What follows is a departure from the factuality and severity of previous work and a series of Pensées, or common thoughts which I expect will be similar to many this year. It is part political writing and part personal exposition.
2017 will mark a twenty-year anniversary since the largest-ever victory of the British Labour Party at a General Election. It is currently being comprehensively documented in real-time on the @newdawn1997 Twitter account run by the University of Nottingham Politics Department. 1997 remains the largest electoral landslide in post-1945 British history, the beginning of Labour’s longest period of government and the beginning of devolution to national assemblies in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. The first term alone of the Labour Government saw the end of a thirty-year civil war in Northern Ireland, the halting of a genocide in Kosovo, the beginning of the National Minimum Wage and the passage of the Human Rights Act; to say the least, their accomplishments were significant.
For Labour supporters who had not cut themselves loose of ‘New Labour, New Britain’ in its entirety, remembering the victory would always be bittersweet during times of opposition or struggling government. However, in 2017, the memory approaching is tinged with a far greater sadness and bitter recriminations; not merely for Labour’s present dire straits and disastrous polling performance, but for the loss of a legacy which other parties proudly display. The Conservatives celebrate the days of Churchill and Thatcher, the Liberal Democrats the days of David Lloyd George. Labour activists who remember 1997 with reverence and warmth face the prospect of conducting their celebrations in private, away from the hostile gaze of fellow members, whose denunciation of the victory’s central figures extends to the rhetoric of imprisonment and judicial murder. US Republicans openly call for the jailing of their Democratic opponents for treason, terrorism or fabricated sex abuse crimes involving pizza restaurants. But in Labour’s own forums, it is now not uncommon to see the name ‘Tony Blair’ appear alongside screeches of “murderer” and “war criminal” and ill-researched references to the International Criminal Court at the Hague.
The sadness of remembering 1997 in 2017 comes with an examination of the times the democratic world, not merely Labour, finds itself in. The majoritarian optimism, high hopes and expectations which defined and arguably encumbered the 1997 Labour campaign and its potential in government, a phenomenon repeated by Barack Obama’s Presidential campaign in 2008, is now nowhere to be found in European or US politics. The hope of a comparable landslide is beyond the reach of any British party today, with the incumbent Conservatives governing on a tiny majority, Labour facing catastrophe with every new poll and the Liberal Democrats reduced to a minibus load of MPs. Beyond this, far more grave and depressing currents across the globe appear set to make the quivering of British electoral fortunes appear trivial. Autocracy, the rejection of democracy and Parliamentary government in favour of erratic strongmen, absolute plebiscites and the quashing of dispute with violence has returned to a nuclear-armed West. The notable exceptions to this trend are Canada, where the 2015 Liberal landslide bucked the trends of southern neighbours, and Germany, where Angela Merkel is set to hold onto power despite public discontent over migration and terrorism.
There is a pressing need to reinterpret the 1997 UK General Election. Seemingly every cultural touchstone in Britain during the late-1990s and throughout the 2000s, from Andrew Marr’s History of Modern Britain (2005) to the revised opening titles of the romantic sitcom As Time Goes By, to throwaway lines in Auf Wiedersehen, Pet, and to the premiership of David Cameron as Tory leader then Prime Minister, treated New Labour’s victory a crescendo not to be exceeded. Conservative writer and columnist Peter Oborne scathingly wrote of his own party’s leaders in 2014:
“It is said that Mr Cameron and George Osborne both refer to Mr Blair as “the Master”, asking each other “what would the Master have done?” when in difficult situations. The Unfinished Revolution: How New Labour Changed British Politics Forever, written by Tony Blair’s late political strategist Philip Gould, is regarded within the Cameron circle with the same awe and veneration as a Bible…. It is not widely known that Mr Cameron often seeks advice from the former prime minister… David Cameron in this sense represents the survival of Tony Blair through other means.”
