Keep the Union flags flying: New Labour supporters cheer Blair as he arrives in Downing Street, 2 May 1997
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1996 and all that: the triumphalism of the Blair era is in marked contrast to today

When Tony Blair addressed the 1996 Labour conference he knew he was on the verge of a big victory. By contrast, Ed Miliband arrives in Manchester with the nation facing a constitutional crisis and hatred of Westminster running high.

“. . . Friends, colleagues, this year we meet as the opposition. Next year, the British people willing . . . we will meet as the new Labour government of Britain.”

When he delivers his pre-election conference speech in Manchester, Ed Miliband must seek to convey a message similar to these two rousing sentences. However febrile and stormy the wider context, a leader of the opposition must appear prime ministerial at a pre-general-election conference, as if already equipped for the tasks ahead. In fact, it was Tony Blair who opened his speech with those precise words at his pre-election conference in Blackpool in 1996, the last time a Labour leader sought to leap from opposition to power.

On one level the context in which Blair made his intoxicating pitch is incomparably different from that of today, almost as if we were viewing a distant planet. The declaration at the start of the speech was greeted with thunderous applause, a rapture unimpeded by ambiguity or doubt. Among the journalists standing at the sides of the Blackpool conference hall, copies of the speech in their hands, there were no cynical smiles or instant mockery in the face of hyperbolic ambition. Like the ecstatic party members sitting nearby, they knew Blair’s words were true, almost too modest with that qualification about the people being willing. Labour was on the verge of a big victory. By the autumn of 1996, the people were willing and everyone knew it. If and when Miliband makes the same claim in his speech there is bound to be more doubt in the hall and beyond. In contrast to the autumn of 1996, British politics is today defined by near-apocalyptic doubt. On several fronts no one knows quite what will happen next. In 1996 everyone did.

And yet there are surprisingly many echoes from Blair’s speech months before his landslide victory. Everyone agrees now that a deep mistrust of so-called Westminster-based politics fuels the blaze that has erupted in 2014. Campaigners on both sides of the Scottish referendum came together on one point: that “Westminster is toxic” with the voters. Whenever David Cameron, Miliband and others paid increasingly panic-stricken visits to Scotland, Alex Salmond hailed the appearance of the “Westminster politicians”, knowing the term would count in his favour and not theirs. Nigel Farage also plays the outsider’s card, never having been contaminated by winning an election to Westminster.

In this pre-election conference speech, Miliband will make the breakdown in trust one of his main themes. He gave a preview in July, during what he sometimes calls in private his “bacon sandwich speech”, the one in which he listed some of the presentational characteristics that he lacked, including the ability to eat a sandwich elegantly in front of the cameras. At the beginning of the speech, Miliband noted that on the doorsteps voters were not calling for the election of a Conservative government but were expressing a mistrust of politics across the board, and that was Labour’s challenge.

“Our biggest obstacle isn’t the Conservative Party,” he said. “It is cynicism. The belief that nobody can make a difference.”

He was speaking after the UK Independence Party won the European elections in numbers of votes cast and before the Scotland referendum reached its nervy climax on 18 September.

But here is the twist. Mistrust was deep and pervasive when Blair spoke at Labour’s 1996 pre-election conference. The planet is not so distant as it seems. Intense mistrust of “politics as usual” is not new at all.

The wider background to Blair’s speech was a dying Conservative government tormented by allegations of “sleaze”. Ministers had resigned. Various Tory MPs were in trouble. Rumours of brown envelopes and dodgy assignations in hotel rooms were part of the background hum.

The prime minister, John Major, a figure who had personified modest integrity when he replaced Margaret Thatcher in 1990, had since been fatally undermined. Voters had ceased to trust him. In 1996 Blair seized on voters’ disillusionment in ways he would later regret. In the climax to his speech he promised a new politics:

“No more sleaze. No more cash for questions. No more lies. No more broken promises. I say to the Tories: enough is enough! Be done, be gone!”

