Blair had been a member of the Labour Party for close to two decades when he became leader – and he had seen only defeats. Photo: Jacques Demarthon/AFP/Getty
Show Hide image

Blair and Brown invented a monster to frighten the voters: Old Labour. Now it’s fighting back

New Labour promised the opposite of what came before - and now, Corbyn promises the opposite of New Labour.

Stories matter in politics. Stories defeated Ed Miliband, ones that went like this: there’s a woman who lives at the end of the road who doesn’t work, just sits at home all day, but has a nice flat-screen telly and her kids have always got designer clothes. Benefits, that’s what it is.

Never mind the truth that – according to the doomed parliamentary candidate who heard this story and told it to me – the woman at the end of the road was a successful entrepreneur who worked from home. Never mind that all of this was happening under a Conservative administration. As far as the would-be constituent was concerned, that woman was a symbol of the wasteful and soft-headed attitude that Labour had towards welfare.

Stories matter in the Labour leadership election, too, and the story that has propelled Jeremy Corbyn from 100/1 outsider to nailed-on winner (as the New Statesman went to press, Paddy Power was paying out on a Corbyn victory) was created and told by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

Like Victor Frankenstein, they started with the best of intentions. Blair had been a member of the Labour Party for close to two decades when he became leader – and he had seen only defeats. Both he and Brown had spent 11 years in parliament, almost completely powerless, while first Margaret Thatcher and then John Major carried all before them. So they created a monster – and the monster’s name was Old Labour.

Old Labour did everything that voters disliked about Labour governments past, while New Labour, Blair promised, would do the reverse. That worked well, when New Labour was doing things that people liked, such as winning two successive landslide elections, spending record sums on schools and hospitals, introducing a minimum wage and making museums free. Who would want to be the opposite of that?

Never mind that New Labour, underneath the gloss, was rather more like what came before it than either of its creators wanted to admit. It nationalised things, from time to time: Railtrack in 2002, the Royal Bank of Scotland in 2008 and the East Coast Main Line in 2009. Even the gloss was less novel than is supposed: Blair might have supported the campaign to free Deirdre Barlow, an imprisoned but entirely fictional woman from Coronation Street, but Harold Wilson gave a “joint OBE” to the Beatles.

What mattered was the story, and New Labour won – and kept winning. But, by the end, New Labour came to mean something very different. New Labour meant disastrous and bloody wars. New Labour meant financial crises and bailed-out banks. It meant home-flipping MPs and cash for honours. It meant infighting and, eventually, defeat. And who wouldn’t want to be the opposite of that?

That is the impulse behind Corbyn’s surge. For Labour Party members, the story of Old Labour is no longer a cautionary tale, but a road map. Corbyn’s age – which most Labour MPs regard as a crushing disadvantage – is a feature, not a bug, as far as his supporters are concerned. Attacks on the Islington North MP as a throwback hit the target – but the problem for those levelling them is that Corbyn’s supporters want to go back. They want to unwind the past 30 years of British politics.

The era of seemingly endless Conservative governments, still so high in the minds of most Labour MPs, is outside the memory of most of Corbyn’s keenest supporters. No one under the age of 50 today could vote in the 1983 election. The average voter cast their first ballot in 1997. For Labour Party members, it is Labour victory rather than Conservative hegemony that has become the default setting of British politics. For Corbynites, that is particularly true: at one recent phone bank for him, all but three volunteers were under the age of 30. Just one remembered the Labour defeat of 1992. For the Parliamentary Labour Party and the various grandees who have emerged from retirement to warn against the dangers of Corbynism, perpetual Tory rule is still the default setting of British politics. But for party members, it is Labour that is the new establishment – and they want to overthrow those leaders almost as much as their predecessors wanted to cast out Thatcherism.

All of this gives the leadership election the air of an overheated family argument rather than a clash of civilisations. Yes, kids, we indulged. We marched. We said what we thought. But it’s not for you – it’ll end in tears. Settle down and get that steady job in law or accountancy.

Add in a few more references to R H Tawney and you have the message behind Gordon Brown’s towering performance at the Royal Festival Hall. Unsurprisingly, this message fails to inspire, not least because party members don’t look at the 13 years of Labour rule and see how much can be done in power: they see how little was done in power. Just as they were in their most successful periods in office, Brown and Blair are no longer compared to their Conservative counterparts but to Old Labour.