The landslide victory of the Labour Party in 1997 was in subsequent years signposted as an end-point of British politics. The postwar consensus which lasted from 1945 until 1979 had been revised and replaced by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives, whose economic policies were now accepted by Labour; a new consensus from which departure seemed unforeseeable. Even the election of a Conservative-led coalition Government in 2010 did not represent any radical new dawn, if anything it affirmed the centre-ground-pursuit of the previous decades. The momentous transformation of 1945, 1979 or 1997 would never be matched but they did not have to be. Fukayama may have been wrong on the history of the world ending in 1992, but it seemed British political history had reached a terminus in 1997 from which future direction would be only a steady continuation. The prevailing belief was that liberal democracy had won out, centre-ground politics was accepted by all major parties and election-losing strategies of radicalism and extremism were consigned to a lunatic fringe and all but dead where it counted by the time Tony Blair left office in 2007.
In 2017 we inhabit an age of illiberalism; a rejection of “experts”, statistics, polling data, climate science, economics and the norms of Western liberal democracy. The very existence of long-form writing and journalism is among the many objects of blame given for the alienation of working-class electoral majorities from liberalism and the institutions of democratic society. All the long-read essays in America could not prevent the victory of Donald Trump, a literacy-questionable demagogue who betrays no sign of having read any long book, not least the ghostwritten self-help guides bearing his own name, or the epistles of the New Testament whose mispronunciation in a spectacularly cringeworthy manner did not lose him the evangelical vote. Nor could an alliance of think tanks, research institutes, business confederations and the leaders of the UK’s five largest parties prevent the British electorate from embracing a constitutional decision which reverses fifty years of postwar political consensus and overturns the one consistent source of agreement between British political parties and institutions – that of Britain’s continued membership of the European Community, subsequently the European Union.
Now, any document of history from what may come to be known as the “Europhile period” of British politics will be regarded as painfully and even laughably short-sighted if it views the European project as even remotely inevitable, settled or integrated seamlessly with Britain’s own future. For an American comparison, videos of the 2011 humiliation of Trump at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner and the subsequent elation of American liberals, along with the derisive scoffing at his candidacy for the Presidency once possessed humour and reassurance for those now contemplating the same images with trepidation and fear. A justified belief exists that the beliefs and interests of the 48% who voted against Brexit will be disregarded; any opposition to the 52% majority is ‘defying the will of the people’, whose mandate must be executed without moderation or mercy. Trumpism as much as Trump openly regards political opposition and an inquisitive or adversarial media as The Enemy against whom the most aggressive rhetoric and even the powers of the state should be deployed.
The New Labour project, and the proclamation of a permanently established democratic, liberal and centrist consensus which followed it now seem hopelessly and incontrovertibly defeated. Extremism, authoritarianism and total disregard for the belief or interests of political minorities has, in this decade, “won”. Hence, when we look back on 1997, there will not only be Labour members mourning for a successful Labour Party, but a mourning for small-d democratic and small-l liberalism in general. The idea in 1997 that either Tony Blair or John Major would threaten to jail the losing party leader or declare everyone who didn’t vote for them to be ‘traitors’ was unthinkable.
A New Labour Childhood
My earliest political belief was hating New Labour. It arose in the early political consciousness of an eleven year-old whose first contact with politics had been comic satire and the apolitical simplicity of anger at government incompetence. Jon Culshaw’s impressions of Blair in Dead Ringers, Rory Bremner’s in Bremner, Bird and Fortune and a growing list of political writers of popular satirical paperbacks taught how it was good and necessary to laugh at and even despise the government. Before I even knew properly the difference between ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’, I knew that my position was against anything which New Labour was doing.
Hatred had been preceded by passivity. The first government I distinctly remember event living through was New Labour. Very early visual impressions of television images from preschool years, among children’s programmes like Old Bear and Postman Pat, include the then-incomprehensible scenes of Tony Blair walking through the crowds waving Union Jacks and Labour flags in Downing Street. The faint impressions the scenes made, inexplicable to a child under the age of five, were also inexplicable to adults who had lived under continuous Conservative government for eighteen years. In 1997, they experienced the victory of a Labour party which promised transformative change whilst protecting the life they understood. You could keep the council house you bought under Right To Buy and look forward to better wages and better jobs for your children, an end to the violence in Northern Ireland which spilled across the rest of the UK and the chronic under-funding and mismanagement of the NHS. The pervasive excitement among the adult generations did not filter down overtly in a manner comprehensible to my own, but we were to be the first for whom every aspect of our lives was to change. From infant health, to schooling, to higher education and employment, everything about us would be affected by a Labour government, in office from our first days in Reception class until we were preparing to start full-time work or go to university.
