TCS Daily


New Labour Looks Back

By Josie Appleton - April 25, 2005 12:00 AM

"Forward not back" is the Labour Party's election battle cry - so why is it looking to the party's past in search of identity? When it came into power in 1997, New Labour called year zero, an absolute break with everything that had gone before. New Labour, New Britain, went the slogan. Peter Mandelson tells us in his 1996 book, The Blair Revolution, that Tony Blair saw New Labour as "literally a new party". But as the New Labour concept looks increasingly hollow, its leaders have started looking to their roots.

"New" was quietly removed from the Labour Party membership card. Now figures from the party's past are being held up as beacons for the current regime. In a book review in the left-wing Guardian, Blair critic Roy Hattersley argued that "Labour needs a theory to live by. Fortunately one philosopher has defined the boundaries which divide social democracy from other political creeds." He's referring to T.H. Green, the 19th-century ethical socialist. Green's "Theory of Positive Freedom", in which he argues for state intervention to defend the poor and weak, is deemed "essential reading for anyone who thinks that the Labour government should do more than pluck individual initiatives out of the air". We might expect this from Hattersley -- but the government is at it as well.

Earlier this year health secretary John Reid justified New Labour's approach to consumerism and choice by harking back to the cooperative societies of the late 19th century, and the interwar consumer activist group the War Emergency Workers National Committee. While critics accuse the government of selling out to Thatcherism, Reid responds: "Our own history demonstrates that this putative choice between a celebration of consumption and the development of social democratic politics is in fact a false choice."

And in New Labour's Old Roots, Patrick Diamond, special adviser in the prime minister's office, presents New Labour as merely the "embodiment of historic revisionist ambitions, rather than a suspect derivation". Blair's foreword argues that "the story of Labour over the last generation is the story of a party that has returned to its roots" - and indeed, Diamond refers throughout to "'New' Labour". The book's claim is that past thinkers can help to "furnish the party with a stronger, more confident social democratic doctrine": "As a historical tract, it can restore Labour's confidence in its own future."

The search for a tradition has been going on for a while. By the second edition of Mandelson's Blair Revolution, the 2002 The Blair Revolution Revisited, he was casting an eye backwards. Mandelson noted criticisms that New Labour was a shallow, 'please anyone' outfit, and said that this could be rectified by the government '[tracing] its roots more openly and directly to Labour's social democratic tradition', particularly 'the revisionist thinking of the 1950s and 1960s'. He said that too often New Labour had sought to present itself as an absolute break with the past, rather than showing its connections.

Why the interest in the past? New Labour burst into British political life in 1997 promising to make Britain a "young country" again, to erase the country's sense of national decline and political stagnation. One 1997 Labour election broadcast went: "In our rapidly changing world we seem, somehow, to have lost our sense of purpose. Now, someone has emerged who is determined to give it back to us": "Give Tony Blair your mandate on May 1st and let him give Britain back its sense of purpose." In the effort to launch a new era, New Labour gave the country "cool Britannia", a collection of pop stars and designers who sought to create a new image for "Britain plc".

From the beginning, though, "the project" primarily defined itself against the past, rather than saying what it was for in the future. Blair took pot shots at the old left, removing the commitment to "common ownership of the means of production" from the party's constitution; and he also attacked the old right, distancing himself from traditional British institutions and symbols such as the monarchy to the Union Jack. Perhaps the problem was that New Labour knew what it was not, without knowing what it was. In any case, the gloss wore off fairly quickly, and the accusations of "style over substance" came thick and fast. The Millennium Dome was supposed to be a "spiritual beacon", an "opportunity for renewal"; in Blair's words, "Britain's opportunity to great the world with a celebration so bold, so beautiful, so inspiring...." It ended up being a national embarrassment: a crude and expensive demonstration of uncertainty about how to mark the Millennium.

Now New Labour has toned down the rhetoric and is trying to make its peace with the past. We weren't really doing anything new, its leaders assure; we were just carrying on Gaitskell's program.

It's unlikely that those ghosts of Labour past will be of much assistance though, given the dour lot of leaders that make up the Labour Party's tradition. In the 1950s, Herbert Morrison had the practical maxim "Socialism is what a Labour government does". A 1956 piece by Anthony Crosland in Diamond's book mumbles about the difficulty of defining socialism, saying that the aim should be to improve things in line with values such as equality, but by an indefinite amount: "[socialism] simply describes a set of values, or aspirations, which socialists wish to see embodied in the organisation of society.... But exactly what degree of equality will create a society which does sufficiently embody them, no-one can possibly say. We must re-assess the matter in the light of each new situation." This wouldn't have got the pulse racing 50 years ago; now it is practically soporific. In light of this, New Labour might be advised to look forward not back, after all.

The author is an editor with Spiked Online.

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