms, including ending the closed shop. He fought to end the block vote in party elections. He declared in public the unions should expect “no special or privileged place” within the party. After he became leader in 1994 he killed the nationalising clause 4 of the constitution and seized control of the shadow cabinet and the party manifesto.

So timid is Blair in office that it is hard to recollect the radical in shining armour of opposition. It was he, not Gordon Brown, who risked his career for reform, waving the flag amid the gloom and defeatism. Blair knew that old Labour was the enemy. He yearned to change its name. He took a giant hypodermic and rammed the party full of Novocaine, removing its teeth and wiring its mouth shut. His adoption of Philip Gould’s “unitary command structure” was total. Labour could no longer risk being a movement or a coalition. It was an obedient army.

Today the result is astonishing. The Labour party will this week cheer a government that in its name is privatising the National Health Service, public housing and, if it can, secondary education. It will cheer the fiscal regression of last week’s cringing U-turn on council tax revaluation. It will cheer parenting orders, internment without trial and curbs on free speech. Its MPs have for 2½, years acceded to an illegal foreign war in alliance with a right-wing American president.

Ten or 15 years ago a Labour conference would have gone berserk at this neo-Thatcherism. There would have been uproar, with such names as Brown, Blair, Blunkett and Straw doubtless in the van. Today any protest is dismissed as the ranting of jobless backbenchers. History will find this unbelievable. Did a Labour conference in 2005 really agree to continue a war in Iraq? Did it really set aside the goal of social justice in favour of an authoritarian “respect agenda”?

Traditional British values such as local democracy, free speech and protecting minorities no longer concern institutional Labour. The public must look for their defence to specialist lobbies, the media, Liberal Democrats and, of all people, the House of Lords. Any parliamentary challenge to Charles Clarke’s anti-terrorism bill now depends on the lords. The only question that matters is which clause will the lords reject? How will the lords humiliate the government? What can the law lords do? No one expects the Commons to defend liberty from the executive. It is a wonder the Speaker bothers to take his seat.

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