1990s >> 1997 >> no-1120-december-1997

The Greasy Pole: Labour’s Traumatic Victory

The next time we have a general election, would the voters please make sure they do not give the winning party such an overwhelming majority. We ask this out of concern for the sad plight of so many Labour MPs who, now that the early euphoric days after their victory have subsided into history, are miserably finding that they are not, after all, engaged in a happy crusade to Tony Blair’s New Britain. In fact a deadly ailment has invaded the government benches, striking down its victims with symptoms of confusion, depression and doubt, when once they knew only joy and certainty. This new sickness is known as Landslide Syndrome and it is caused by the huge majority given to Tony Blair’s party on 1 May.

Some of those MPs could hardly believe they had won; others that they had won with such majorities. They looked set for a decade in power. Everything seemed on course for a joyous, uninterrupted journey into widespread prosperity. Then along came a clutch of occupational psychologists to warn that they were experiencing the first stage of a “mental health roller-coaster”; the others would be disbelief and confusion—before recovery (although how that will come about, when Blairs government provides persistent evidence of its panicky inability to control capitalism, is something of a mystery).

Scarce seats
But apart from that the very size of Labour’s parliamentary squad has caused some problems. On a mundane level there is the fact that it is difficult for all of them to find seats on a day when the House is full. And anyone who thinks this is too trivial to concern people like our dynamic, cerebral parliamentary leaders should observe how jealously Members like Dennis Skinner and Edward Heath guard their traditional seats. In any case not being able to find somewhere to sit can only emphasise that an MP is not very important; after all the famous and influential are never left to scramble for somewhere to park themselves. In case any of the seatless MPs have missed the point, they have had their superfluity made obvious to them by the Labour whips arranging for batches of them to spend time away from Westminster, among their constituents. Of course this treatment is particularly humiliating for any MP who considers their talent to be such as to demand immediate promotion; being encouraged to show off to a few morose and bewildered party members is not as satisfying as a place on the Front Bench.

Which brings us to another aspect of the Landslide Syndrome—the fact that with so many MPs and limited number of ministerial jobs a lot of ambitious, self-opinionated politicians have been disappointed. This is a serious business; there are many accounts of the anguish, the jealousy, the back-stabbing, the tears, which mark the days when a new prime minister is making up a government. Such misery is bad enough at any time. When the House is swarming with government MPs, which makes the competition that much fiercer it can become desperate enough to wipe out the memory that they campaigned for election allegedly to service the interests of the voters and not their own wretched ambition.

Friendly tycoons
How these cynical twisters keep their hopes alive is their own affair. What is apparent to those who observe their antics is that Labour’s majority allows the government to regard any rebels in the ranks as dispensable, which means that Blair and his jolly band can exert extra pressure to conform—which the ambitious are only too eager to accept. At a meeting of MPs soon after the election Blair dealt with some restiveness by curtly informing them that they were not there to tell the government what to do. One report stated that MPs with beards had been quietly advised that the voters would prefer someone who was clean shaven.

None of this seems to have put the loyalty—if that is the right word—of those MPs under strain. Day-by-day the evidence emerges that not only is New Labour openly, proudly even, committed to trying to run British capitalism but that it does so in a style indistinguishable in even the smallest degree from the Tories. People like Blair and Gordon Brown spend a lot of time reassuring business tycoons of many kinds that they have nothing to fear—and much to gain—from the Labour government. On their part, the business people are eager to reassure Labour of their support, with their public statements and their not-so-public donations. The arrogance and dishonesty which went into the government’s handling of the affair of Bernie Ecclestone and the tobacco ads on Formula One cars must have left the ministers of Major’s government breathless with admiration.

All of this has been served up to us on a bed of sophistry and euphemism.We hear, for example, about the government taking “hard choices”— which does not mean deciding whether to give back Ecclestone’s millions but which way of attacking workers’ living standards is likely to lose the least votes. We are told that, on our behalf, the government is prepared to “think the unthinkable”— which does not mean taking a look at the basis of capitalist society and why it inexorably operates to the damage of human beings but how to chip away at some of the more traditional working-class defences against the most appalling poverty.

This is pretty traditional stuff for the Labour Party—the policy followed by the governments of Attlee, Wilson, Callaghan. Except that they used other words, other false prescriptions. New Labour is not really new; it just has a different style of deception in its presentation. The very term Landslide Syndrome is part of this. It is an impressively medical phrase, which is always useful to disguise a reality—in this case the onset of cynicism and confusion as the MPs contemplate a barren, futile future.