This has happened to Labour before – Ukip and the SNP, in different ways, claim to be staking out territory once occupied by Old Labour, as the BNP used to do – and the consequences are mostly lethal. Never mind that Ukip is a party of the unashamed right and that the SNP in office is more fiscally conservative than Labour: stories matter more than reality in politics. The parliamentary candidate who knew that entrepreneur lost. Labour was swept aside by the SNP in Scotland. Frankenstein’s monster is expected to be crowned Labour’s next leader.

But there is another risk to all these stories. It is that the country at large still believes the original tale about Old Labour and sees, on 12 September, just another profligate, dangerous, uncompromising socialist. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn wars

Show Hide image

Copeland must be Labour's final warning

Unison's general secretary says Jeremy Corbyn is a friend - but must also take responsibility for turning the party's prospects around. 

No one objective could argue that last night’s by-election results were good for Labour.

Whilst it was undoubtedly pleasing to see serial fibber Paul Nuttall and his Trumpian politics put in their place in Stoke, this was never a seat where the result should have been in doubt. 

But to lose Copeland – held by Labour for 83 years – to a party that has inflicted seven years of painful spending cuts on our country, and is damaging the NHS, is disastrous.

Last autumn, I said that Labour had never been farther from government in my lifetime. Five months on the party hasn’t moved an inch closer to Downing Street.

These results do not imply a party headed for victory. Copeland is indicative of a party sliding towards irrelevance. Worse still, Labour faces an irrelevance felt most keenly by those it was founded to represent.

There will be those who seek to place sole blame for this calamity at the door of Jeremy Corbyn. They would be wrong to do so. 

The problems that Labour has in working-class communities across the country did not start with Corbyn’s leadership. They have existed for decades, with successive governments failing to support them or even hear their calls for change. Now these communities are increasingly finding outlets for their understandable discontent.

During the 2015 election, I knocked on doors on a large council estate in Edmonton – similar to the one I grew up on. Most people were surprised to see us. The last time they’d seen Labour canvassers was back in 1997. Perhaps less surprisingly, the most common response was why would any of them bother voting Labour.

As a party we have forgotten our roots, and have arrogantly assumed that our core support would stay loyal because it has nowhere else to go. The party is now paying the price for that complacency. It can no longer ignore what it’s being told on the doorstep, in workplaces, at ballot boxes and in opinion polls.

Unison backed Corbyn in two successive leadership elections because our members believed – and I believe – he can offer a meaningful and positive change in our politics, challenging the austerity that has ravaged our public services. He is a friend of mine, and a friend of our union. He has our support, because his agenda is our agenda.

Yet friendship and support should never stand in the way of candour. True friends don’t let friends lose lifelong Labour seats and pretend everything is OK. Corbyn is the leader of the Labour party, so while he should not be held solely responsible for Labour’s downturn, he must now take responsibility for turning things around.

That means working with the best talents from across the party to rebuild Labour in our communities and in Parliament. That means striving for real unity – not just the absence of open dissent. That means less debate about rule changes and more action on real changes in our economy and our society.

Our public servants and public services need an end to spending cuts, a change that can only be delivered by a Labour government. 

For too many in the Labour party the aim is to win the debate and seize the perceived moral high ground – none of which appears to be winning the party public support. 

But elections aren’t won by telling people they’re ignorant, muddle-headed or naive. Those at the sharp end – in particular the millions of public service employees losing their jobs or facing repeated real-terms pay cuts – cannot afford for the party to be so aloof.

Because if you’re a homecare worker earning less than the minimum wage with no respite in sight, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

If you’re a nurse working in a hospital that’s constantly trying to do more with less, you need an end to austerity and a Labour government.

And if you’re a teaching assistant, social worker or local government administrator you desperately need an end to austerity, and an end to this divisive government.

That can only happen through a Labour party that’s winning elections. That has always been the position of the union movement, and the Labour party as its parliamentary wing. 

While there are many ways in which we can change society and our communities for the better, the only way to make lasting change is to win elections, and seize power for working people.

That is, and must always be, the Labour party’s cause. Let Copeland be our final warning, not the latest signpost on the road to decline.

Dave Prentis is Unison's general secretary.