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28 June 1999

An open letter to new labour

Please stop patronising us. Anthony Barnett implores ministers to stop treating all their supporters

By Anthony Barnett

Dear New Labour,

Cod philosophers say that people do not change. But you are still young and energetic. You made the idea of change and modernisation your calling card when you asked Britain to vote for you. You admire great corporations and their ability to adapt. Now, before it is too late, you, too, must change.

I am not telling you to stop being new Labour. On the contrary, you are not being new Labour enough. You have this habit of suggesting that anyone who criticises you on the left must be “old”, traditional and past it, as if you, and you alone, were the future. Yet what strikes me is that you have allowed your government to be taken over by old Labour instincts. The vices of economism, cronyism and paternalism which marked the administrations of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan have returned. Just like them, you disparage the aspirations of your own supporters. You have become paranoid about the media, you hate open debate, you are manipulative and bossy to your own MPs. Above all, you have abandoned the democratic modernisation that Britain needs in favour of a revamped version of the status quo.

Because of the size and organisation of the postwar working class, and the ideological passion of the progressive middle class, it took time for traditional Labour supporters to return in kind the contempt with which they were treated by the Wilson and Callaghan governments. Eventually they withdrew their support. Now their children are withdrawing their support from your government. Only much faster.

At the end of the seventies, heartland Labour voters abstained or turned in despair to Thatcher, because they were disgusted by the old Labour antics of James Callaghan and his cronies. Today, Labour supporters still do not want old Labour politics. Votes for Arthur Scargill in this month’s Euro election were derisory. Dennis Canavan may be old Labour in some senses, but he won resoundingly in May when he stood for a new Labour institution – the Scottish Parliament – on a new Labour ticket: democracy. Labour voters, whether lifetime or first-time, want a modern, fairer, successful country and they also want to be part of it. They want a clear freedom of information act. They want the right to know, they want their voices to count and they wish to be treated with respect, not contempt.

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What worries me is not so much the Euro election result as your reaction to it. As his modest contribution to the postmortem, for example, John Monks of the TUC suggested you might stop treating traditional supporters as an embarrassment. You were very cross at his impertinence. Which itself is striking because Monks is such an evidently modern, pro-European, internationally minded, well-educated figure. But you let it be known, in that firm but anonymous way which you have, that he had lost the plot. A source from your “high command” put it to the Guardian that he had failed to understand the sophistication of Tony Blair’s strategy. This is, apparently, to hold together a coalition of traditional and new Labour voters. In order to communicate such a rich and complex idea, the voice of the high command explained: “In a circus, you have to ride two horses. The problem is: how do we reassure traditional voters that we have done a lot for them?”

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Horses, eh? This is a revealing metaphor. Let’s leave aside your spokesman’s implicit assumption that Middle England is happy with the way it is being ridden, even if the GM food fiasco suggests otherwise. What you need to understand is that we horses don’t just want to be ridden. We also want to know where we are going.

One description of your project is as follows. Through the 20th century the Tories have been the “natural party of government” thanks to the division between Liberals and Labour. Your aim is to repair the split so as to bring about a lasting alliance of the non-Tory voting forces and thus make the new century a Labour one.

This admirable ambition is sometimes reduced to winning two successive full terms of office, as if this alone will do the job. But since 1945, Labour has always won its second election after gaining power. In both 1966 and October 1974 it won full terms. Yet these second terms proved fatal to any hope of a fundamental realignment. Squabbling, demoralisation, by-election losses, disorientation and defeat were the outcome in each case. What really matters is not winning in 2002, therefore. If you had a majority of 40 or 50 then, this could well be seen as a victory for William Hague, whose sights are set on 2007 and whose aim now is to destroy the credibility of the next Labour administration. Should you lose the initiative in classic old Labour fashion, he will succeed.

And losing the initiative is exactly what you are doing, especially on the defining issue of Europe. On his attitude to the euro, Blair could have said: “Look, we have just won a war with our European partners. Sure, there have been differences. We would not wish it otherwise. But, you see, we can keep our national differences and work together when it matters. Without a European Union, Milosevic would have won.” Or words to that effect.

Why was this opportunity passed over? Because it would have forced the Prime Minister to acknowledge the political, idealistic aspects of Europe at a time when he is trying to keep the debate about the euro on a purely technical, pragmatic level: we shall join, he says, when it is in the country’s best economic interests to do so.