Images of the Blair government and its often-changing cabinets flickered on in the background every morning as I had breakfast and dressed for school. It was normality; as I remembered nothing else, when I was told there had been Prime Ministers other than Blair, the concept seemed anomalous and even alien. Surely nobody else could come walking through the black door of Number 10, waving at the cameras or holding that mug of tea? By the time I was old enough to grasp the concepts of historical time which primary-school children learned through chronologies and parsing the differences between the Tudors and the Victorians, the one unchanging permanence remained the premiership of Tony Blair. Princess Diana died, we lost the World Cup, the Millennium passed, England’s farmland burned under the scourge of foot-and-mouth disease, the world was shaken by 9/11 and the West’s response to it, we lost the World Cup again, the Conservatives traded one unsuccessful, balding ex-minister for another as leader, and Blair remained where he was.
It is an oversimplification, but one cliché has the value of also being true: familiarity breeds contempt.
The grievances which began to kill Blair’s prospects as PM after 2003 and more profoundly after the reduced majority of the 2005 election are well-known. For the general public it was concern and alarm over mounting immigration, Blair’s Europhile tendencies, increasing resentment of New Labour ‘spin’, Blair’s executive and Presidential style of government, and concerns over the Blairs’ private business affairs. There was the less-covered but more ‘slow burn’ impact of issues like the controversy and eventual failure of PFI and what may be called Waiting for Godot’s Completion of an NHS IT System which would eventually produce billions in losses.For the Labour Party itself, the more partisan issues of Labour’s identity, the government’s cosy relationship with big business and the City, a loss of enthusiam for ‘Labourism’ and the very word ‘socialism’ and Blair’s apparently intractable position, immune to accountability for party members’ anger. For both public and party, it was one word which mattered above all: Iraq. The 2002-3 build-up to war with Iraq which seemed a foregone conclusion, the WMDs never found, the disastrous aftermath of the invasion and the feeling that none of it had been necessary. More than anything, this turned Blair from the beloved dream-bearer of 1997 into one of most reviled and unpopular Prime Ministers since Anthony Eden at the height of the Suez crisis.
This all now, particularly in the wake of Chilcot, seems a truism barely worth arguing for. However, the greater damage to New Labour’s memory by the passing of the years has caused immense problems of its own – for the country, arguably for the wider world, as well as the Labour Party. Populist resentment of politicians, spin doctors and overseas intervention caused deeper public cynicism towards electoral politics and internationalism. “Politicians generally” became the most mistrusted and disliked profession in Ipsos MORI’s year-on-year polling on public trust in institutions and professions. Labour’s election-winning strategies devised and managed by Tony Blair’s Director of Communications Alistair Campbell were dropped in large part due to their association with the officially abandoned New Labour mantle and perhaps also the satirical embodiment of public spin-loathing in The Thick of It‘s Malcolm Tucker. There was a protracted identity crisis and the confused “what are Labour for again?” direction under Ed Milliband, then the embrace of far-left radicalism and a nadir of low opinion polls and appalling midterm performance under Jeremy Corbyn.
It was a strange contrast. Labour was now doing very poorly despite its huge card-carrying membership and considerably better financial position (New Labour lurched from one funding crisis to the next whereas Corbyn’s appeal to new members and the 2016 leadership challenge had filled the party coffers with membership fees). I became interested in what had made Labour successful in 1997 and whether any of it could be usefully transferred from the past to present and future. In looking back on the New Labour project as a whole, one of my main sources became the personal diaries and other works of Alastair Campbell. I realised that during the Labour government, I had never consciously seen Campbell himself on television apart from replays of the famous confrontation with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News at the height of the Andrew Gilligan row on June 27th 2003. The great “liar-in-chief” who had made Labour so successful whilst becoming one of the most infamous figures in British politics, his name was a veritable swear word by the time he formally resigned in August 2003. The figure and personality of Campbell I was familiar with at the time had always been projected through secondary sources; for most people this was Malcolm Tucker. The first interviews of him I watched full-length in the 2010s concerned his work with mental health charities, his open discussion of struggle with depression, alcoholism and recovering from a psychotic breakdown in 1986. Among them were his discussions of the death of former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy from alcoholism-related illness shortly after the 2015 General Election. His forays into frontline politics once again, particularly on behalf of the Remain side of the EU Referendum, brought his interviews and discussions at universities and public forums back onto headline topical issues. He seemed a good place to start.
Confronting this figure of odium, whom I had learned to despise through his vicarious appearances via the Yorkshire actor Andrew Dunn in Bremner, Bird and Fortune, jokes in Mark Thomas and Stewart Lee routines, and casual conversation on current affairs programmes about Campbell as the Machiavellian puppet-master who had brainwashed the public into voting for the fraudulent Blair, was an odd experience.
Without being filtered through the second-hand snorting and derision of critics and satirists, what struck me most about the Master of Spin was how plain-spoken he seemed. There was none of the complex, animated emotional performance which one saw in Blair, the ‘scripted’ facial expressions and gesticulations which the public came to associate with Blair’s apparently intrinsic insincerity and falsehood. It might have been Campbell’s Northernness, the frankness in discussing difficult and personal subjects without coming across as a self-pitying sniffer or some other quality which spoke to the normally irritable subconscious. However, the image was markedly different from the chimera of Goebbels and an enraged Peter Capaldi which had existed in the minds of those who loathed New Labour at the time.
The diaries added to this altered perspective. That which Campbell and his management of Blair’s image was most associated with – that increasingly nebulous term ‘spin’ – had convinced me in the 2000s that everything which flowed from the mouth of Blair or his ministers were lies, calculated to manipulate with maximum effect. There was no sincerity in policy, no desire to improve social relations or the health of the nation – merely to stay in power by any means necessary. Such was the way of politics, particularly with New Labour. Reading the Campbell Diaries in the 2010s demolished much of what remained of this total cynicism towards the subject matter. As it turned out, they weren’t all constantly lying to us about their motives and objectives. They actually did believe in things which they wanted to accomplish, even in private and behind closed doors.
Battles would rage furiously between people who cared deeply about education, employment and the health service on how best to improve and protect them. The uncompromising language and meticulous detail which the diaries gave to the daily struggles of holding the Government together, promoting its agenda in the press and using the ‘dark arts’ to get things done – in their brutality, they falsified any belief that the whole thing was just power and privilege for its own sake. They are unflattering to many concerned, not least Campbell himself. But they starkly illuminate the drudgery and harsh realities of running a government and achieving ambitious objectives against competing and conflicting interests. They further undercut the appeal of utopianism and the “principled” radicalism of Corbyn and all pure, untainted platforms of left-wing parties which account for no opposition or obstruction that might get in the way of realising the socialist paradise.
Kicking your star players
One of the most damaging aspects of New Labour at the time, which could not be blamed on the hard-left or on the Conservatives, was the protracted turbulence between Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. The damage this caused to the New Labour brand in the media was obvious, as details of every spat and punch-up over policy or personality leaked out; one of the most infamous was a jibe against Brown’s “psychological flaws” given to a journalist in January 1998 which Campbell would later admit being the source of. Even as a New Labour-hating teenager in the 2000s, I believed the media coverage of the rivalry was overblown and based on a gossip-factory. Instead, the divide was profoundly real. The damage caused by the Brown camp and its own spin doctors Charlie Whelan and Damian McBride was the more damaging for including regular attacks on Blair’s ministers; a process which Campbell described as analogous to playing or managing a football team and seeing members of your own team “going around the pitch and kicking your star players”.
It was one particularly vicious embodiment of Labour’s historical tendency to be its own worst enemy, a tradition which has continued and grown significantly in the years since it entered Opposition once again. Now, the kicking of the star players is happening after they have hung up their boots. It were as if when the current crop of Manchester United is doing badly, they decide to denounce the heinous and unprincipled record of Bobby Charlton and George Best, vowing to never return to their way of doing things.
