Throughout the time that he was Prime Minister Clement Attlee read only the Times. He was, he said, too busy to bother with other newspapers. The fact that the Times was firmly Tory and, after a few years of Labour Government, almost hysterically anti-socialist, didn’t worry him at all. ‘That’s what one expects,’ he said. ‘It’s quite reliable in that, which is, in its way, rather restful. And the cricket reports are good.’ Under New Labour, by contrast, every day in Downing Street starts with a careful sifting of the press; there are strong responses to any stories which might have been ‘inspired’ or leaked. Enormous care is taken to try to manage the news not just in the obvious sense of trying to put a positive spin on whatever the Government is doing but, more fundamentally, in blocking off whole policy areas because they might result in a damaging headline in the Sun or the Mail.
This ultra-sensitivity has inevitably increased the importance of the media managers. When the Northern Ireland negotiations got serious Tony Blair took Alistair Campbell into the room with him and insisted that Mo Mowlam remain outside. David Trimble was astonished but that’s how it always is with New Labour. Andrew Rawnsley records how the momentous decision that Britain would not join the euro during the current Parliament was taken. Aware of the increase in Euroscepticism from Philip Gould’s focus groups and daily readings of the Sun and the Mail, Gordon Brown’s press secretary, Charlie Whelan, and his economic adviser, Ed Balls, sent the Times a fax hinting at a major policy change while Whelan tried to persuade the Sun to go with the headline ‘Brown Saves Pound’. Whelan, operating from his mobile phone on the pavement outside a pub, confirmed to the BBC and ITN: ‘Yes, Gordon is ruling out British membership.’ Word rapidly spread that this massive policy shift on what Brown had called ‘the most important question the country is likely to face in a generation’ was being announced to the world from a mobile phone against a background of general inebriation.
When the story came out not as a hint but as an emphatic rejection of Europe, there was consternation: Britain’s relations with the EU were on the line. Peter Mandelson, horrified at the implications – he styled himself Minister for Looking Ahead – was sure that this all resulted from leaving him out of the loop. Blair was alerted and asked Whelan what had happened. Whelan told him that the report merely echoed Government policy. ‘Who says it’s our policy?’ the Prime Minister asked – he had not been consulted – and ordered Whelan to ‘row back’. ‘Sorry, Tony, it’s too late,’ he was told. A conference call between Blair, Campbell, Brown, Balls, Mandelson and Whelan dealt with the crisis. No one thought it odd that the real inner cabinet not only did not include the Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott, but comprised four spinners and only two responsible ministers.
As Rawnsley points out, the curious thing about Blair is that, however much he wants to reject ideology, he is also endlessly eager to explain himself, to insist that there is a big idea, that there are principles, that there is, indeed, an ideology of the Third Way. The result of all these attempted explanations is utter vacuity. The nearest thing to a big idea – and it is the fundament to which Blair always returns under pressure – is that most Labour Governments of the 20th century were failures, that Labour never managed to become ‘the natural party of government’ as Harold Wilson wished, and that this was reflected in its failure ever to get elected for two full terms. Traumatised by four successive defeats, Blair wanted above all to make Labour electable and then to secure those two full terms. This would demonstrate that Blairism had overcome Labour’s congenital weakness. The problem was that there was no New Labour project to rival that of Attlee or Thatcher, no real idea of what those two full terms were to be about.
Blair sought to make up for this by leaning on the venerable sage Lord Jenkins for advice. (Rawnsley appears to accept this estimate, repeatedly referring to Jenkins as ‘the great historian’, apparently unaware that serious historians regard Jenkins as a coffee-table lightweight.) What Jenkins had to offer was a passionate Europeanism and a belief that it was Labour’s split from the Liberals early in the century that had allowed the Tories to dominate government down the years. The remarriage of Lib and Lab should, he argued, be cemented by a change from first-past-the-post to proportional representation, which would not only make Parliament a much truer reflection of the popular will but would result in an alliance resembling the broader formation of the Democratic Party in the US.
This all sounded plausible enough, although a moment’s reflection would have suggested a number of difficulties. The basic problem with Europeanism in Britain has, after all, been its fear of the popular will. This was why the champions of Europe like Jenkins, knowing full well that British voters would not swallow what they regarded as the sacrifice of national sovereignty, never liked to tell them the truth – which was that its Continental founders were, from the outset, determined to build a federal Europe. This was why, when Heath took Britain into Europe, he pretended to have ‘the full-hearted consent of the people’ but carefully avoided letting them have any say in the matter. It is also why, when Labour committed itself to a referendum, Jenkins was so horrified that he resigned the Party’s deputy leadership. And it is also why Blair, having committed himself to a referendum on entry into the euro has failed to call one in his first term (he’s promised a decision within two years of a second – as long as economic conditions are met, of course).
