New Labour – was it really like that?

Mike Phipps reviews Blair & Brown: the New Labour Revolution, BBC2

The short answer is: not remotely. The series buys entirely into the narrative promulgated by New Labour’s architects, conveniently excluding any awkward facts that get in the way. Worse, hardly anybody with an alternative point of view is interviewed. Membership of the gilded circle seems to be a requirement for being given a platform.

The warning signs were evident in the first episode when Neil Kinnock’s musings were given an extensive hearing. Kinnock, remember, won the leadership on a left platform in 1983 and marched the Party to the right (sounds familiar?). He failed to win two general elections and ending up the longest serving Leader of the Opposition of the century. At one point he opined that the Labour Party wasn’t worth leading, but that didn’t stop him from blundering on. Tony Blair showed similar contempt for the membership when he said that people active in the Party in the 1980s probably needed therapy, but you won’t see that here – in this version, the Party apparently adored him.

Various New Labour figures present moving Labour to the centre as necessary for Labour to get elected. This neglects the fact that Labour shot up in the polls immediately after the unpopular Kinnock was replaced by John Smith as Leader in 1992. It should also be emphasised that New Labour was not a form of ‘modernisation’ – making Labour values relevant in a new context, as its supporters claim – but the abandonment of those values. Collectivism, social solidarity and equality were replaced with a ruthless individualism, tempered by a conservative communitarianism that substituted family values for class solidarity. This would be more in keeping with the neoliberal economics that New Labour would apply in office.

The irony was that voters were actually to the left of Blair’s programme in 1997. Over 70% of voters in May 1997 wanted an income tax increase to fund better education and public services. 74% wanted no further privatisations. 58% wanted wealth redistribution. Blair would disappoint on all these fronts.

Gordon Brown is often presented as being more of a democratic socialist than Blair, but it should not be forgotten that the first two decisive acts of the New Labour government were his alone. It was his decision to grant the power to the Bank of England to set interest rates, thus surrendering one of the main levers of economic control. He justified this as being necessary to reassure the markets, which were in no need of such reassurance. Secondly, he decided to stick to the outgoing Conservative government’s unpopular spending limits, despite running a £5.7 billion surplus in the public accounts. This was shocking at the time.

There is much self-satisfaction expressed in the programme at the government’s welfare reform, despite its punitive targeting of people with disabilities. Amid the achievements, you won’t hear much about what wasn’t addressed. As I have written elsewhere:

“Scores of opportunities were missed – from housing, with fewer than 1,000 new units constructed in Blair’s first term – to a failure to make significant inroads into child poverty, one of his central goals. He also failed to reconstruct Britain’s industrial base, leaving Britain dependent on parasitic financial services and ill-prepared for the inevitable economic crash.”

Peter Mandelson comes across in this series as a pathetic figure. He really believes that New Labour was the work of the “three musketeers” – Blair, Brown and himself – and can’t quite understand why he wasn’t rewarded with a top job from the outset. He fails to see that while both Blair and Brown had real abilities – and more importantly significant power bases in their own right – Mandelson was nothing more than an operator, committed to the New Labour project but not particularly good at anything more than media management. Secondly, he was universally disliked across the Party, seen as the nasty side of the Blair operation, manipulative and controlling. Small wonder he was forced to resign from the Cabinet twice, on both occasions probably as a result of leaks from within the government itself.

And that’s the other distasteful aspect of this drama: the courtiers of Blair and Brown spinning and leaking against each other. Brown’s spin doctor Charlie Whelan claims it wasn’t he who tipped off a journalist about Peter Mandelson’s unauthorised loan from a fellow minister – the cause of his first resignation. Alastair Campbell still denies calling Brown “psychologically flawed”, although he does admit here to giving an impression to a journalist that might have led him to write this. Labour members had to look on helplessly while these unelected egomaniacs played their tawdry power games.

There were more power games to come between Blair and Brown. Brown is keen to emphasise that the differences were primarily about policy, but there were also departmental turf wars and preening ambition in the mix.

The penultimate episode in the series focuses on the ‘war on terror’ in the aftermath of 9/11. Blair committed to stand ‘shoulder to shoulder’ with a US Administration which was determined to capitalise on the new situation to launch an illegal war for oil on Iraq, a country which had no connection to the terrorist attacks on the US. This required Blair to persuade a sceptical public and doubtful Labour backbenchers with concocted evidence. “I was determined to do everything I could to avoid it if we could,” he now says of the invasion of Iraq. The old habit of mouthing what he thinks people want to hear irrespective of its accuracy lives on.

Brown conveniently claims he was marginalised from the decision to go to war and could not get the information he needed. Clare Short is wheeled out as a supposed opponent of the onslaught, but even she didn’t take a stand when it mattered, resigning only months later. The only person of principle to quit Blair’s Cabinet at a time when it might have influenced events was Robin Cook and he is long dead.

It’s not surprising that Iraq is Blair’s enduring legacy. The havoc and destruction wrought there is real and permanent and the effects of the usage of unlawful munitions could last many generations. Over 37,000 Iraqi civilians were killed in the first eight months of the invasion, and overall more than a million Iraqis may have died as a result of Blair’s and Bush’s war. That’s without mentioning the destruction of the Iraqi economy, the soaring inflation due to IMF-imposed policies, the leap in unemployment to over 50% of the population, the corruption and sectarianism, the use of torture by the US and its allies and the deadly sectarian insurgency that followed. But you won’t hear any Iraqi voices here, just the self-justifications of a failed politician who should be in the dock for war crimes.

As for the domestic achievements of New Labour, many had a strange impermanence – minor tinkerings with and accommodations to a market-led system that continues today with fewer constraints. Given the favourable economic circumstances, the massive parliamentary majority and the shift to the left in public opinion at the time, one can only say: what a wasted opportunity!

The final episode of Blair & Brown: the New Labour Revolution is on BBC2 next Monday at 9pm.

Mike Phipps is editor of the Iraq Occupation Focus e-newsletter, available at book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.

Image: Tony Blair. Source: Author:, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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