In the cynicism and hatred which was heaped on New Labour continuously after it had left office, its achievements and the reasons for why it succeeded electorally were obscured and buried behind a smokescreen of political pyrotechnics. The greatest trashers of New Labour were not the Tories or the Lib Dems but those on the socialist left and even within Labour’s own ranks. The elements which produced Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victories in 2015 and 2016 had poured greater volumes of scorn and hatred onto New Labour and its figures than the Torch-carrying Conservative Party and its election broadcasts ever did at the time. The possible exception to this is the Tories’ rather nasty “demon eyes” poster, now being used by the @newdawn1997 account, and which I have seen reposted elsewhere by Blair-loathers on the left apparently unaware or ambivalent about its provenance.
It is unavoidable, however, that John Major, William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith, Michael Howard and David Cameron never called Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell “child-murderers” who should be in the dock at the Hague, as became common parlance on the anti-Blair and later pro-Corbyn left. Perhaps it is a testament to Labour’s policy spirit of “education, education, education.” People with no legal qualifications or expertise in international jurisprudence or human rights law suddenly found themselves qualified to pronounce the guilt of dozens of British and American citizens, with Bush, Blair and Campbell top of the list, for crimes against humanity. But the belief in the absolute horror of Blair and New Labour’s insidious, society-destroying evil goes further. One example will illustrate the depths which are now being plumbed.
A particularly disgusting and outright libellous claim which began in the David Icke sphere of conspiracism and has metastasized to the inner world of the socialist left (and some Liberal Democrats, not least former MP and minister Norman Baker), is that Blair somehow orchestrated the deaths of the Labour leader John Smith in May 1994 and Robin Cook MP in August 2005. Both men had suffered from cardiac problems for several years and were in the presence of their spouses when they died. However, insert MI5, Peter Mandelson or Babylonian lizards armed with cyanide, and ultimately Blair as the architect, and you have an Oliver Stone JFK-like narrative which is becoming a far-left campfire story. This is perhaps due to a 2011 Channel 4 satirical comedy-thriller, The Comic Strip Presents… The Hunt For Tony Blair exposing the idea to a wider audience. But among red-green-black flag meetings of any group of ‘anti-capitalist, anti-fascist, anti-racist, anti-war, anti-austerity’ types, dropping this obscene and insane allegation into a conversation may not receive the shock and denunciation it deserves; as this is already a loathsome experience I have had in private and I fear will soon enter the public domain of acceptable discussion.
Despite multiple inquiries into the Iraq War and Blair’s decision-making before the invasion, none have concluded that ‘lies’ or deliberate deceit was used, certainly at no level on the scale imagined by the people chanting “BLIAR!” and calling for war crimes charges. Those, too, seem spurious in the light of the multiple inquiries, including Chilcot, whose harsh criticism of Blair do not recommend any criminal prosecutions. Hysterical accusations of “genocide” which are levied with serious feeling against Blair serve only to cheapen and debase the power of an essential word in the vocabulary of human evil. None of it matters. The decision that Blair, and by extension New Labour, was an enterprise of criminality and wickedness was taken by those who hold it long before Chilcot completed his homework after much procrastinated delay. Tony Blair’s last few minutes as Prime Minister on June 27th 2007 were given a background score by screams of “war criminal!” from anti-war protestors with apparently nothing better to do on a Wednesday morning. In May 2012, Blair’s evidence to the Leveson Inquiry was forcibly interrupted by a protestor engaging in some creative self-promotion for his own anti-Blair documentary, alleging Blair had been “paid off by JP Morgan” for the Iraq War, a bizarre allegation not considered serious by even Blair’s harshest serious biographical critic in Tom Bower. But it matters not – the stunt got plenty of attention, as did a January 2014 attempt by a Shoreditch restaurant employee to make a “citizen’s arrest”, and the synonymity of Blair with the w-c words gained renewed vigor before Chilcot published the completed inquiry in July 2016.
