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  1. Long reads
19 February 1999

New Labour is just child’s play

The government suffers from the insecurity of being in its infancy, arguesBrian Brivati

By Brian Brivati

If a child has a tantrum we do not assume that she is an omnipotent genius whose ambition is to rule the world. We generally assume that she has encountered something that she does not understand, or that she is frightened, perhaps being threatened by bigger children. The stamping of feet is not, in children, a sign of control but of panic and insecurity. Are new Labour politicians and spin-doctors so very different from toddlers?

The underlying assumption of much of the analysis of Downing Street’s attempt to run the Labour Party, Whitehall and, by extension, the country is one of arrogance and contempt – contempt for the old ways of British politics, such as the independence of backbenchers, the role of the civil service and the search for scandals by the tabloid newspapers.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Insecurity is the real emotion that drives this government and explains its actions. Panic, not confidence, is the defining characteristic of new Labour.

This fear-induced obsession with control is the symptom of a politics that is being forged on the run and of an awareness of the precariousness of the government’s position. It is rooted in the newness of new Labour, which is no more the traditional Labour Party than the Conservative Party of Benjamin Disraeli was the same as the Tory Party of Pitt the Younger, or the Liberal Party that followed Gladstone was the same as the Whig Party that followed the Duke of Marlborough.

Since the 1987 general election a new historical entity has been forged before our eyes. A young political child is taking its first tentative steps on to the stage of our times. This new Labour child realises the weakness of its position better than anyone else but is handicapped by its image of itself as a political prodigy.

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To put it at its weakest, new Labour has grand ambitions. Tony Blair wants to trump his competitors from history: his new political party will do new political feats. Previous Labour leaders had coherent ideologies and strong connections with history: Attlee forged a settlement that set the terms of political discourse for 30 years, Wilson held party and government together in the most turbulent period of postwar British history and Callaghan, for want of a better-timed election, might well have gone down as the European leader who best coped with the crisis of the mid-1970s. None of them, though, won a full second term, and none of them turned Labour into a real national party or a genuine “natural party of government”. This is exactly what Blair wants his new party to be. His great majority, however, was secured with only 44 per cent of the vote and is built on the unsteady foundations of disgruntled Conservatives who stayed away or who switched tactically.

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To keep such a coalition together is a unique political challenge. Blair must do something that no other political leader has done this century: win consistently from what was once called the left of the (now obsolete) linear political spectrum. To do this his new party must be a new thing in British politics: a government of permanent campaigning. Nothing ruins campaigning more than divisions, so the old party needs not only to be beaten, but eliminated.

Political parties are difficult things to kill. The old Liberal Party clung to life for a generation in various guises and pacts with other parties. Its social clubs live on. The old Labour Party will also have an afterlife. The left has no ideological coherence with which to form a response to contemporary economic problems; it has nothing constructive to say about our future in Europe or in the global economy.

An older and more secure government, like Attlee’s, would give the left more scope to display its failure to develop a strategy for the future of Britain. But Attlee was at home with his party and not intent on its extinction. New Labour needs to pulverise the left, and keep pulverising it, for example in the NEC elections or the race for Mayor of London, because this is not a competition between elements of the same party battling over a shared future. This is not the 1950s, when the bitterest hatred between left and right boiled down to an argument about the form of public ownership and the extent of planning, an argument that was conducted between men like Gaitskell and Bevan, who were emotionally stitched into the fabric of the party. Tony Blair’s purpose is political matricide, and in murder any sign of life from the corpse spells failure.

But it is not all negative. Toddlers learn to speak. Many of them invent their own languages. To establish its place in history the new Labour government must have an ideology that will rival Thatcherism.

The real control freaks of postwar Britain have come from the Conservative Party. They have held their governments together through a coherent ideology that enforced unity – the ideology summed up in the title of John Ramsden’s brilliant history of the party: An Appetite for Power.

In new Labour’s growing pains we are seeing the first steps of a new political party, one that believes in the market economy and has the same appetite for power as the Conservatives.

We should expect such an infant to exhibit some petulance and insecurity. The challenge will come with ageing: when new Labour does not try and fix selections, pack committees, censor the press and control information; when it does not demand of the civil service the ideas and inspiration that it should be providing itself; then new Labour will have come of age. By then, of course, we will be contending with the problems of adolescence.

Brian Brivati is a reader in modern British history, Kingston University. His new biography of Lord Goodman will be published next spring