New leaders old bottles? Labour needs a truth and reconciliation process to recover from its time in office

The Labour Party needs to confront the people it gave power and high office too over 13 years, what they did with it and whose interests they represented before the new contenders take over.
Gerry Hassan
9 June 2010

It is now the famous five with Ed, David, David and Andy joined by Diane Abbott. This is the widest Labour leadership contest for thirty-four years – since 1976 when Jim Callaghan beat Michael Foot for the leadership (and hence Prime Ministership) from a field of six candidates.

Thank goodness for small mercies in terms of the number of candidates, yet as has been pointed out this is the narrowest, most unrepresentative Labour leadership contest – socially – in the party’s history.

This is a fitting epitaph to Blair’s Britain, a land of falling social mobility and record inequality. All five candidates went to Oxbridge with the one non-Oxbridge candidate pulling out. All four men are cut from the same cloth, from the world of special advisers, think tanks, and the strange planet of policy wonks and doing politics in a certain closed, elitist way which aids the manipulative democracy which characterises our times.

All five are not surprisingly given they are MPs very Westminster-centric in their politics. Not one of them has shown any interest in the new political centres of devolved Britain or the nature of the British state.

In one respect it is worth a small cheer that we have a field of five, for Labour’s rules are devised to stop a wide range of candidates. In opposition, a candidate needs to get to a 12.5% threshold of nominations – translating as 33 MPs – with Diane Abbott having to be helped over the threshold by Miliband Senior.

Why the party didn’t just change the rules is mystifying. The higher thresholds were put in place after the experience of the Tony Benn kamikaze leadership bid of 1988 (not to be confused with the bitter 1981 deputy leadership struggle); in 1988 Benn had no real support but was able to tie down the party’s energies for the four months of the summer all those years ago. Haven’t these rules served the party’s purpose too long?

One of the questions they need to face is how the party comes to terms with New Labour, what it stood for and what it did in office? How can Labour have a nuanced debate which acknowledges the successes, but examines the corroding of the party’s soul and very being?

Then there is what should be done about the New Labour generation – by which I mean the leading figures of the age who personified the whole regime and came to embody its frankly nasty, punitive, self-aggrandising, corrupting ways.

This crystallised for me on Monday evening when I was in the Scottish Parliament for a reception for the worthy John Smith Memorial Trust who do important, vital work in the former Soviet Union supporting democratic values, only to find we were going to be addressed by Lord Falconer, the new chair of the Trust.

Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Campbell, Falconer;  the awful ‘cab for hire’ Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt and Sally Morgan as revealed on the Channel Four ‘Dispatches’ programme; and many more of the leading figures of the New Labour era not to speak of the oligarch’s friend, can’t just be allowed to swan around as if they have nothing to answer for.

How do we bring some level of accountability and responsibility to these people and their actions? What is required is some kind of ‘truth and reconciliation’ process possibly in the form of an independent commission into New Labour – held by some group such as Compass or a non-party body.

Something urgent and radical has to happen to draw lessons from the New Labour era, identify individuals and actions which were unacceptable for a progressive party, and map out how politics can retain the necessary independence from vested interests and big money.

Such a commission should address:

  • Individual actions which display behaviour, values and judgement which is unbecoming to public life. An example here would be why is Keith Vaz still a Labour MP when he misled the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards over cash payments he received?
  • Then there are policy decisions to which saw most of the New Labour generation being guilty of snuggling up to corporate power,      privilege and money. Who spoke against super casinos? Who supported them? Who resisted the commercialisation of public life? And who supported it uncritically?
  • Then there is working in the pay of corporate business and taking various lucrative lobbying posts and directorships. John Reid working with Group 4 Securicor, Adam Ingram and his half dozen remunerated directorships, Patricia Hewitt and her work as ‘special consultant’ to Alliance Boots, ‘special adviser’ to private equity company Cinven and BT Group director, and all the issues of conflicts of interest these bring up.
  • Finally there are systemic actions and behaviour which can only be called reprehensible and not fit for a party of the centre-left. Blair, Mandelson, Campbell have shown judgement and political values which should be no part of the Labour Party – shoring up the forces of power and privilege, and in the case of the first two, seeing their own personal lifestyles as synonymous with the new forces of wealth.

This will not come to pass you can safely guess. Yet Labour needs an open inquest in the era just closing. The wounds and pains which the party has had inflicted upon it by the New Labour era will not heal naturally; it is not a matter of embracing or avoiding recrimination; it is instead about taking a new course and learning from some of the fundamental mistakes of the Blair-Brown era and what we have all lost in the process.

This will require both collective inquest and individual atonement from those in the New Labour generation who too easily became the new establishment, and debased both Labour and the politics of our country.

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