What is Labour for?

John Lanchester

  • David Blunkett by Stephen Pollard
    Hodder, 359 pp, £20.00, December 2004, ISBN 0 340 82534 0

In a few weeks from now, Labour will have been in office for eight years, and we will be in the middle of an election campaign which seems certain to win it at least four more. The party’s record in government evokes a range of responses on the left – from mild gloom to clinical depression, from irritation to rage, from apathy to horror – but one of the most consistent things it provokes is disorientation. This is a Labour government? This is what we were looking forward to for those 18 years of Tory rule? War, tuition fees, house arrest, wholesale subservience to American foreign policy, talk of services being ‘swamped’ by refugees, the deliberately manipulative use of fear, the introduction of ID cards, the suspension of habeas corpus – and these are the good guys. What happened?

Perhaps the first thing to understand about Labour, or if not to understand then at least to get used to, is that it is, in crucial respects, not the party it used to be. In that sense at least Tony Blair is not just preening himself when he talks about New Labour. The Labour Party of semi-fond memory was a broadish church but it had some consistent currents within it. It was left of centre, socially liberal, anti-authoritarian, anti-American, pacifistic, anti-big-business, keen on benefits for the poor, and in favour of nationalisation. In government, New Labour has been right of centre, moralistic, authoritarian; it has been involved in three wars, is slavishly submissive to big business, is keener to promote the distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor than any government in the last hundred years, and is bent on extending into health and education and transport an experimental programme of private-public partnerships which allocates risk to the public sector and profits to the private. As for its attitude to America, that is comparable only to the ‘coital lock’ which makes it impossible to separate dogs during sex. In all these ways, New Labour is less like Labour used to be than it is a British version of Europe’s various Christian Democrat parties. If we think of it in that way at least we run less risk of being confused by the evident historical discontinuities.

Tony Blair is, obviously, the crucial figure in this transformation. But he is not alone. His key colleague is, also obviously, Gordon Brown, with whom there are – Old Labour stalwarts dreaming of a New Jerusalem after the Blair to Brown handover, please note – plenty of personal differences but almost no ideological ones. And then there are the figures who travelled further in political terms than either Brown or Blair, and who in the process were critical for the way Labour shifted its political centre of gravity so far rightwards that it isn’t really the same party any more. In that process of migration, David Blunkett was one of the key players. Blunkett is important not only because of how he behaved when in office – we’ll get to that in a moment – but also because of the journey he took to get there. A man who from 1980 to 1987 was the leader of the ‘Socialist Republic of South Yorkshire’, one of the most prominent ‘loony left’ councils in England, became not all that many years later the most right-wing, authoritarian home secretary in living memory. Stephen Pollard’s biography tells us what happened but it doesn’t quite tell us why.

One of the reasons for Blunkett’s status in contemporary politics is that he was born into real hardship, a qualification which is much less common in the Labour Party than it once was. Not only was he blind from birth, owing to the failure of his optic nerves to develop, he was also no-joke poor, brought up on a Sheffield council estate in a two-bedroom house with his parents and grandfather. He was compulsorily sent to boarding school at the age of four. The blind boys were dropped off at the school, and their parents were not allowed to stay even for an hour to help them settle in.

The four-year-old David was given a uniform and marched to his dormitory, where there were nine other boys. It was a harsh – the word barely begins to describe it – introduction to school life. The boys were given no help; getting dressed, washing and finding their way around the school were all tasks that they had to manage for themselves. For the first few weeks, even months, there was a constant wailing sound at night. Some cried constantly, others wet their beds and then had no idea how to have the end product dealt with. They were helpless; physically, emotionally and intellectually.

The contrast between an emotionally warm home life and this punitive regime was brutal. And then, when Blunkett was 12, his father died. Because Arthur Blunkett had been working after pensionable age – his employer, the East Midlands Gas Board, had asked him to stay on to train new employees – they initially refused to pay compensation. The resulting legal struggles his mother went through are, Blunkett now says, the reason for his low opinion of the legal profession. These experiences gave him a knowledge of deprivation increasingly rare in contemporary Britain, which in turn gives him a deserved air of contemporary politics’ most prized quality – authenticity. Even people who don’t like his views can tell, when he is talking about his beloved Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, or about poverty in general, that he at least means what he says.

Those who have never experienced real poverty are all too often very sentimental about it and about poor people in general. I have to smile at this and think: if only you knew what it was like, you would know all about aspirations and expectations, and why it was that, in the community in which I grew up, escaping the poverty trap and achieving success were the key aims.