The trouble with Lib-Labbery was that this was Jenkins’s third stab at the problem. For most of his career he had been firmly Labour and had repeatedly sworn that he would never, but never, launch a centre party. Then he left Labour to do just that. That initiative having come to grief, here he was arguing for a British version of the Democratic Party. Given New Labour’s love affair with Clintonism, this was attractive to Blair: inconveniently, after a few years of listening to such advice he found himself impaled on the unpopularity of the euro, on the one hand, while having, on the other, allowed the Welsh and Scottish assemblies to be elected on a PR basis, only to end up with Labour losing its majority in both cases. To make matters worse, the Welsh Assembly soon fell to a Labour leader Blair had done everything to stop. It wasn’t long before something similar happened in London, though this hasn’t stopped Blair, in generous pre-election mood, again promising the Lib-Dems a referendum on PR, to be held in 2003-4.
When Mitterrand introduced elected regional assemblies throughout France, for the first time fundamentally reforming the rule from the prefecture which had been bequeathed by Napoleon, he announced that regionalisation would be ‘la grande affaire du septennat’. Using power with deliberation to make large strategic choices is precisely what New Labour doesn’t do. Rawnsley is doubtless typical in regarding the high points of Blairism in power as constitutional reform – particularly in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland – the Kosovo war and Blair’s address to the nation in the wake of Diana’s death, a moment which ‘confirmed Tony Blair as the consummate political actor of his age’. Yet Rawnsley makes it equally clear that Blair could hardly have cared less about either Wales or Scotland before entering office – and it’s doubtful he’d even heard of Kosovo. And what significance to give to the Diana address? Things would not, after all, have had to be very different to produce headlines suggesting that Diana died while neglecting her children to go night-clubbing with the playboy son of one of the country’s least attractive characters. Would Blair have then moralised sternly before the cameras? And what to make of all the guff about Diana being ‘a People’s Princess’ when not only Cherie Blair but most of the Cabinet are staunch republicans?
New Labour’s sheer lack of coherence is nowhere more striking than when one looks at its greatest achievement, constitutional reform. Britain has ended up with assemblies in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland which have very different powers from one another and no counterpart in the English regions. And whereas Scotland is still massively over-represented at Westminster, Wales is not, and Northern Ireland is under-represented. There is no rationale for this any more than there is for having PR in some elections but not in others. The Upper House has been ‘reformed’ to reduce the number of hereditary peers – but the qualification for belonging is still to be a peer. No other European country would entertain such antique nonsense for a moment – and if the hereditary principle is wrong, why have it at all? The European Convention on Human Rights has been incorporated into British law, but the whole point about such fundamental rights is that they ought to be entrenched. Without a written constitution this is impossible. The whole constitutional construction is jerry-built, riven by contradictions at every level and thus unstable.
If New Labour really was ‘a party of principle’ it would have started by recognising that you can’t have constitutional reform without first having a written constitution. Drafting such a document would not merely allow the Government to entrench the Bill of Rights but require it to think through the answers to such questions as whether it is or is not in favour of the hereditary principle (for the moment New Labour has decided in favour of a ‘partially pregnant’ view on this), whether Britain is to be a federal state or not, and so on.
Among the advantages of such an approach is that the Government would have to decide whether any part of Ireland is really part of Britain. The absurd situation we are now in allows Blair, while negotiating with Trimble, to confide to him that ‘Really I’m a Unionist,’ as if this were simply a matter of personal conviction. In practice, of course, British Governments have assumed for more than a generation now that, in every Cabinet, there has to be a minister for Northern Ireland, whose job it is to preside over a great deal of mayhem while coaxing and cajoling ‘a peaceful solution’ out of a kaleidoscope of groups stretching from Ian Paisley’s branch of the Unionists through to Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness and whoever they officially or unofficially represent. Typically, this ‘peaceful solution’ seems to involve shuffling Northern Ireland into a closer relationship with the Irish Republic and trying to get the spectrum of political groups to agree that this is what they want or, at least, will accept. Because this is basically impossible, as the failure of Blair’s efforts has again proved, we have to go on having a Cabinet minister for Northern Ireland, whose job will never end in success.