The biggest beneficiary of the intense mistrust then was Blair. He was the equivalent of the fresh outsider in the eyes of voters, in a way Miliband cannot be. Although he had been an MP since 1983, Blair had never been in government. He was youthful, charismatic, offering a fresh break with the past. The last time Labour had been in power was nearly 18 years ago. Blair was “new”. His party had been rechristened as “new”. With growing excitement, disillusioned voters turned to him in their disdainful mistrust of the supposedly sleazy Major administration as they would fleetingly do to Nick Clegg during the 2010 general election campaign. There was Blair mania – followed, of course, by deep disillusionment from some of the worshippers.

With memories of the last Labour government still fresh and after more than four years of Tory-Lib Dem rule, the whole of “Westminster” is contaminated by power, and so disillusioned voters look elsewhere. But the capacity for disillusionment was as great in 1996 as it is now.

Even then, Blair was obsessed about securing the trust of voters, just as Miliband is today. Blair framed his conference address as his contract with the British people, a covenant he could not break. In an extraordinary climax to the speech, he made his “vows” to the electorate:

“I vow that we will have increased the proportion of our national income we spend on education.

“I vow that we will have reduced the proportion we spend on the welfare bills of social failure.

“I vow that we will have reduced the spending on health service bureaucracy and increased it on patient care.”

There were several other vows. Afterwards I said to one of those who had been involved in writing the speech that I thought the idea had been over the top, as if we were attending an evangelical wedding. With some justification the senior adviser said to me, “You don’t understand. There is this problem with trust across politics. Tony has to make it clear that he can be held to account. Voters know he cannot break vows.”

At one point in the run-up to the 1997 election, Blair suggested that even if ministers were perceived merely to be not “purer than pure” they would have to go, a preposterous hostage to fortune that would doom the victims of any indiscriminate media campaign.

In making such a pledge, Blair highlighted inadvertently the dangers of leaders focusing excessively on “trust”. Voters’ mistrust has been an issue for a long time, preceding the Iraq war, the MPs’ expenses scandal and the economic crises of recent years. If Blair had acted on perceptions of impurity, he would have had to sack himself. Evidently this was an absurdly high bar, but one he felt compelled to set.

Miliband needs to be careful that he does not promise a “new kind of politics” that raises the bar too high, simply in order to assuage the present anti-Westminster fever.

There is another twist. Blair’s vows were an attempt to overcome mistrust. Yet, in their overblown tonal exuberance and incremental caution, they became part of the problem. By his pre-election conference speech, Blair had discovered a genius for generating excitement over what, on closer inspection, were relatively small, incremental proposals. Note his vow on the National Health Service. He would cut spending on bureaucracy, but there was no pledge to increase overall expenditure on the NHS. At a time when public services were crumbling, Blair vowed to cut class sizes in primary schools. Such a vow was significant but it was not a fundamental challenge to 18 years of radical Tory rule.

Here were the seeds of electoral triumph, and subsequent deepening of mistrust. Some voters were so excited by Blair – his powerful oratory, the prospect at last of a change of government – that they chose not to notice the caution. Others did not notice the exuberance but were reassured by the modesty of the policies. By 1996 Blair had formed a very big tent of support.

The displays of public frugality from Blair and Gordon Brown in 1996 reassured parts of conservative England, and enabled the duo to play England’s juvenile pre-election tax-and-spend games without falling into a single trap. But we can trace from that period, the heady optimism of 1996, the later disillusionment of Labour’s core supporters, not least in Scotland.

At a fringe meeting a few years after the 1996 conference the Scottish MP Robin Cook, who was then foreign secretary, made a devastating observation – or, at least, so it seems in retrospect. Cook noted that the Labour government had redistributed money through tax credits, but because the word “redistribution” was never used and no cabinet minister highlighted what was happening, his poorer constituents assumed they were better off because of a technical change introduced by the Inland Revenue. Disillusionment is the default position for voters and some Labour supporters quickly concluded that they had been let down; that the Labour government was no different from the Conservative one.

In the first election for the new Scottish Parliament, early polls suggested that Labour was heading for humiliating defeat. That was in 1999, three years after Blair’s mesmerising speech. Even then, 15 years ago, there were parallels with events around this month’s independence referendum. Brown dropped everything at the Treasury to run Labour’s faltering campaign. Scottish Labour was becoming vulnerable.