The vehicle for Blunkett’s rise was education. Indeed, you would struggle to find a purer expression of the life transformed through education than his. At Albrighton Hall, his college of further education, Blunkett wanted to take O-levels, but the headmaster was ‘a caricature of the progressive educationist, believing that exams were not merely unnecessary but positively harmful, narrowing intellectual development’. He believed that his students should be prepared for life by being trained in braille stenography and the like, and forbade them to take exams. No co-operation was given to Blunkett and the others he persuaded to study for O-levels by attending evening classes in Shrewsbury, a three-mile bus ride away. Blunkett went ahead anyway and took the exams he needed to win a place at Sheffield University. By the time he got there he was increasingly consumed with politics. Manoeuvrings inside the Labour Party, which had been immovably in charge of Sheffield council since the dawn of time, led to his being offered a chance to run for the council in 1970 at the age of 22. Ten years later the young politician had put aside his day job as a teacher and was now leader of Sheffield council, a truly astonishing rise for a man with his disadvantages.

Blunkett in power in Sheffield was Blunkett Mark One. He concentrated on his particular concerns of public transport and geriatric care. (A key influence on the latter was the suffering of his grandfather, who had had to move into care when Blunkett’s mother could no longer cope with looking after him.) He was not addicted to gesture politics in the way that Ken Livingstone was in London, but he was still a standard-bearer of the municipal loony left. In those days the power in the Labour Party was with the Bennites, who had largely taken it over at the constituency level; so Blunkett was, faute de mieux, a Bennite fellow-traveller. The day of his victory in the council elections, the red flag was raised over the town hall. Sheffield twinned itself with Donetsk in the Soviet coalfields. Blunkett brought in free public transport in the city centre. The local party manifesto stressed the importance of achieving world peace by setting ‘the introduction of peace studies into schools and colleges’ as an ‘urgent priority’ and by announcing that Sheffield was a nuclear-free zone. School uniforms were abolished.

From his municipal power base, Blunkett won election to the Labour Party’s National Executive Committee – the first non-MP to do so since Harold Laski – and carved out a space for himself there, allied with but not wholly subsumed by the Bennites. When Neil Kinnock took on Militant, Blunkett dragged his feet, publicly offered Derek Hatton an olive branch, and was considered ‘fundamentally untrustworthy’ by Kinnock and his circle as a result. Kinnock thought that Blunkett’s actions were dominated by his ambition to win selection for the rock-solid Labour seat of Sheffield Brightside. In order to do that he had to keep the Bennite local party onside. These ambitions were fulfilled in 1987, when he won selection and duly went on to win the seat.

With that goal achieved, Blunkett began the transformation into Mark Two, the version that was to take office as secretary of state for education in 1997, and then as home secretary in 2001. No blind politician has ever risen to the heights of office that Blunkett has achieved. I doubt whether any blind person has ever achieved a comparable level of seniority and effectiveness anywhere in the public sphere. (One of his abilities, revealed in Pollard’s book, is to listen to tapes at double the normal reading speed – they sound squeaky, and innocent bystanders can’t make head or tail of them. That’s how he manages to get through so much paperwork.) There is no contradicting Blunkett’s talents, or his determination, even his heroism. He is one of the most remarkable people ever to have achieved high office in Britain. This makes his record in office all the sadder.

Here are some of the things Blunkett did. He announced a state of emergency, as he legally needed to do to suspend the rights of the Belmarsh internees; prevented the publication of the names of the detainees, the nature of the evidence against them, and the nature of the charges; declared that concern for civil liberties in the current climate was ‘airy-fairy’; announced the abolition of the double jeopardy principle that defendants can’t be tried twice for the same offence; advocated extensive use of Anti-Social Behaviour Orders, which among other things employ hearsay evidence of a kind hitherto forbidden in English law; extended the abolition of the presumption of innocence, by allowing judges to tell jurors in certain types of case about the defendant’s previous convictions; announced that the children of asylum seekers would be taken into care when the parents had exhausted all chance of appeal; spoke of his wish to ‘open a bottle’ to celebrate the death of Harold Shipman; announced new restrictions on demonstrations outside Parliament; extended the powers of Police Community Service officers to tackle beggars, and angrily denied that this meant people would be being arrested for dropping crisp packets; said that failed asylum seekers would be put to compulsory unpaid work in return for the right to claim benefits.

The Home Office is the great Heart of Darkness in British government, the source of our most reactionary politics and also the home, it is said, of our thickest civil servants and most intractable bureaucracy. The resident securocrats and dimwits have a wish-list of restrictions on our liberties which they brandish whenever circumstances seem to give them a chance to squeeze some of them onto the statute book. One of the most striking passages in Pollard’s book touches on this process in relation to the Anti-Terrorism, Crime and Security Bill passed in the wake of 9/11:

The bill was full of measures that the Home Office had been trying to secure for years, as Blunkett now concedes. ‘The Tories were right. We did stuff things in that needed to be done anyway to correct anachronisms and sillinesses from the past, so I was guilty of “Christmas-tree-ing” the bill [hanging all sorts of unrelated measures onto a central spine], as Robin Cook used to call it.’

