The Blair kitsch project

A Century of Labour

Keith Laybourn <em>Sutton Publishing, 224pp, £20</em>

ISBN 0750923059


Centenaries need to be marked by something. Academics need to write books to earn the points that their managements demand. And so books get written or produced in great numbers, only to be remaindered a few months later. I fear that this fate will befall both these volumes. Keith Laybourn, a professor of history at Huddersfield University, has very little to say that has not been said before. Kevin Jefferys had a neater idea: profiles by well-established journalists and academics of every Labour leader over the past hundred years. There are a few nuggets here (especially in the essays on Gaitskell and John Smith by Brian Brivati and Andy McSmith respectively); but, in general, the collection is predictable. What we need is a follow-up volume to Ralph Miliband's classic, Parliamentary Socialism. It could chart the decline of traditional social democracy and be titled Parliamentary Capitalism.

When the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, it was not simply the Soviet Union or the "communist idea" or the efficacy of Marxist solutions that collapsed. Western European social democracy, too, was severely dented. In the face of a triumphalist capitalist storm that swept the world, it, too, had to trim its sails. That, barring Spain, social democratic parties or coalitions govern most of western Europe today is of interest largely because of the collective experience it provides: these parties can no longer deliver effective policies to improve the conditions of the majority of electors whose votes have placed them in power. Capitalism, unchallenged from any quarter, no longer feels the need to protect its left flank by conceding reforms. In these conditions, social democracy finds it difficult to protect the underprivileged. All it can offer its respective electorates is either fear or vacuous ideological formulae whose principal function is to conceal the poverty of any real progressive ideas. The net result is either an electoral shift towards far-right demagogy, of which Austria is only the most recent European example, or an increasing alienation from politics.With popular culture so heavily Atlanticised, can politics be far behind?

Nowhere in western Europe has a social democratic party capitulated so willingly and completely to the needs of deregulated capitalism as in Britain. This is not simply the result of 1989. The Labour Party under Tony Blair is, in many ways, the most significant success of the 1980s counter-revolution. Margaret Thatcher crushed the trade unions, demoralised the Labour Party and used the media to promote the message that no alternative was possible. Blair's Labour Party is the product of this defeat. Political differences have been reduced to which party has the better advertising company and whether new Labour or the Tory party is more responsive to market research. It is hardly surprising that this process produces mediocre politicians and reduces politics to pure kitsch. This is the reality that separates Continental Europe from contemporary Britain. The workers' movement and its political parties in Germany, France and Italy have not so far been crushed by local equivalents of Ronald Reagan or Thatcher. Lionel Jospin's victory in France irritated the Blair circle, not only because the French leader appeared to believe in some form of social democracy, but also because his very presence rebutted the idea that only telegenic, fashion-conscious politicians could win elections.

The new economic regime promoted by Reagan and Thatcher had a tough political agenda. A powerful ideological assault was mounted on the old postwar settlement. Overnight, Keynesianism became a dirty word. A new social, political, economic and cultural consensus was born. It was ugly, brutal. It appeared to work. It had to be made hegemonic.

Blair's victory as leader of the Labour Party was not pre-ordained. It was the result of John Smith's untimely death. Ideologically, Smith, as Andy McSmith reminds us in Leading Labour, was a staunch European social democrat, to the left of new Labour. Blair modelled himself as the English Clinton, who, seared by the experience of Reaganism, had shifted the US Democrats to the right - abandoning any pretence of a New Deal - and had, in the name of the new Democrats, won the presidential election.

The scale of Labour's victory in the general election in May 1997 surprised its leaders. They had fought a banal campaign, strong on presentation, weak on politics. It stressed continuity with the old regime rather than any serious change. Blair's image was used to reassure voters that he was not too different from the Tories, and that he would be a friend of big business. Here was the first Labour leader who appeared to loathe his own party.

His advisers were so convinced that victory had only been won because they had ditched a traditional social democratic programme that they ignored the reality of Britain under the Conservatives. The Blair people did not want to believe that the electorate had wanted to punish their predecessors, not for small demeanours, but for their bigger crimes, and that they really had voted for some change. The decline in education, in the National Health Service, the sale of the railways and of water had never been popular. There is still a large majority in favour of renationalising the railways, but focus groups are only useful to shore up reactionary policies. Where the public differs, it can be ignored. But presentation alone will no longer convince core voters - as the Livingstone affair has revealed.

Thatcher had decided to make Britain a nation of small businesses - her much-vaunted "popular capitalism". By 1997, the year of Labour's victory, personal bankruptcies had "stabilised" at 22,000 a year, and 30,000 companies became insolvent from 1990-97 [figures from an official OECD handbook]. The "flexible labour market" so beloved of Thatcher, Blair and the transnationals had, in reality, made unemployment a mainstream experience. In December 1997, it was estimated that one in five men and one in eight women had suffered at least one extended spell of joblessness in their adult lives. It is this insecurity that modern capitalism, which lives for the short term, values so greatly.

In these conditions, the cold-blooded decision taken by new Labour's leaders and thinkers to discard the very concept of equality and social justice, and to ignore redistributive policies, marked a break with traditional social democracy. Harold Wilson, Richard Crossman, Anthony Crosland and Barbara Castle, not to mention Clement Attlee and Herbert Morrison, appear as "loonie lefties" for insisting that the state had an important role to play in regulating capitalism. The first three decisions taken by new Labour were highly symbolic, designed to show the City of London that this was not an old-style Labour regime. They had made their peace with free-market values and no reformist nonsense would be tolerated. It was decided to detach the Bank of England from government control and give it full authority to determine monetary policy. A second determining act in office was to cut £11 a week in welfare benefits to single mothers. The savings for the state were minimal.The aim was ideological: contempt for the "weaknesses" of the old welfare state and an assertion of "family values". The third measure was to charge tuition fees to all university students - a proposal that had been rejected more than once by the preceding Conservative government on the grounds that it was unfair and would discriminate against students from poor families.

On Europe, the Blair government, until very recently, showed signs of real confusion, giving the impression of paralysis. After an extended display of brashness in pushing the British neoliberal model for the rest of Europe, an uncharacteristic silence has gripped the government.

In the realm of foreign policy, the brutal assessment of the man who inspired Madeleine Albright's offensive foreign policy is far closer to the truth than the mealy-mouthed evasions of Robin Cook. Zbigniew Brezinski, in his book The Grand Chessboard, stresses the need to encourage European unity, although "the brutal fact is that western Europe, and increasingly also central Europe, remains largely an American protectorate, with its allied states reminiscent of ancient vassals and tributaries". Among these, Britain is the least important and without Continental relevance: "Great Britain is not a geo-strategic player. It is America's key supporter, a very loyal ally, a vital military base and a close partner in critically important intelligence activities. Its friendship needs to be nourished, but its policies do not call for sustained attention."

Cruel, but accurate. Not something, alas, that can be said for either of these two books.

Snogging Ken: an after-dinner entertainment by Tariq Ali, Howard Brenton and Andy de Latour opens at the Almeida Theatre in London on 18 April

This article first appeared in the 17 April 2000 issue of the New Statesman, The New Statesman Essay - The rise of the ergonarchy

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.