So, it has come to this.
In twelve short years, New Labour has travelled from the exultation and boundless optimism of the 1997 election victory
and of a movement whose time had come to a craven pursuit of self-preservation by frightened MPs.
And even then, it is a self-preservation that
can only be pro tem. So narrow have horizons become, so short-term the perspective, that the interests
of party and country will be sacrificed for a few more miserable months in a crippled parliament and a dying government.
Let no one be deceived into thinking that the
decision to soldier on under Gordon Brown’s leadership was taken in the wider interests of the party or the country.
Nor was it a signal of affection or respect for their leader, or even just loyalty. This was every
man for himself. The only calculation that seems to have mattered was the one that said that the pay packet
could be kept coming for a few more months. For who could doubt that the warning from Lord Mandelson, with
his unerring instinct for the baser motivations of political life, that to change leaders would inevitably mean an early general
election, was enough to stop many potential rebels in their tracks?
This, then, is the end game of the New Labour project. To the extent that history
ever makes final judgments, we can begin to see where it has led – not to a long period of Labour hegemony, as was so
confidently foreseen, but to the real danger that Labour will have destroyed itself.
Let us remind ourselves of the course pursued by New Labour strategists.
The catalyst for that strategy was the 1992 election defeat, although its seeds probably go back to 1987.
The Mandelsons, Blairs and Browns concluded in the wake of those defeats that Labour was unelectable and that the Thatcherite
hegemony could not be successfully challenged. They decided that the greater part of Labour’s analysis
of what was needed to reform Britain should be abandoned, and that the Thatcherite agenda should in essence be adopted.
In this, they were surely wrong.
Of course Labour needed to modernise, and to adapt its principles to new and continually evolving challenges.
But the Thatcherite revolution had largely run its course. Mrs Thatcher herself had been rejected
by her own party, which proceeded – under John Major and his successors – on an increasingly uncertain course.
By 1997, the Labour alternative under almost any leadership would have defeated the Tories. The
sacrifice of Labour’s central values in favour of a callow and unsophisticated acceptance of the market’s infallibility
was simply unnecessary.
however, the New Labour style and purpose had been fully developed. The project developed
its own ideology. What mattered was the winning and keeping of power, rather than actually doing something
with it. Power, once achieved, should be used for its main purpose – to perpetuate itself.
New Labour would be all things to all men, taking the pain and hassle – and even the politics – out of
politics. It would occupy the centre ground, careful not to offend the powerful. It
would thereby force other contenders to the margins, and usher in a long period of unchallengeable dominance.
The simplicity of this goal and this strategy
meant that the Labour Party itself could largely be ignored, both as an organisation and as a source of ideas and analysis.
New Labour leaders and tacticians could appeal directly to the voters, through the media, and through spinning the
message, and could thereby free themselves from the need to take the party with them. The
loyalty of the ambitious could be guaranteed since they would quickly recognise that the path to power lay through New Labour.
It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
The voters quickly tired of spin. They intuitively recognised the unattractive limitations of pursuing
power at any cost. They were repelled by the contortions produced by the absence of principle and strong
values. But most of all, they were brought in time to make an ever harsher judgment of policy failures.
Those failures were partly the result of hubris
– on the part of a leader who was so persuaded of his moral infallibility that the country could be led into an ill-judged
invasion of another country on no greater foundation than his own say-so – and partly the consequence of a sickening
obsequiousness in the face of the rich and powerful. And, while New Labour could just about be held
together by a brilliant front man, there was nothing else to fall back on when the voters tired of him and when his successor
was revealed as totally lacking in political – not to say human – skills.
So, the voters look certain to reject New Labour. A
whole generation of Labour leaders who could and should have stood for something more than simply hanging on to power will
close the New Labour chapter by – appropriately enough - doing just that for a few more months. It
will be a long and hard road back if a renewed (please not “New”) Labour Party is to rise from the ashes.
9 June 2009