And yet Blair has been known to speak admiringly of the way in which De Gaulle extricated France from Algeria, overcoming the ferocious resistance of the Army, Air Force, more than a million French settlers and many other elements of the French establishment. It is worth recalling that De Gaulle realised the impossibility of achieving consensus within Algeria over its future: a decision therefore had to be taken in the long-term interests of the French state. He himself would have preferred to keep Algeria French but forsaw that the price would be endless civil strife and expense, which would jeopardise many other national objectives. Every soldier knew, De Gaulle intoned gravely, that there were times when ‘to save a healthy body one has to amputate a diseased limb.’ Having taken this decision, and ratified it by successive referenda, he pressed it through remorselessly to a conclusion. He was simply not prepared to countenance the generations of waste, bloodshed and distraction which the political elite in Britain has put up with rather than take a similarly tough-minded decision about Northern Ireland, though there is little doubt that the vast middle ground, in Britain as in France, would, if given the chance, vote to be done with the problem once and for all. But if that is ever to happen the first requirement is that the Irish problem be seen as the constitutional issue it is.
New Labour has been endlessly castigated for its spin-doctoring and news management, black arts of which Peter Mandelson was the emblematic figure. The fact that Mandelson has proved himself peculiarly bad at managing his own political career cannot alter the fact that he had, as Donald Macintyre makes clear, an instinctive grasp of the dynamics of the new media-led democracy, a skill certainly needed to pull off the Houdini-like feat of rescuing Labour from the state to which it had sunk in the early 1980s. But far more serious than New Labour’s management of the news has been the management of New Labour by tomorrow’s possible headlines and the Government’s resulting lack of any long-term rationale. How, otherwise, can Rawnsley conclude that, after three years in power, it should suddenly dawn on the Government that it had made a major strategic mistake by not investing more in health, education and other public services? If Gordon Brown is clever, how come he could make a blunder as big and as simple as that? By Christmas last year it was clear that New Labour was presiding over a new winter of discontent, with the Government’s management of everything from the health service and cattle disease to public transport under fierce popular scrutiny. John Prescott, with his two Jaguars and his immense self-satisfaction, became an obvious target for embittered travellers, but the gross strategic error was the failure to make long-term decisions years ago, when there was ample warning on these matters. The vacuity of the Third Way could hardly be better illustrated.
This short-termism feeds on itself. Rawnsley quotes a Cabinet member’s comment that after three years in power ‘it’s worse now. What you have to understand is that every day is a panic. We’re so neurotic.’ The reason for this is the decline of all the key institutions which used to hold political leaders responsible: the mass Party, the Cabinet and Parliament. Labour Party membership has fallen from 1,015,000 in 1952 to 387,776 in 1999 and members are anyway regarded by the leadership with deep distrust. The usurpation of the Cabinet’s power by Thatcher has been completed by Blair – it is now all but impossible for ministers to emerge as major political players on their own account. By the end of the 1964-70 Wilson Administration, everyone knew that Callaghan, Jenkins, George Brown, Healey, Castle, Crosland, Shore, Benn, Stewart and Crossman were political heavyweights – while the only real heavyweight now besides Blair is Gordon Brown. Parliament’s weakness is best gauged by the way the number of MPs keeps creeping up – from 615 before the war to 659 now. America, with over four times Britain’s population, manages with 435 Congressmen. That number never goes up because Congressmen have real power and even a few extra seats would change the balance. Despite an already ludicrously large legislature, Britain has always found it easier to add a few seats here, a few seats there – because MPs have so little power.