So instead of establishing the grand strategy and then judging the practical steps needed to achieve it, you deliver a narrow practical judgement and run away from the politics of the overall strategy.

This is typical. You come over all bold and creative but then . . . Wales can have an assembly but not the leader it wants. We have a human rights act, but not a commission to make it work for everyone. We can get rid of hereditary peers, but can’t have a democratic second chamber. We will have a freedom of information act, but only after the spine has been filleted out. Again and again, you insist that the radical changes you make, or want to make, are matters of technical modernisation. You drain your policies of their politics, their principles and their spirit. Now you are making the same mistake with GM foods where, you insist, you can be trusted to make the necessary calculations of risk and completely miss the point that most of us do not want our food and our environment messed about by giant, unaccountable multinational corporations.

So, you see, there is a pattern. Even when you deliver great and historic reforms, you minimise their significance and deflate the energy they release. In this respect you are behaving as Labour governments always have done. What you are doing to the constitution is like what Clement Attlee did to the nationalised industries: he took them over for the nation only to have them run by bureaucratic boards. Wilson and Callaghan were even worse. They patronised voters, silenced policy debate and tried to finagle decisions – on sterling policy, for example – by appealing to their own technical and tactical mastery.

I wrote one of the first books to welcome your arrival in office. I argued then that the country was ready for a new democratic constitutional settlement. But I had an inkling of the alternative direction you might take. “What 1997 has made possible,” I wrote, “is not inevitable. As well as constitutional democracy there are adverse forms of modernisation. Centralised, populist rule from above is one, which rests on the awe-inducing glamour of media and electoral manipulation, rather than the glint of bayonets or coronets.” This, I fear, is the course you have taken. In Wales it led you to roll out the block vote from the dead. Then the birthplace of Labour witnessed the shameful spectacle of your campaigners, like fundamentalists with mobile phones, insisting that the ayatollah be obeyed and Alun Michael be anointed. Even the Welsh, the most traditional Labour tribe of all, proved more modern than you are and deprived you of a majority in your assembly.

I warned that, if you copied Margaret Thatcher’s style of power and attempted your version of her centralised, populist rule, you would repeat the deep structure of 20th-century British politics. This has Labour governments reproducing rather than replacing a Tory relationship with the electorate. This then opens the way for a return of the Conservatives, refreshed and renewed by their spell in opposition.

In other words, what you call “new” is doubly old. First, it is old Labour to be centralising and anti-democratic and rely as much as possible on the unchecked powers of the executive. Second, it is old Labour to copy the last successful Tory government’s style of doing this. Attlee copied Churchill; Wilson and Callaghan copied Macmillan; now, you copy Thatcher.

So you dictate to teachers how they should teach children to read, you treat heads as plant managers, you deny local government any space to breathe. You set high standards for the public services – rightly so – but you have an absolute distrust of anybody else’s capacity to deliver.

Thanks to your reforms, however, the way is still open to a modern democratic Britain. It is not too late to rewrite the Freedom of Information Bill or allow Londoners to choose the mayor they want. The creative energy latent in the huge vote against the Tories in 1997 has not yet been dispersed and could make yours better than all other Labour governments. You have shown you can do it. For example, Gordon Brown’s creation of the Monetary Policy Committee has constitutionalised and made accountable previously arbitrary, club-land decision-making over interest rates. Yet Brown seems to have been excluded from the rest of your constitutional changes, even though, with John Smith, he was the senior Labour figure to lay down this aspect of your rethinking.

Until now, your view has been that you and you alone knew how to succeed. After all, you were the most popular government in history. You knew how to handle Europe, win elections, modernise government and not to frighten Middle England.

Well, you have started to lose the initiative. If you are to start winning again, you must inspire the independent action of others. Once, you turned three good words into your mantra: education, education, education. Now, you need another three words, not as an alternative to economic and social reform, but as their companion. They are democracy, democracy, democracy.

We need a democratic constitution so as to hold executive power to account. We need it to protect our own democratic traditions within Europe. We need it to provide a springboard for the application of democracy to Europe itself. Above all, we need it so that you stop thinking that you can ride us around the ring as if we are just bloody horses without minds of our own.

We do not want an old-fashioned, undemocratic ringleader. Unless you change, we, the horses, will leave your circus and we will do so without you on our backs.

With best wishes,
Anthony Barnett

The writer was the founding director of Charter 88 and the author of “This Time: our constitutional revolution” (Vintage Books, 1997)

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