In an interview with Blair biographer John Rentoul as part of an article by GQ‘s political correspondent Rupert Myers, the state of Blair-hating conspiracism is laid bare. The illogicality of Blair ‘lying’ malevolently about something as easily exposed as the absence of WMD rather than him making an overly-ambitious leap of faith on military intelligence means nothing. More repulsively, nor do any medical conclusions that Dr. David Kelly (or Robin Cook, or John Smith) were not the victims of a conspiracy to murder:
“Logic isn’t a friend to the Blair conspirators. They won’t be satisfied by anything short of a full truth that they have imagined for themselves. The redaction of communications with the US will feed the theories, but no amount of disclosure could satisfy them. Somewhere there is a bunker where Blair, Bush, Cameron, Merkel and the like unzip themselves from the human suits, eat their lizard-friendly canapés, and look up at the big wall, planning their next genocide/EU regulation.”
The psychological component for this sphere of thinking, insofar as it exists within Labour, is provided with some insightful speculation by Rentoul. The Labour voters of 1997 and 2001 face a psychological difficulty of loathing and demanding the imprisonment or execution of a man whom they helped put into power. Those who loathed New Labour’s other qualities at the time or retrospectively, on everything from tax, to Europe, to trade union laws, can find a ready-made attack for delegitimising the entire record in Government with one screamed accusation. As such:
“For Rentoul, “there is an element of self-loathing: people who voted enthusiastically for Blair now hate part of themselves and the only way to make that work is to tell themselves that they were deceived.”
So long as there are people who feel betrayed by Blair, people who fail to grasp the need for political compromise, or the complexity of diplomacy and war, there will be those who want to believe in Blair as an international villain…”
In 2017, the continuing damage to the legacy of Labour’s most successful period in government bears strange fruits. Those most likely to demand a cold prison cell for the people who won Labour three General Elections and those who would, given a time portal, gladly undo the entirety of Blair’s time in office, are Labour’s declining base of supporters. Corbyn has repeatedly endorsed the claim that the war was “illegal” and that Blair should be put on trial “if he has committed a war crime” – a somewhat dubious and circular assertion given that whether someone has committed a criminal offence can only be established through a trial which results in a successful conviction.
Tom Watson, now Labour’s Deputy Leader, helped to organise a revolt against Blair in 2006 when he was a junior defence minister. At time, Blair described him as “disloyal, discourteous and wrong” for resigning as a minister and leading a wave of others to do so in protest at Blair’s refusal to set a date for his resignation. Ten years later, at the 2016 Labour Party Conference, it was Watson who pointed out bluntly:
“I don’t know why we’ve been focussing on what was wrong with the Blair and Brown governments for the last six years, but trashing our record is not the way to enhance our brand… We won’t win elections like that, and we need to win elections.”
Labour seems to be the only party in Britain determined to politically destroy its own legacy in public. It almost emulates the practice in the Soviet Union of disgracing former leaders after haphazard Communist Party coups forced them from office. Whilst Jeremy Corbyn demanded a balanced discussion of Fidel Castro’s legacy in his own glowing tribute following the dictator’s death, such balance is absent for Blair by a country mile. The Left must speak of the “achievements” of Castro in health and education and barely acknowledge his domestic repression, massacres and foreign military adventures. But Blair is a “war criminal!” and will always be a “war criminal!” no matter how many investigations and inquiries are held which conclude otherwise. If you tried to excuse Iraq by invoking NHS hospital waiting times, an indulgence so frequently given to Castro, be grateful if you keep an unbloodied nose.
A Bad D:Ream
“As far as I was concerned, Foot was the left’s candidate so it had to be good. That was why the right-wing media tried to say Labour were in trouble – it showed how scared they were of what he stood for. When his ascension was confirmed in a second ballot, my fellow students and I drank a happy toast to this victory for socialism. I looked across to the Tory students on the other side of the university bar and they seemed to be celebrating something too.” – John O’Farrell
Taking the name of New Labour’s election anthem by Northern Irish pop group D:Ream, John O’Farrell’s book Things Can Only Get Better: Eighteen Miserable Years in the Life of a Labour Supporter details the full dispiriting horror of defeat after defeat from 1979 to 1997. The misery was not merely from the loss of a competition – England football supporters grew used to this in the same period – but the sense of public rejection. The whole nation wanted England to win even when it failed; but the repeated unambiguous refusal of Labour’s promises in favour of the Conservatives struck Labour members and supproters personally. Perhaps in trying to capitalise on the sense of national unity which grew around the England team even in the face of continuous defeats, Blair in 1996 appropriated another pop music success and declared “Labour’s coming home!”. If ‘home’ is Government and the centre of British public life, Labour is now further from home than at any point since 1945. To illustrate the party’s misery with bitter irony, the title of D:Ream’s anthem, which became synonymous with Labour’s successes, is now typically inflected in the negative – hence the New Statesman article of 12th December 2016, ‘Things can only get worse for Labour’.