He could hardly be more candid than that. The last time the securocrats got so far with their assault on liberty was the introduction of internment in Northern Ireland in 1971. This was a disaster, for two reasons: a. it radicalised the rest of the nationalist community, and b. they locked up the wrong people. Is there any reason to believe that things will be different this time?

No home secretary since Roy Jenkins, and hardly any before him, has presided over an extension of our liberties. Blunkett did not buck this trend. At a time when, it turned out, Britain needed a home secretary with a keen understanding of the balance between liberty and security, we instead got an instinctive authoritarian who seems to have no conception at all of the importance of liberty. It may be that Blunkett’s blindness had some bearing on this. He is a man who is intensely disciplined, but who has little experience of liberty; perhaps one could simply say that he has no feeling for it. He has overcome so many difficulties through willpower that he seems at times to feel that his will ought to be enough for the world to do what he wants. In his time at the Home Office, this manifested itself in the way he spoke about judges and the legal process, when they said or did things he found inconvenient: Blunkett at times appeared to manifest an unfeigned irritation at the whole idea of the rule of law.

This has had consequences. (I’m not going to go into the issue which forced Blunkett’s resignation, other than to say how depressing it is, and how typical of British politics, that the man who led the biggest modern attack on our liberties should have lost his job through the fallout from his private life.) On 16 December 2004, the day after Blunkett resigned as home secretary, the law lords declared that the detention without trial of 9 foreign nationals was illegal, thereby overturning a key component of Blunkett’s post-9/11 security apparatus. In his ruling – which I recommend to anyone who feels this debate could benefit from a dose of intelligent sanity – Lord Hoffmann said:

The real threat to the life of the nation, in the sense of a people living in accordance with its traditional laws and political values, comes not from terrorism but from laws such as these. That is the true measure of what terrorism may achieve. It is for Parliament to decide whether to give the terrorists such a victory.[*]

You would have thought, reading that judgment, that the government would at least allow a full-scale debate on these issues when it came to amending the law the judges had challenged. Instead, the Commons discussed it – once Charles Clarke and his opposite number, David Davis, had stopped talking – for a grand total of 80 minutes.

Oh well. To return to the question of how things got to be like this, we have to accept the plain fact that ideologically speaking, there is no continuity between Blunkett Mark One and Blunkett Mark Two. The municipal socialist of the 1980s has nothing in common with the authoritarian populist of the 1990s and beyond. Pollard tries to gloss over the changes with some guff about ‘cohesion’ and ‘community’, but that won’t wash. What happened? It comes down, banally enough, to the effect that the Conservative Party’s successive electoral victories had on Labour. Last century, the Tories were the most successful political party in the democratic world; they spent almost as much time in power in Britain in the 20th century as the Communist Party did in the Soviet Union. For most of that time, their principal strategy was to put the winning of power ahead of all ideological considerations. Get in government, and then do as much of the stuff you want to do as you can without getting so far out of line with public opinion that you lose the next election; that was the masterplan.

By 1992 it was clear that the Tories had run out of steam. Even though they squeaked through that year’s general election, it was obvious they were overwhelmingly likely to lose the next one. John Smith, who took over the leadership of the Labour Party, was an advocate of what was called ‘one more heave’: that Labour should carry on more or less as it had been doing since Kinnock took over in 1983, present itself as the responsible face of social democracy, and thereby win the next election. They probably would have, too: Blunkett has speculated that the resulting majority would have been in the range of fifty or sixty seats. That sounds about right. What would have happened if Smith had lived and his Labour Party had been in power is a juicy might-have-been. The governing philosophy of the Labour Party used to be, as Denis Healey once said, ‘to erode by inches the conditions that produce avoidable misery’. It would have been good, not least as a corrective to the excesses of the Thatcher years, for a party espousing that philosophy to be in power. But Smith died, Blair took over, and the ‘one more heave’ idea was abandoned in favour of the creation of New Labour, whose philosophy was to do everything necessary to win power and then, once in office, to do as much as possible of the stuff it wanted to do consistent with not frightening the electorate and losing the next election. In other words, New Labour adopted as its central philosophical pillar the same maxim that the Tories had used for most of the 20th century.

