What with the Stoke and Copeland by-elections, and the appearance last week of Tony Blair, it seems timely to consult a book first published a year into the Blair government, at the height of New Labour. I should say that my copy is the initial edition rather than the updated version published after the 2010 election; as such there are times when I detect a slightly triumphalist tone – that might just be me being oversensitive – but it is well worth persevering with.
Now although I’ve gone back to this book following Stoke and Copeland and John McDonnell’s allegations today of a ‘soft coup’, I don’t intend to consider the issue of the Labour leadership other than within two specific frameworks which this book touches upon. The first framework is the idea that the Labour party should seek to apply its traditional values to a programme that fits modern challenges. A charge against Blair made even while he was prime minister is that he was more interested in the modern than in Labour values. The challenge for Corbyn is that he has not yet convinced enough people outside his immediate support that his interpretation of ‘Labour values’ allies with theirs, nor that he is interested in new thinking. Moves away from monolithic provision of public services during 1997-2010 were not in themselves indicative of neo-liberalism and privatisation.
Philip Gould was one of New Labour’s key architects. It was perhaps he more than any other that provided the discipline of public research with which Labour was associated during the Blair years. In his book, Gould argues that principle without power is betrayal of the very people that Labour is supposed to represent; it is not just enough to oppose and protest. He is passionate about the benefits of the focus group as a way of engaging people for whom the party should be fighting but who do not take a great interest in policy making and don’t want to be part of a political party. It is a contrast with the idea of policy emerging from the grass roots of a party; my own instincts are that the latter is preferable but the evidence so far is that this approach, to the extent that the current Labour party practises it, has not enabled the party to deepen its relationships with its traditional communities.
It’s instructive that Labour politicians of the 1980s were in despair about the long-term future of their party. As now, the Conservatives were quite happy to take any approach necessary to continue in office while Labour seemed slower to react. As now, the party remained distrusted by those who wanted politicians to address their daily struggles rather than pontificate about abstract values. As now, the electorate remained unmoved by apocalyptic predictions for the health service. As now, Labour worried that too many of their supporters did so out of habit while Conservatives actually seemed enthusiastic about their party. But note that even when the Tories became unpopular, Labour remained mistrusted until relatively close to the 1997 election. Its support was relatively soft, right up until the campaign began. This book provides an interesting counterpoint to the argument that Labour would have walked that election no matter who the leader was or what policies they proposed.
For all their talk of learning from ‘the master’, it’s fair to say that Cameron’s Conservatives may have forgotten what Gould knew. Labour’s win in 1997 despite a roaring economy came because many working people didn’t feel that they had personally felt the benefits. George Osborne may have loved talking about his ‘long term economic plan’ but although it worked in 2015 with the full-throated support of the media barons it was a spectacularly unsuccessful message during the EU referendum once their air cover was withdrawn.
The world has moved on since 1997. Indeed, Labour’s problems post-Brexit and without a Scottish stronghold look even more difficult than in 1983. But it is worth remembering that Labour’s successful campaign was based on some pretty hard-headed analysis, and on three anchors the relationship between which was crucial to victory. (Here’s the second framework I mentioned.) These were to remind the electorate about John Major’s record; reassure them that voting Labour was not a risky option; and to reward them with specific, measurable, costed pledges.
Compare this against Ed Miliband’s doomed 2015 campaign. This did contain some clear analysis about what wasn’t working in Cameron’s Britain, but the Tories were able to position the Labour leader as a massive risk. Meanwhile, attempts to reinvent the pledge card resulted in the much-derided ‘Ed Stone’ and the horrible immigration mugs.
It’s difficult to argue that things have improved in any way since then. The language used by the Labour leadership is about ‘opposing austerity and inequality’ but this doesn’t tell a voter what that actually means for their individual life. Corbyn’s ten-point plan is vague and unspecific, and has had next to no cut-through with the public. For all those who speak of the new ‘kinder, more honest’ politics there are consistent complaints about incompetence and a leadership team that is far more interested in trashing its own party’s record in government than in providing real opposition.
One of the refreshing things about reading the 1998 edition of this book is that it is possible to talk about Blair without also having to discuss Bush and Iraq. It is possible to see in Gould’s approach some of the gaps that would later lead to New Labour’s failures – and indeed in a foreword to the 2011 edition Tony Blair does a mea culpa on neglecting the party as a mass movement. But this is a fascinating account which shows one way in which a strategically-minded group of people took on and succeeded against what seemed at the time insoluble problems. Different solutions will be needed now. But this tale is required reading for anyone trying to get their heads around the current political landscape.