The curtain closes on an era: the end of New Labour

'New Labour' was given the final rites by Gordon Brown at the weekend at the Labour spring campaign event
Gerry Hassan
23 February 2010
OK in depth

We all know that our politics are becoming more and more trivialised, sensationalised and reduced to gossip, innuendo and about people and processes, as the storm of the last few days has illustrated on Andrew Rawnsley’s book, Gordon Brown’s behaviour, and the counter-actions of Christine Pratt of the National Bullying Helpline.

Rawnsley is one of the leading culprits of politics as devoid of content and in particular, values, interests and ideas. Instead, everything in his political world is about information, and in particular, gossip about who is up and who is down, who has access and who doesn’t, and who is managing and manipulating the structures of power to their advantage.

Servants of the People was a defining book of this kind of approach in the early, still hopeful days of New Labour, just as it was all beginning to turn sour. The only book of comparable reach in this formative period was Paul Routledge’s equally suspect Gordon Brown: The Biography which blew open the nature of the Blair-Brown ‘deal’ in a way that was unprecedented, and caused No. 10 to reply with their famous ‘psychological flaws’ remark about Brown.

Now after a decade of New Labour comes Rawnsley’s latest tome, an 800 page missive with a PR machine to do the Blairites and Brownites at the zenith of their self-belief proud. Lets leave aside the allegations about the extent to which Gordon Brown’s behaviour is ‘bullying’ or just not very pleasant, intimidatory and not appropriate.

What is fascinating is how this latest episode has contributed to the weakening of our already fragile, flailing democracy, a body politic already in poor health, with an electorate, angry, bored, alienated, disconnected and discontented. The country and the world face huge challenges in the next few years: about public services, the kind of country we want to be, how we balance priorities between the generations, and don’t just leave younger people to pick up the bill.

It is then apposite that all the fluff of the last few days has entirely missed one of the biggest political news stories of the last few years, and one with huge implications for how we understand our past and future, as well as how the forthcoming election is fought.

That story is the final curtain being drawn on the existence of New Labour. It was given the final rites by Gordon Brown at the weekend at the Labour spring campaign event, where it launched its campaign theme, ‘A future fair for all’ and the five main messages under it:

  • Securing the recovery
  • Protecting frontline services: health
  • Protecting frontline services: education
  • Standing up for the many
  • New industries, future jobs

Gone without any fanfare is the New Labour brand and icon, and back is the straightforward, uncomplicated Labour Party both on the campaign site and the main Labour Party site. Gordon Brown’s keynote speech did mention ‘New Labour’ about half a dozen times, concluding with a peroration to various groups on the themes, concluding with each ‘New Labour is your home’.

This removal of New Labour is a pivotal moment, and a historic shift from one era to another, while Brown and Mandelson’s balancing act in the forthcoming election, will be as much about maintaining the inner balance in the party and keeping the remaining Blairites onside as appealing to the voters New Labour won over.

Born fourteen and a half years ago in Tony Blair’s speech to the 1994 Labour Conference, New Labour has had a strange and mixed experience. It will always have its glory moments in its own narrative: the three election victories, the honeymoon period, the stratospheric opinion polls of Blair in his Diana moment.

And yet its negatives are colossal: what New Labour did to the party it took over, to our politics, democracy and international affairs. What after fourteen years does Labour stand for, who does it give voice to, and where has it placed Britain in a geo-political context, given its determinist, fanatical Atlanticism?

New Labour flew high and imploded in spectacular fashion. It outstayed its welcome by many years. Instructively, the ‘New Democrats’ of the Clinton era, upon whom ‘New Labour’ were originally modelled by Blair and Brown, never outlasted the Clinton Presidency.

The history of the New Labour era will not be written by the Rawnsleys of this world or the Routledges thank goodness. Such an account has to address the context in which New Labour emerged and became dominant, namely the weakness of progressive and pluralist ideas within the Labour Party.

Before New Labour, the Labour Party was hardly an effective, vibrant social democratic party. Instead, it was bruised and confused by four election defeats, unsure of how to respond to the success of Thatcherism, and the changing nature of the economy and society. New Labour came along and provided a convincing account of what to do: traditional, old Labour was the problem, ‘modernisation’ the solution.

A decade and a half later, after New Labour, what is left of the Labour Party? Not very much and little understanding of what to do or go. The party cannot go back to the future, given it wasn’t exactly in a great place then. And it has had the last remaining embers of its progressive nature, humiliated, disorientated and trashed by the New Labour experience. Any small elements and pockets of genuine radicalism which are left in the party, and there are some, will as they come out into the light, have a feeling of massive disorientation and lack of familiarity with the landscape.

What comes after New Labour was always going to be a fascinating and revealing question with implications for all British politics. Given the state New Labour has left much of our politics and democracy, and the Cameroon Conservative vision of plagiarising, consolidating and maintaining the modernisation project on the road, what emerges after New Labour is important for all of us.

And what is much more likely considering the backstory is that Labour will give succour and strength to the forces of the new establishment and post-democracy, while invoking some radical rhetoric, instead of developing a serious critique of our times.

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