This liberation of party leaders from the restraints of constitutional responsibility has bizarre effects. On the one hand, the gap is filled by the media – and, despite third-generation TV, fifth-generation radio and all the pubescent excitement of dot.commery, it is the print media which set the agenda, with the result that in the 21st century, as in the 20th, it is the press barons who count. The resulting need to respond to the daily reactions of the tabloids produces bland, predictable, vacuous leaders – and a corresponding public hunger for figures who are a bit more human, and unscripted. Only this can explain the appeal of the shambolic Rhodri Morgan, the provenly disastrous Ken Livingstone and such characters as Ann Widdecombe and Mo Mowlam. By any ordinary standards both these women should have been political disasters: the touchy-feely Mowlam, stealing other people’s drinks, talking obsessively about sex, insisting on conducting business while sitting open-doored on the lavatory, saying ‘fuck’ all the time and picking her nose in public; the even more appalling Widdecombe, the Billy Graham disciple, the believer that ‘God is a great ball of light,’ the easy prey to every reactionary truism, believing always that she had discovered it for the first time. At least Mowlam values sex, while Widdecombe believes that ‘Sex is yuk. I’m very grateful that when I get home at night there isn’t a man making silly demands. Ugh, that is one thing I don’t miss. That sex thing is so over-rated.’ Which is to say that both Mowlam and Widdecombe have little in common with Ms Britain – but at least they sound like real eccentrics, they are their own people. Mowlam told Blair that she ought to be Foreign Secretary because she was ‘a people person’. Blair, unsurprisingly, did not entertain such nonsense, nor, when confronted by Widdicombe’s at least equally simplistic demands, will William Hague.
The fact that Labour has now loosed itself from its traditional moorings and restraints is visible, too, in the growing sleaze chronicled by Tom Bower. Although Bower has concentrated his efforts on Robert Maxwell and (the intimately connected) Geoffrey Robinson, many more are encompassed by the allegations he raises – it is not just a matter of Peter Mandelson but of Bernard Donoghue, Gordon Brown, Helen Liddell, Alistair Campbell and Charlie Whelan. Stephen Byers and Robinson are currently trying to prevent the sale of Bower’s book, but one would like to hear how others mentioned here respond. Of course, Labour sleaze is nothing new, though it did not, in Attlee’s day, get anywhere near the top. Ever since the latter days of Wilson – particularly his final honours list – it has never been far from it.
Despite all the theoretical nonsense regarding the Third Way – has there ever been a more publicly ridiculous intellectual than Anthony Giddens? – the key test of Blairism is still the one it set itself: can it make New Labour the ‘normal party of government’? The answer is obvious: Blair will get his two terms easily enough, if only thanks to Hague, but what he won’t do is build a ruling bloc capable of lasting in the long term, like the New Deal coalition did, because such regimes generally emerge in response to crisis – a war or depression – and are signalled by what political scientists call ‘a critical election’. Such regimes are also built round a coherent philosophy and programme – which New Labour is not. Even if Blair were to go for a permanent Lib-Lab deal, it would be unlikely to produce a ‘normal party of government’ which could enjoy 13 and 18-year runs like the Tories had in 1951-64 and 1979-97.
There is a basic failure to understand a key question of political sociology here. Charles Kennedy bemoans the fact that the turnout in elections is falling, pointing out that the 71.4 per cent turnout in 1997 was the lowest in any general election since 1945 and was followed by a further slump in the 1999 Euro-elections, when fewer than 25 per cent voted. In a table of 20 industrialised nations Britain comes 14th. Historically, of course, Italy had the highest turnouts among Western countries, followed by France, then Britain, with the US bottom of the class. The reason for this hierarchy was obvious. Normally, the old are more inclined to vote than the young, the rich and educated more than the poor and uneducated. This is a huge handicap to a party which relies on working-class votes. The only way to counter it is to have a strong party organisation. Italy had 90 per cent turnouts because it had the strongest Communist Party in Europe, able to reach into every crack and crevice to pull out the vote. France had the second strongest such party, Britain a less impressive but still strong working-class political organisation, while in the US, which had no such thing, upper social groups had a participation advantage of at least 20 per cent over lower ones. Famously, white racists could still get elected in the South even after the 1965 Voting Rights Act gave all blacks the vote – because blacks just didn’t turn out.
Thus the greater the distance the Labour Party puts between its old role and its new one, the more one should expect turnout to fall. Nothing will make that fall more permanent than the sort of Lib-Lab deal Jenkins wants, for in that new political environment the older, better educated and richer Tory voters will have an increasing participation advantage. So before Blair tries to build a British version of the American Democrats he might reflect that despite the twenty-year supremacy of the New Deal coalition, 20th-century America had Republican Presidents for 52 years, Democratic ones for 48 and that since the 1965 Act – which should have given the Democrats a huge new advantage – Republicans have won the Presidency six times to the Democrats’ three. But in any case one rather doubts that Blair is the man to fashion New Labour into anything other than what it already is. The Third Way, it turns out, was shorthand for a bland and manipulative short-termism. Blair just doesn’t seem to be the man for the big idea, for grand strategy, for, if you like, ‘the vision thing’. Now who does that remind you of?
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.