2000s >> 2000 >> no-1153-september-2000

Greasy Pole: Leaks and changes

New Labour set out to run British capitalism as it had never been run before. Nobody with a memory should have been deceived

With Parliament away on holiday Tony Blair should have had plenty of time to reflect on life and the universe, or rather what has gone wrong with the New Labour dream and will they lose the next election. It may have seemed to him like a marriage, at first idyllic, which goes spectacularly wrong, falling from apparently inexhaustible affection and patience into bitter rancour. May 1997 and that huge majority was not all that long ago, but how things have changed. Like a rotting, doomed ship Labour is leaking.

In 1997 the Tories were exhausted, barren, sleazy. It happens to a lot of governments; simply, their time is up, their impotence has been exposed too often and the voters are ready to try another party. The election was as much a defeat for the Major government as a victory for Blair. None of this prevented the Labour manipulators in Millbank claiming that the result came through their skilful management of mass opinion. It was the culmination of years of “rebranding” the Labour Party, from the days of Michael Foot and his donkey jacket at the Cenotaph into a young, thrusting, thoroughly modern party for which nothing—no principle, no tradition—was sacred. Some disgruntled party members wondered whether this was a denial of what they fondly knew as Labour’s glorious history of struggle—or an abandonment of what they called their political principles. But such antediluvian carping did not impress the whiz kids at Millbank and in any case it only took a few seats to be captured for the grumbles to stifle their doubts.

With the rebranding came the promises, which were not new because, in one form or another, we hear them at every election. These were encapsulated in slogans and soundbites—education, education, education, tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime. And there was the nice Mr Blair saying things like “Look, I’m an everyday, down to earth, honest kind of guy. You can trust me.” A New Labour government would be historically different—they would run British capitalism virtually without those unpleasant bits like crime, extreme poverty, homelessness, substandard medical treatment and education. And as the votes came flooding in it seemed to have worked. The fixers at Millbank with their focus groups, their pollsters and spin-doctors celebrated their own estimate that nothing was beyond their powers.

Reality was rather different. As New Labour has failed to live up to its promise and the people who voted for it have come to realise that life under capitalism is essentially unchanged, there have been signs of stress in the government. There has been internal strife—coded messages (some less artfully disguised than others) that this Minister was not up to the job, that that one was mentally unsound . . . Blair has reacted like a man in a panic, trying to impose his will—as in the case of the Welsh First Secretary and the London mayor—on the party. This policy was based on Blair’s self-assessment that he held a uniquely secure place in the voters’ affections—and therefore an unusually powerful role in the government.


“Honest kind of guy” Blair

That he began to have doubts about this became evident in the spring, when Blair circulated a memo—famously leaked—designed to re-establish his position and influence. First there was his gloomy assessment of New Labour’s problems: on family issues perceived as weak; on crime as soft; on national interest insufficiently assertive. “We need,” he wrote, “a thoroughly worked out strategy, stretching over several months, to regain the initiative in this area.” and part of that strategy was that Blair should benefit; after listing a number of measures, like getting tough on crime, “eye-catching initiatives” on the family, he urged “I should be personally associated with as much of this as possible.”

It may have been a coincidence but this anguished review of the government’s situation was composed in the immediate aftermath of a piece in the Daily Mail on similar lines. It is fair to speculate on the response of Labour voters to a prime minister who is apparently panicked by a piece of typical gutter journalism, aimed at provoking some of the ugliest of prejudices, in one of the most cynical of newspapers. And this from a prime minister who, when it suits him, has asserted that he is immune to pressure from the media.

But then, just as things began to get really interesting, as one leak after another revealed the disarray at the heart of the government, as Blair’s favourite pollster Philip Gould wrote about the government’s strength ebbing away, of them being “powerless to turn foreknowledge into effective preventative action”, of the New Labour brand being “badly contaminated”, Blair underwent an abrupt change of mind. “I think,” he trilled on Sky TV “we are in a stronger position, because in 1997 on the economy we were having to say to people we are just going to have to be very cautious and responsible. We can now say to people we have proved our responsibility.” This upbeat message was given to the nation on 23 July—less than three months after he had told his inner circle (and later, thanks to that leak, the rest of us as well) that they were “out of touch with gut British instincts”.

This sudden, extreme change in Blair’s analysis of his government’s prospects was gleefully played up as evidence that when it comes to running the country he doesn’t know his own mind. (He didn’t help himself by also changing his mind over the trivial matter of allowing the press to photograph his family on their holidays.) But such changes—U-turns, broken promises, abandoned “principles”—are not unknown. Political history is littered with examples of them. The only difference, which sometimes influences popular conceptions of what is happening, is how the politicians manage their changes. Some—like Harold Wilson, try to ignore them. Some—like Harold Macmillan—airily dismiss them. Others—like Ted Heath and Blair—aggravate their problems by panicking.

But the basis of it—the inconsistency—is unavoidable. New Labour set out to be different, to run British capitalism as it had never been run before. Nobody with anything like a memory, or with any access to historical reality, should have been deceived. Capitalism will not allow New Labour to succeed where all other governments have failed. No change there then. And no need for leaks to tell us


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