They were greatly helped in doing so by the fact that the Tories themselves had, under Mrs Thatcher, abandoned their own ideological vagueness in favour of a monetarist economic fundamentalism deeply out of kilter with the party’s traditional pragmatic approach. Part of her ideological animus was a profound hatred of Labour and her belief that it was not just wrong but an actively pernicious force in society. She once declared that her ambition was to change the Labour Party for ever. With the invention of New Labour, she got her way – maybe not for ever, but certainly for now. It was at this point, however, that (to borrow a metaphor from the late Hunter S. Thompson) the crows came home to roost, accompanied by several giant condors. The law of unintended consequences kicked in, big-time. With Labour remade as a party of the centre right, what were the Tories supposed to be? What space were they supposed to occupy? There was no longer any room to the right – I mean, further to the right – on economic issues. The structural ‘reforms’ of the Thatcher period had run their course, and the electorate clearly felt they’d had their full dose of economic medicine. The current climate is such that not even the most bug-eyed Tory is willing openly to advocate cutting taxes and scaling back public services. Similarly, there is no genuine room to the right of New Labour on anything concerning any aspect of crime or asylum – no room short of overtly advocating vigilantism and racism. At times you can almost see cartoon thought-bubbles floating above Tory heads as they contemplate an open appeal (as opposed to coded ones) to the Tony Martin/Enoch Powell vote. They have held off, well aware that this approach will put off at least as many voters as it puts on. So what are the Tories for? Nobody seems to know. At least New Labour knows what it’s for: to win elections.

It is these longish-term trends that are giving the general election campaign, which at the time of writing is undeclared but imminent, its strangeness. I don’t remember ever encountering such a general feeling of exhaustion and apathy about an election, not even the snoozefest of 2001 – and the campaign proper hasn’t even begun yet. It may well be a mistake on the part of New Labour to have begun the campaign so early and with such a long lead-time. It gives us a thorough chance to remind ourselves just how sick we are of Blair. But perhaps this will begin to work for Labour, if this very fatigue, as it plays through into the polls – which are already beginning to show surprisingly strong figures for the Tories – causes Labour voters to remember just how much they hate the Conservatives, and just what an unqualified disaster it would be if Michael Howard were to win the election. This firming-up of the Labour vote is crucial to their chances of victory, and party strategists fear a low turnout, effectively a mass abstention of Old Labour, at least as much as they fear the opposition. So the paradox is that signs of life for the Tories may actively help Labour, by giving their base a poke in the bum.

There are two further ironies, or paradoxes, or nodes of weirdness, about the campaign. One is that the Tories will have to be careful about using one of their potentially strongest cards, the ‘Vote Blair, Get Brown’ allegation. This has the merit, from their point of view, of being true: it describes what is well-nigh certain to happen. Blair has already said that he will step down, and Brown is, to put it mildly, his likeliest successor. The problem for the Tories is that this charge, while it describes the slipperiness that is voters’ least favourite thing about New Labour, is a terrific morale-booster for Labour’s power base. These are the traditional Labour voters whom the Tories badly need to spend election day at home, rereading Michael Foot’s introduction to Gulliver’s Travels, rather than rallying the troops to vote for Gordon. So the more the Tories draw attention to the single likeliest act of imminent New Labour weaseldom, the more they hurt themselves. That is paradox number one.

Number two concerns what should be Labour’s strongest issue, that most sure-fire of all electoral bankers for governments, the Security Card. Here, Standard Operating Procedure would be for Blair to do everything he could to frighten voters about terrorism, on the grounds that the more scared people are the more likely they are to vote for the War Party – which, in the Year of Our Lord 2005, amazingly enough, means Labour. But the paradox here is that the more Blair tries to frighten us into voting for him the more the electorate is prone to remember the last time he tried to frighten us, and the fact that, in the opinion of many of us, he lied. When it comes to the question of using security issues to manipulate the electorate, he has form, and the electorate knows it. As I write, the Lords and Commons have just finished playing a very slow form of collective ping-pong with the new security bill that the government ‘needs’ to replace the legislation effectively overturned by the High Court ruling over Belmarsh. They finally got the bill through by promising an extended debate on new security legislation in the autumn. This was a climb-down, though (naturally) not admitted as such. As for the reason the government had held out so strongly against more debate and/or a ‘sunset’ clause to let the legislation lapse and be properly discussed – well, there didn’t seem to be a reason. No principled one, anyway. One peer, Lord Thomson, has accused the government of deliberately running the bill into the ground so that, if there were a terrorist outrage during the election, they’d have someone else to blame. That is an astonishing charge to make; even the raising of the allegation shows the depths to which trust in Blair has sunk over this issue.

So it’s going to be a strange election. Labour looking likely to win will cause people to be tired of Blair, which will cause a swing towards the Tories, which in turn will cause a swing back to Labour. Either party’s strongest issue will cause a backlash in favour of the other party. And we have a couple of months of this still to go. Invited to choose between a sensible but unelectable party of the centre, a nasty and (please God) unelectable party of the right, and a party of the centre right whose only function is to get elected, it’s hard not to wonder: is this what democracy is meant to be like?

18 March

[*] To find the full text of the ruling, type ‘UKHL 56’ into Google.