After the May Day Flood

Seumas Milne on the new Labour Government

There might be only an inch of difference between Labour and Conservatives, the one-time counter-culture celebrity Richard Neville said long ago, but it is in that space that we live. The opening weeks of the first Labour Government for a generation have been a daily reminder of how far Neville’s aphorism still holds. So tirelessly had Tony Blair strained to ratchet down expectations during the run-up to the election, so assiduously had the Millbank machine tailgated Tory policy, that almost any innovation by the new regime was bound to seem like a political thunderbolt.

As announcements and initiatives have followed one another in hastily choreographed succession, the new Administration has delivered an object lesson in the demonstrative power of government. The last time Labour was elected to office, in spring 1974, refugees from Pinochet’s Chile discovered that the ousting of the Conservatives could make a life-and-death difference to their chances of asylum. New Labour has yet to produce such dramatic instant results, but it hasn’t done badly.

First there was the emblematic flight to Brussels by the little-known new Foreign Office minister, Doug Henderson, to sign up to the European Union’s Social Chapter, followed by the restoration of the Civil Service unions to GCHQ. Then came Robin Cook’s declaration in favour of a landmine ban – achieved by the simple, but effective, technique of failing to inform the Ministry of Defence in advance. Then there was the cancellation of the deportation order against the adopted Nepalese, Jay Khadka, by – of all people – Jack Straw. Within a few days, hospital closures had been suspended, as had the privatisation of High Street post offices. None of it earth-shattering, much of it largely symbolic, but combined with the shifts in government style and culture, the initial effect has been to raise wider hopes that a Blair Government might deliver more than we had been led to believe.

The Queen’s Speech, with its promise of the most far-reaching constitutional change since the First World War, seemed to bear out such impressions. So did the unexpectedly broad, almost Wilsonian, spread of appointments. Part of that reflected the material Blair was bequeathed by Shadow Cabinet elections – and party rules requiring him to use it. Although the Labour leader has not shown himself to be squeamish about dispensing with such footling restrictions, left-of-centre figures such as Cook, John Prescott, Margaret Beckett and Chris Smith have been allowed to surround themselves with like-minded ministers. The man who has replaced the Blairite factotum Stephen Byers, for example, in charge of minimum wage and trade-union rights, is Ian McCartney – a Prescott protégé who declared not long ago that if he was ever cut in half, the letters TU would be found written all the way through him, as in a stick of Brighton rock.

Could all this add up to a vindication for those who thought that Tony Blair would become the first Labour leader in the Party’s history to move to the left once in power? Did Blair not promise in the last week of the election campaign that he would ‘be a lot more radical in government than many people think’ and that no political ground had been ceded ‘that cannot be recovered’? It is a beguiling thought – though Blair’s understanding of radicalism may prove to be only distantly related to the usual interpretation. A more reliable guide to the future is likely to be found in the mantra the new Prime Minister repeated on the threshold of 10 Downing Street on his first day in office: ‘We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour.’

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[*] Vintage, 125 pp., £4.99, 7 April, 0 09 977881 5.