Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Long reads
7 December 2007

Tony Robinson’s warning to Labour

Unless we cleanse the Augean stables, and that will involve a root and branch transformation of the

By Tony Robinson

For a decade New Labour has prided itself on being a modernising party. It has modernised the NHS, it has modernised Britain’s universities, it has even modernised the Party structure, but its fatal flaw has been that it has neglected to modernise its own culture, which at times still resembles a scene from one of those 1960s’ smoke-filled rooms where members of the Party machine blustered and bullied, determined to assert their will at all costs.

The latest funding scandal has been portrayed even by its fiercest party critics as an aberration, a cock-up bound to happen, brought about by an inexperienced general secretary and government ministers who failed to manage him properly.

Nothing could be further from the truth. Peter Watt is a gentle and thoughtful man, but a skilled operator. He honed his talents serving the present-day party machine, and was the machine’s candidate for general secretary. He is the apotheosis of the political apparatchik, entirely a New Labour creation, even though he may now be its nemesis.

The search by party officials like Peter for loopholes in an act of parliament Labour itself introduced in order to appear whiter than white isn’t an isolated event; nor is it merely a reaction to the Tories’ apparently effortless ability to dance round the Act’s regulations (though there is no doubt that this has indeed been a big problem for New Labour).

The “misinterpretation” of the Act by Labour Party officials is entirely predictable, at one with the catalogue of black farces that has emanated from Labour HQ over the past decade; the ejection of Walter Wolfgang from Conference, the clumsy attempts to prevent Rhodri Morgan becoming Welsh First Minister, the parachuting of favourite sons into parliamentary seats, the fixing and stitching of internal party elections.

Select and enter your email address Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. A weekly newsletter helping you fit together the pieces of the global economic slowdown. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A newsletter showcasing the finest writing from the ideas section and the NS archive, covering political ideas, philosophy, criticism and intellectual history - sent every Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.
  • Administration / Office
  • Arts and Culture
  • Board Member
  • Business / Corporate Services
  • Client / Customer Services
  • Communications
  • Construction, Works, Engineering
  • Education, Curriculum and Teaching
  • Environment, Conservation and NRM
  • Facility / Grounds Management and Maintenance
  • Finance Management
  • Health - Medical and Nursing Management
  • HR, Training and Organisational Development
  • Information and Communications Technology
  • Information Services, Statistics, Records, Archives
  • Infrastructure Management - Transport, Utilities
  • Legal Officers and Practitioners
  • Librarians and Library Management
  • Management
  • Marketing
  • OH&S, Risk Management
  • Operations Management
  • Planning, Policy, Strategy
  • Printing, Design, Publishing, Web
  • Projects, Programs and Advisors
  • Property, Assets and Fleet Management
  • Public Relations and Media
  • Purchasing and Procurement
  • Quality Management
  • Science and Technical Research and Development
  • Security and Law Enforcement
  • Service Delivery
  • Sport and Recreation
  • Travel, Accommodation, Tourism
  • Wellbeing, Community / Social Services
Visit our privacy Policy for more information about our services, how New Statesman Media Group may use, process and share your personal data, including information on your rights in respect of your personal data and how you can unsubscribe from future marketing communications.

They are all the product of the same political culture; indeed it’s often been the same people who have orchestrated them, moving silently through the background like the shadowy figures in the back row of the mass ranks of the Politburo. It’s not surprising that they act like Hugh Scanlon’s boys – they are his direct heirs.

In the 1980s those who went on to create New Labour were a tiny faction, a handful of intellectuals who recognised that if the Party was ever going to regain power they would have to roll up their sleeves, get their hands dirty and oust Militant. But they had neither the skills nor the organisational ability to do this on their own. Instead they relied on the army of dedicated fighters within the big right-wing unions, tough combatants, many of them ex-communists, all too familiar with the practice of using communist methods to thwart the Stalinists and latterly the Trotskyites.

This may seem like ancient history, but in 1997 when Tony Blair swept to power, he had virtually no power base within the party. Though initially supported by soft-left progressives, it was his friends among the right-wing street fighters whom he turned to for assistance, and it was they who provided the know-how whereby the Labour Party was transformed into a machine specifically designed to enact the will of Downing Street.

There is no better example of the brutal confidence with which they approached the job than the coup de gras applied by Ken Jackson’s AEEU when he deployed his union’s entire bloc vote against Ken Livingstone’s mayoral candidacy, even though his membership hadn’t been consulted.

Most of this behaviour hasn’t been corrupt like the corruption of those Tories who used their position to advance their own financial ends.

New Labour has always been a deeply ideological construction. It believes passionately in freeing the British people from poverty, making their streets safe and unshackling the markets that constrain their purchasing power.

But it believes just as passionately that every action it undertakes is right, and anything that gets in its way is wrong and needs to be neutralised, regardless of whether such neutralisation is fair, legal or in the rule book.

This ideology became clearly visible in the events surrounding the Iraq war, but it’s a phenomenon that has constantly bubbled away under the surface for more than a decade, and even after the shambles of the last few months it’s as prevalent as ever.

Over the past few weeks I’ve heard many senior party figures argue that however embarrassing the current debacle might be, it’s an irritant that needs to managed efficiently so we can move on swiftly and build towards a fourth term of office. This seems to me not only naive but profoundly wrong.

It’s naive because nowadays the activities of any large organisation are so ruthlessly scrutinised that if it behaves improperly it will eventually be found out. And it’s wrong because to deliberately break or attempt to by-pass the law while demanding that every other citizen should uphold it, is an unsustainable position.

The challenge that Gordon Brown and his team face in confronting this dysfunctional culture both within themselves and within those who surround them is monumental. While Tony Blair was in power his Willy Wonka talents and speed of operation obscured the depth of the ideological malaise within the party. But Gordon’s modus operandum is the exact opposite, and in a way it’s his caution and lack of pizzazz that have exposed these defects so swiftly.

Is he prepared to address this crisis in an open and honest way, rather than simply deploying the vocabulary of ‘openness’ and ‘honesty’, a strategy the Party used repeatedly under Tony Blair?

Will he for instance open all its finances to the National Executive for thorough and constant scrutiny?

It may seem unbelievable in today’s world that the treasurer of the governing party in a major western democracy should protest that he knows nothing of that party’s loan arrangements. But on many occasions during my time on the NEC I sat opposite polite but stony-faced party officials who refused to divulge such information, and I find Jack Dromey’s protestations completely plausible.

I believe we can win a fourth term in office, and despite the unacceptable behaviour so vividly displayed recently, I earnestly hope we do, because it’ll be the poor, the sick and the old who will suffer if we don’t. But unless we cleanse the Augean stables, and that will involve a root and branch transformation of the Party and its relationship with the professional political class, we won’t deserve the luxury of basking in yet another election victory.

Topics in this article :