Anyone not yet got the message? “Old Labour is stuck in the past. That’s a serious charge in politics but look who’s making it. New Labour orthodoxy has it that Blair’s successes in 1997, 2001 and 2005 are down to the fact he shifted the party right. Now Labour must show Jezza the boot and hold onto the much cherished, winning formula: vie with the Tories not on ideology but claims to superior stewardship of economy and nation.
As narratives go it’s simple, a virtue not to be undervalued in politics, but winners aren’t always the best analysts of their success. Maybe we should examine other factors at work in those halcyon days, and ask how they play in today’s world. In ascending order of importance these are:
One, operational factors. Alastair Campbell headed the most effective spin machine in British electoral history, making savvy use of IT to give near instant rebuttals of Tory smear and boast alike, and iron discipline to keep the team ‘on message’.
And now? These advantages were quickly offset not only by the inevitable catch-up by rival parties, but by the fact spin creates blowback. By 2005 – if not 2001 – the public had come to view with suspicion anything emanating from the sofa government of Teflon Tony. That Blair could still win in those years reflects other factors; weightier, but of equally finite shelf life.
Two, tories in disarray. Middle England, ready for change after years of Tory rule, was sickened by its swan song in the shape of a scandal-rocked Major government whose tiny majority gave the eurosceptics huge leverage. This was followed in opposition by the bypassing of Ken Clark – their best vote winner but europhile and ‘wet’ to boot – for a string of less appealing leaders: Hague, IDS and Howard. “Opposition?” I hear Campbell saying. “What opposition?”
And now? Cameron’s majority looks almost as fragile as Major’s – and the EU referendum next year plus his own departure might yet put the “bastards” back in the driving seat – but that fact hardly helps the New Labour case. Neither 2010 nor 2015 saw Labour go to the polls with a ‘suicide note’ manifesto, so we’re entitled to ask why this modernised party couldn’t beat the Tory B-team.
Three, ‘my greatest achievement was Tony Blair and New Labour’. Mrs T’s 2002 remark may or may not have been intended as poisoned chalice. Either way it did Blair no harm. Thatcher had shifted the centre ground to the right, witness Mandelson’s “seriously relaxed” comment on soaring inequality. Its subtext was the implicit subscription, pace Thatcher and Reagan, to a ‘trickledown’ theory of economics yet to be resoundingly refuted by empirical data.
And now? Trickledown is disproved, while since the early noughties Tory modernisers around May and Cameron have returned the compliment paid by Blair. Where he emulated Thatcher to capture what was then Middle England, Cameron now emulated Blair to the same end. A New Labour response will not be easy, in a neoliberal hegemony backed by a billionaire press, when so few of the other factors favourable to Blair still apply. As Monbiot noted last week, “the middle ground retreats as you approach. The more you chase it from the left, the further to the right it moves”.
Four, people like capitalism don’t they? In 2007 – note the year, eve of meltdown – Friends of the Earth leader Jonathan Porritt wrote in the Independent that solutions to environmental problems must come from capitalism because “let’s face it, people like capitalism”.
And now? Capitalism has reduced sheen for the zero hours worker … the sacked librarian … the sick, aged or disabled user of services cut to the bone – in sum, the Left Behind. The full impact of digitally led globalisation is beginning to feed through to underscore once more the irony that productivity advances which, in a saner world, would be welcomed by all humanity are to be feared by a large and growing portion of it. Also beginning to feed through, a quarter century on, are the implications for organised labour of the Soviet Union’s implosion and end of Cold War, which had obliged capitalism in the west to more or less behave itself. There’s also the small matter of 2008, and the trillions of dollars spent – a good few by the Bank of England, aka you and me – on rescuing those feckless, reckless, self styled masters of the universe.
Hence Scotland .. Syriza .. Podemos .. Die Linke .. Bernie Sanders. Hence Jeremy Corbyn.
It’s so important not to be stuck in the past.