The comparisons between Jeremy Corbyn and Michael Foot are well-worn; the impenetrable convictions of their supporters and the rejection of criticism with accusations of base motives and “right-wing bias” the same. However, Corbyn is leading Labour at a time when global politics slides towards a new consensus rejecting liberal democracy in favour of a new age of strongmen, charismatic authority and rule by decree and plebiscite. Labour is gripped by a powerful new wave of denial and self-delusion; both of its present troubles and its previous successes. The time when Labour was in government is not only receding into history as all living memory eventually does; it is being buried, still alive, by those who can never forgive Blair for being Blair. This happens at a time when globally, those who have benefited most egregriously from the abuse of loopholes and weaknesses of democratic societies – using freedoms of speech and association to discredit the social order, take control of government, then close over those same freedoms for others – are winning power on every continent.
After years of loathing, I came to a more nuanced view of New Labour, perhaps ironically as a result of Corbyn’s leadership. The “true socialist” which so many in Labour had longed for since the days of Michael Foot, the heroic transformer who would undo the compromise and betrayal of Kinnock, Blair and Brown, was finally here – and he was a disaster. His economic policies were based in sanctimony and wondrous goals rather than making concrete plans. His foreign policy was a moral catastrophe, and his history of support for IRA terrorism would doom any chances of him winning over the British electorate. On a personal level, his incompetence was staggering, his procedural and managerial failures matched by a paranoid and malicious streak which blamed Labour’s troubles on disloyalty and media conspiracy. During the 2016 leadership contest, forty women MPs published and open letter to Corbyn and described an explosion of “escalating abuse and hostility” in Corbyn’s name, carried out by a vast army of fanatical supporters. But it became obvious that Corbyn the individual was not the root of the problem; were he replaced by John McDonnell, Diane Abbott, Richard Burgon or any other of the far-left in Labour, the crises would remain the same. Labour cannot return to the past but the future, under this trajectory, looks increasingly bleak. “Things can still get worse”, with no rock bottom to Labour’s potential losses.
The Memory of New Labour: Truth, Lies and… Videotapes?
There might be something remotely Freudian in these thoughts. As the world teeters on the edge of the abyss, led by a raging sociopath who allegedly asked three times in a one-hour briefing with his security advisers, “if we have nuclear weapons why can’t we use nuclear weapons?”, we naturally seek things of comforting value. Blair, for all his dreadful mistakes and shortcomings, represented stability and continuity without dictatorship. He is irrevocably tied to a stable, happy and hopeful childhood for many of my generation, in a period of continuous economic growth, vastly expanded and improved public services, and technological revolution which led Britain from a few dozen dial-up Internet cafes, to the tablet computer and personal smartphone. It became normal to plan visa-free travel to Europe, to visit Belfast without fears of being assaulted or shot, for working-class children to expect that further education would be available when you left school, and a university place would be available for you after that. If you became ill or needed an operation, the NHS would do it better than they ever had done before.
The effect on other childhoods which followed New Labour policies were considerably more dramatic. In Kosovo, many young boys born after 1999 were named ‘Tonibler’ by a national population which regarded Tony Blair as a hero responsible for saving them from annihilation and helping them secure their independence as a state. Iraq’s Kurds, under repeated threat of extermination by Saddam and others, now have their own state – the opinion of Blair in Kurdistan is mostly positive. In Sierra Leone, where Britain’s military intervention in 2000 resulted in the end of a bloody civil war, Blair’s post-government “crucial but little-known role in fighting Ebola” as made him a figure of popular adoration. Every shriek of “imperialist”, “genocide” and “war criminal!” seems considerably less effective when measured against this.