The introduction of a Scottish parliament was arguably the boldest proposal in the 1996 speech, yet it merited only one sen­tence: “I vow that, with the consent of the people, we will have devolved power to Scot­land, Wales and the regions of England.”

He got the consent in Scotland but his earlier decision to hold a referendum had caused uproar in the Scottish Labour Party.

In the spring of 1996, Blair used to take time off to study forensically every policy in order to ensure the manifesto would be “bomb-proof” for the 1997 election campaign. He noted a huge inconsistency. Labour was arguing that a referendum was necessary before the UK joined the eurozone because the policy involved significant constitutional change. But Labour was not proposing to hold a referendum on devolution, an overt constitutional reform. He took a deep breath and announced a plebiscite knowing that parts of the Labour Party in Scotland would erupt with fury.

Blair made the right call. He bomb-proofed the manifesto, and with hindsight it seems a very big stretch to unleash the start of a constitutional revolution without a referendum. But Blair’s mindset is revealing on a different level. In 1996 he would take no risks with so-called Middle England voters and the newspapers they read. Yet he was willing to take a very big risk with the Labour Party in Scotland. The broad calculation was understandable. The Conservatives were already dying in Scotland. Labour was still the dominant force. It had to target lost voters in parts of England with a new, reassuring message. But the Labour Party in Scotland, already a fragile beast, went into decline in the years that followed.

***

Ed Miliband arrives in Manchester, facing challenges not different from those that confronted Blair in 1996 but almost the same ones. Of course he has no choice in the current drama but to insist that there can be no return to politics as usual. That’s the easy bit, although finding ways to bring this about will be far more problematic. Miliband’s bigger task is to find ways of convincing “natural Labour supporters” that there is a point in voting for him, that he is not the same as the Conservatives, while attracting enough support from the wider electorate. This is the fundamental challenge, one that goes well beyond handing over powers from Westminster. In Scotland during the referendum campaign, senior Labour figures were told too often for their comfort that they were “all the same”, that there was no difference between Conservative governments and Labour ones.

Like Blair and Brown in 1996, Miliband and Ed Balls have faced the same dilemmas in addressing the silly, mendacious but pivotal “tax and spend” pre-election debate. What can they say without being accused of launching “tax bombshells”?

Yet if they do not address the obvious need for investment in health and elderly care, for instance, how do they convince some voters that they are significantly different from the Conservatives?

One of Blair’s vows was the pledge to “keep government borrowing and inflation within the low and prudent targets we set within the economic cycle”. Miliband will make similar assurances and Balls will be even tougher in tone. Like Blair and, indeed, Gordon Brown, Miliband likes to steal language more associated with the Conservatives. New Labour claimed the Union flag as its own. Miliband speaks of “one nation”. The right-wing newspapers might be less powerful than in 1996 but the Labour leader, like his two predecessors, will want to secure at least some positive coverage.

The overall theme of Blair’s speech was highly optimistic. He sought an age of achievement for the many and not just the few. Miliband is determined to strike an upbeat note, too, but in doing so he must address the most fundamental cause of the present cynicism, the perception that “they’re all the same”. This is a different challenge from the one faced by Blair, who worried that Labour had been so different from the Conservatives in the 1980s that it had become unelectable.

And there is that other difference. In 1996 everyone knew there would be a Labour government. As John Prescott put it in his conference speech: “You know, this week you can really feel the anticipation in the air. You can feel it running through conference.” And you could. At their conference hotel senior figures in the shadow cabinet strode around loftily as if they were already ministers. When they spoke in the conference hall and elsewhere they made the front pages as if they were announcing policies that were about to be implemented.

Yet the seeds of disillusionment were being sown even then. Now it is Miliband’s turn to face the same issue of distrust, a very different leader at a time of constitutional upheaval; but when he speaks in Manchester there will be echoes, lessons and warnings from nearby Blackpool in 1996. 

Steve Richards, chief political commentator of the Independent, was political editor of the New Statesman in 1996

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Scotland: What Next?

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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