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.

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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 political editor of the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics. He also co-hosts the New Statesman podcast.

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

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