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
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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 domestic and global politics.

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

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Britain has built a national myth on winning the Second World War, but it’s distorting our politics

The impending humiliation of Brexit is going to have a lot more in common with Suez.

The Crown, Peter Morgan’s epic drama covering the reign of Elizabeth II, ended its first series with a nemesis waiting just off-stage to shake up its court politics. In the final episode, Egyptian president Gamal Nasser gives a rip-roaringly anti-imperialist – and anti-British – speech. The scene is set for the Suez Crisis to be a big plot point in Season 2.

Suez has gone down in history as the great foreign policy debacle of postwar Britain. The 1956 crisis – which saw Israel, France and Britain jointly invade Egypt to take control of the Suez Canal, only to slink off again, nine days later, once it became clear the US wasn’t having any of it – is seen as the point at which it became clear that even the bigger states of Europe were no longer great powers in the world. “President Eisenhower’s humiliation of Britain,” Jack Straw wrote in his 2012 memoir, “had been total.”

This was, though, a fairly limited sort of humiliation. Britain was not invaded or occupied; there was no sudden collapse in living standards, let alone a significant body count. Our greatest national debacle is nothing more than the realisation that Britain could no longer do whatever it wanted without fear of reprisal. As humiliations go, this one’s up there with the loss of status men have faced from the rise of feminism: suddenly, Britain could do what it wanted a mere 80 per cent of the time.

The Crown begins in 1947, when Prince Philip gives up his Greek and Danish royal titles and becomes a British subject, so that he can marry Princess Elizabeth. That year saw another British foreign policy debacle, one on which the show remains oddly silent. In the partition which followed India’s independence from the British Empire, 70 years ago this week, upwards of a million people died; in the decades since, the borders drawn up at that time have been the site of numerous wars, and Kashmir remains a flashpoint.

All this, one might think, might count as a far bigger regret than Suez – yet it doesn’t feature in the national narrative in the same way. Perhaps because partition was about the withdrawal of British forces, rather than their deployment; perhaps it’s simply that it all happened a very long way away. Or perhaps we just care less about a body count than we do about looking bad in front of the Americans.

I think, though, there’s another reason we don’t talk about this stuff: the end of empire is hidden behind a much bigger part of our national myth. In the Second World War, Britain is undeniably one of the good guys; for 12 months, indeed, Britain was the only good guy. Never mind that it still had the largest empire the world had ever seen to fall back on: Britain stood alone.

The centrality of the Second World War to the national myth warps our view of history and our place in the world in all sorts of ways. For starters, it means we’ve never had to take an honest account of the consequences of empire. In a tale about British heroes defeating Nazi villains, British mistakes or British atrocities just don’t fit. (Winston Churchill’s role in the 1943 Bengal famine – death toll: three million – by ordering the export of Indian grain to Britain rarely comes up in biopics.) In this dominant version of the national story, the end of empire is just the price we pay to defeat fascism.

More than that, our obsession with the Second World War creates the bizarre impression that failure is not just heroic, but a necessary precursor to success. Two of the most discussed elements of Britain’s war – the evacuation of Dunkirk, and the Blitz – are not about victory at all, but about survival against the odds. The lesson we take is that, with a touch of British grit and an ability to improvise, we can accomplish anything. It’s hard not to see this reflected in Brexit secretary David Davis’s lack of notes, but it’s nonsense: had the Russians and Americans not arrived to bail us out, Britain would have been stuffed.

Most obviously, being one of the winners of the Second World War infects our attitude to Europe. It’s probably not a coincidence that Britain has always been both one of the most eurosceptic EU countries, and one of the tiny number not to have been trampled by a foreign army at some point in recent history: we don’t instinctively grasp why European unity matters.

Once again, Suez is instructive. The lesson postwar France took from the discovery that the imperial age was over was that it should lead a strong and unified Europe. The lesson Britain took was that, so long as we cosied up to the US – Athens to their Rome, to quote Harold Macmillan – we could still bask in reflected superpower.

Until recently, Britain’s Second World War obsession and national ignorance about empire didn’t really seem to affect contemporary politics. They were embarrassing; but they were also irrelevant, so we could cope. Brexit, though, means that hubris is about to run headlong into nemesis, and the widespread assumption that Britain is a rich, powerful and much-loved country is unlikely to survive contact with reality. India will not offer a trade deal for sentimental reasons; Ireland is not a junior partner that will meekly follow us out of the door or police its borders on our behalf. The discovery that Britain is now a mid-ranking power that – excepting the over-heated south-east of England – isn’t even that rich is likely to mean a loss of status to rival Suez.

Morgan says he has planned six seasons of The Crown. (This looks entertainingly like a bet the Queen will be dead by 2021; if not, like Game of Thrones before it, he might well run out of text to adapt.) It’ll be interesting to see how the show handles Brexit. It began with the royal family facing up to a vertiginous decline in British power. As things stand, it may have to end the same way. 

Jonn Elledge edits the New Statesman's sister site CityMetric, and writes for the NS about subjects including politics, history and Brexit. You can find him on Twitter or Facebook.

This article first appeared in the 17 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump goes nuclear