None of this article is an appeal for a return to New Labour as a whole, nor any impossible to pin down notion of ‘Blairism’. Not simply because the brand is “tainted” or damaged by Blair’s actions in office or since leaving Downing Street – though that in itself is difficult to dispute. New Labour was of its time and was immensely successful within its historical context. Copying it like-for-like would never solve Labour’s contemporary woes with Scottish nationalism or the divide between pro-Leave and Pro-Remain constituencies. What I make as an historian is a plea for a more balanced assessment of the historical record of New Labour and the legacy it leaves in the present. What I make as a Labour Party member is for the party to reconsider its infatuation with continuously building the scaffold and digging the grave for its most successful former leader and Prime Minister, and throwing out his entire record in the process. Blair, whatever judgement history makes of him, deserves the same balance afforded to other historical leaders and figures; not least the misty-eyed tributes to Fidel Castro as a “huge figure of modern history”. Blair won elections and did eventually leave office when pressured to go; something that cannot be said for the one-party dictators whose pursuit of ‘social justice’ invariably involves throwing the opposition in prison or into unmarked graves.
An additional proposal, for the benefit of posterity and even for the sake of near-future generations, is more careful preservation of a physical record of the New Labour years. Photographs, video and film footage and sound recordings are poorly archived in the public sphere of accessible material. Google and YouTube results lead mostly to old, archived BBC News pages from the 2000s and haphazardly recorded, preserved and uploaded video clips from VHS recordings of news bulletins at the time. The fact that a private citizen in the 1990s decided to press ‘PLAY/RECORD’ on their VCR provides our best visuals of the birth and ascension of New Labour. One of the main visual records of New Labour’s early years is a magnificent and overlooked 1995 documentary series, Labour: The Wilderness Years (now a possible inspiration for another Labour-themed Twitter account, @wildernessyrs chronicling Labour’s opposition today). The uploader of the series is a Tory YouTuber named thatcheritescot, an amateur archivist who, in the absence of official provision of broadcast material, is responsible for uploading a considerable amount of footage of British political history that is available online.
The lack of visual, non-written primary sources for lay people interested in New Labour is startling. An incredible example of this is the utter dereliction of available high-quality footage of the 1997 General Election itself. The main version on YouTube is a low-quality VHS transfer of the BBC Election Night coverage split into forty-eight parts, heroically uploaded by a user named Andy JS in 2010. In 2016, the user ‘beforeitallgotsomodern’ uploaded a video of a BBC VHS tape released after the election, containing 1hr 15mins of highlights of the campaign. At one time broken, they repaired their copy of the tape themselves. This, it appears, is the best-quality visual record the public can access in 2017 of the most historic night in British politics since 1945.
The situation for the 2001 Election and the 2005 Election, not to mention the many council and local elections mid-term from 1997 to 2010, is really no better. Perhaps because it existed in such recent modernity, New Labour seems to have been the subject of less television and film documentaries than the governments of Churchill or Thatcher. In any case, the renewed interest in 1997 in the anniversary year, perhaps stoked by the @newdawn1997 project, may lead to renewed efforts to keep the primary sources alive and accessible. BBC Parliament typically rebroadcasts the original BBC master tapes of Election Night coverage in anniversary years, doing so for Election 92 in April 2012. It re-showed Election 97 in 2005 and again in 2007. It will be a melancholy but also necessary experience for Labour members, Labour voters and those concerned with the present and future direction of British politics.
As a subject of history and memory, New Labour deserves more careful and considered treatment than the loathing, disgrace and consensus of organised forgetting which the political spectrum has embraced from left to right. In recent years both historians and the public have begun to accept that Winston Churchill has been treated too kindly, and his full record of mistakes, failures and mixed results have to be taken into account along with the ‘Finest Hour’. I submit that Blair, Brown, Campbell and the rest should get the same balance, with their achievements recognised without drowning-out by ill-conceived screaming.
My assessment, one that I freely accept is prejudicially inseparable for having grown up almost entirely under New Labour in government, is that things did get better. That is something, is it not?