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Labour's lost generation takes the reigns: Laurie Penny on why we need rampant idealism

It is time for the young left to stop schmoozing and get on with what it does best.

Behind the railroad pass in the quiet backstreets of central Manchester, the Young Labour Party is in full swing and, rather fittingly, two check-shirted DJs are spinning out the greatest hits of 1994. Here, the weary, battle-worn young volunteers, envelope-stuffers, advisers, canvassers, councillors, hash-taggers, tweeters, bloggers and fiddlers have come to unwind after nine sweltering months on ever-more desperate and depressing campaign trails. The room is full of shirtsleeves, sleepy smiles, and the barest suggestion of sex as a hundred earnest men and women in their early twenties realise that for the first time in almost a year, there's time to flirt.

Yesterday Ed Miliband spoke lavishly of Labour's young people, and here they are. This is the "new generation" of whom so much is promised, whose task it is to revivify the party and move on from the more embarrassing losses of the New Labour project. Watching them giggle and slurp pink cider and shuffle to the strains of Salt-n-Pepa, one wants to yell: you've just suffered the greatest defeat the Labour Party has seen for a generation! Most of you aren't even old enough to remember the last Tory government! The coalition is about to turn on the public sector with what Mehdi Hasan today called "fiscal sadism" -- cutting for the sake of cutting -- and your gang could be out of power for another ten years. Why on earth are you all so bloody happy?

Perhaps it's because, as one young Labour blogger told me, "we don't have to pretend any more". There is certainly an atmosphere of relieved sincerity at this conference, with less naked ambition and jostling for ministerial internships and points on CVs. Perhaps now the young left can finally stop "schmoozing and gossiping about who went to dinner with whom" and get on with what it's best at: rampant idealism.

Earlier this week, a prominent Labour figure commented that the party has been so caught up in campaigning that it has not yet come to terms with the profundity of its defeat. That may be true of the shadow cabinet, but it's not the case for Labour's "new generation": these young people know exactly what has been lost, and why, and how badly. They are fully aware of the scale of New Labour's defeat, and the atmosphere is exhilarated. "I think a lot of people are excited," says Vince, who volunteered on Ed Miliband's campaign. "The real fight is still to come, but we've dropped a lot of baggage, and it's all a clean canvas now."

For my generation, remember, New Labour is overwhelmingly associated with betrayal, hypocrisy and disappointment. Despite the Ace of Base pumping out of the sound system, most of us are far too young to remember the true horror of the Thatcher years, or even the elation of 1997. Instead, we remember top-up fees, civil-liberties crackdowns, the crash of 2008 and the Iraq invasion.

"As part of a generation who have grown up under New Labour, turning the page on old orthodoxies couldn't come soon enough," says Sam Tarry, the National Chair of Young Labour. "Ed Miliband's campaign really connected with the next generation of party members -- his willingness to listen and move on mobilised young activists to get involved in a big way. With many of the new young MPs backing Ed Miliband, too, this could signal a re-imagining of the party at the grassroots, with more focus on setting out a credible economic alternative."

Labour's new cohort knows what it's like to lose. We are, after all, the lost generation. We don't expect our dreams and ideals to be realised without a fight, and we don't expect much help from the grown-ups. There is a profound sense at this party conference that the elder generation of Labour statespeople has failed us, and that the time for deference is finally done. "Young Labour is buzzing with ideas, enthusiasm and anticipation of what can be achieved following this conference," said Tarry. With the politicians who saddled us with debt, tanked the economy and took us into Iraq shuffling off into the twilight, one thing's certain: it's our turn now.

 

 

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad