Party Life Under New Labour: The Untold Story
This article was originally written for the French Socialist Party publication Témoin. Addressed to a readership who would not necessarily be familiar with the background to the rise of New Labour, it provides a useful summary of Blairism’s destructive impact on political life within the Labour Party – a process which, as the author points out, has been largely ignored by the media.
Blair was merely the extreme edge of the modernisers who sought to re-establish the credibility of the party after the electoral defeat of 1983, which actually saw a return of traditional working class voters to Labour. The effort to re-centre the party depended on controlling and purging it of the socialist values and traditions that in the 1970s had produced a programme similar to that of the United Left in France.2 This may sound strange to intellectuals on the rive gauche who possess a Cold War stereotype of British Labour as being irretrievably reformist and subordinate to the Americans.
The Labour Party is quite different from Socialist Parties on the continent. To begin with, it is not really a single party but a coalition of trades unions with socialist societies, constituency parties and a parliamentary group. Though rooted in the working class, its cultural matrix was not Enlightenment rationalism and anti-clericalism but constitutional Liberalism and dissenting Protestant religion. Its socialism was not Marxist or theoretical, but practical and immediate. Where continental parties were bound by a dogmatic Marxism to a kind of short-term impossibilism, Labour was always open to "third way" or transitional reforms – the minimum wage and social benefits, public works, the regulation of banks and expansion of credit, and nationalisation – the famous Clause IV of the 1918 constitution, revoked by Blair in 1995, which was constitutive of its identity.
The socialist conscience of the Labour Party came from the founding Independent Labour Party (ILP) of Keir Hardie.3 It was concentrated not among the trade union leaders, many of whom were bound into a Liberal accommodation with capitalism, or even in the intellectual Fabian Society, but in the local constituency parties (CLPs) that contested elections. It is not only the media who have poorly served the CLPs. Marxist and social democratic historians also conspired to evacuate their socialist values and projects.4 The CLPs served as a counterweight to the accommodationist tendency of parliamentary leaders and government ministers. There was a dialectical interplay between them that resulted in quite innovative policies for socialist transition elaborated by the ILP in 1926, the Socialist League in the 1930s and the Labour Left in the 1970s. As Hegel said, "a political party does not truly exist unless divided against itself".
The modernisers of the 1980s were determined to end that dialectic, which they blamed for a defeat in 1983 that was really due to the defection of right wing social democrats. Their strategy was to isolate the Labour Left, best represented by the former industry minister Tony Benn and the Socialist Campaign Group in parliament, by associating it with the various Trotskyist and new left "life style" groups that had gained influence in the 1970s.
While purging the left, starting with the sectarian Militant Tendency, a veritable party within the party, the Kinnock leadership forged an alliance with a softer more trendy left that included Blair and his cohorts. The modernisers learned many of their manipulative techniques from the Labour Co-ordinating Committee, a group of former radicals who had sharpened their teeth in student battles with Militant. As activists departed, they left behind moderates who were persuaded by the leadership that the Left and its programme were the source of their electoral defeats.5
The Labour Left was never as well organised, co-ordinated or strategically coherent as the Communist Party had been. The absence of theoretical underpinnings made it vulnerable to attack from the hard right and from the hard and soft left. Its rising influence in the 1970s – it only had a clear majority on the National Executive Committee (NEC) from 1979-81 – drew upon disgust with the wasted Wilson and Callaghan years in office and the infusion of the rebellious gauchisant spirit of the 1968 generation. Its success depended on finding support from trade union leaders like Jack Jones of the Transport and General Workers Union, but these leaders took fright at the prospect of internal division. It was rather easily marginalised by Kinnock, who moved gradually to the right, enlisting the talents of Peter Mandelson as his media spinner.
The revision of Clause IV by Blair and the adoption of the New Labour sign was the culmination of a cascade of renunciations, which included all forms of market intervention, from industrial to fiscal and monetary policy.6 Previous Labour governments had justified renunciations by the pressure of structural constraints – the Cold War or the IMF. Blair was the first Labour leaders who was happy and proud to be business-friendly. The result was a Labour government wedded to privatisation (usually masked as private finance initiatives), financial monetarism and Tory spending limits, which is to say the status quo.
Having marginalised the Labour Left, Blair moved to guarantee his control of the party by changing its constitution. The leadership argued that previous Labour governments had foundered because of free internal debate and division. The role of the trade unions, which despite their acquiescence to neo-liberalism might make embarrassing bread and butter demands, was diminished as was the decision-making power of the annual conference. To prepare for its role as a party of government the leadership pushed through without discussion a whole new system of policy making known as Partnership in Power. This system revolved around local and national policy forums and joint committees controlled by the government.
The idea was to deprive Labour activists of their traditional forums in the CLP GCs (the general committees of delegates from branches and affiliated organisations), on the NEC, to which the CLPs usually elected Left candidates, and at annual conference, which the Left together with certain unions had dominated since the 1970s. If the party’s policy-making function could be relegated to strictly controlled forums, then activists would be disabled from influencing government policy through resolutions at the NEC or annual conference.
Blair was determined to show the media and middle classes that he would never be influenced by the Left and that he was the party. New Labour was willing to risk depriving the party of its vital force, its activists, because it had a more American or plebiscitory conception of politics as a dialogue between the charismatic leader and public opinion. Blair used the American technique of focus groups, not so much to determine policy – Blair is more firmly neo-liberal than Clinton – but to discover how best to spin stories to the public through the media.
New Labour has many faces and voices in public life, but in the party it is the authoritarian and manipulative that predominates. It combined the de-politicising ideology of American problem-solving with Japanese participative management techniques. Since neo-liberalism appeared to be uncontested in the party, political issues could henceforth be resolved by the leadership as technical problems. The role of the policy forums like that of the Japanese quality circles was to polish and smooth out the edges and surfaces of a predetermined policy. Policy documents presented policies in the blandest and vaguest of terms, obscuring the underlying neo-liberal commitments and possible alternatives.
They were written in the kind of managerial speak that is the trademark of New Labour.7 There were manifest absurdities. Agriculture was paired with culture because they rhymed. Employment was treated simply as a matter of training, economic policy mainly in terms of objectives. Because of their generality, the documents could not bind the government, which was free to take its own initiatives on welfare reform, the privatisation of transport or education, Kosovo, or the single currency.
Forums were strictly policed by party leaders and ministers. They were provided with New Labour experts and facilitators, who were told to discourage polarised debate, the informed interventions of activists and any form of vote or collective expression. Participation was encouraged to empower the least informed and least committed opinion. Reporters filtered out dissident views. When local forums remained independent, their views were never transmitted to the National Policy Forums where the government disposed of an overwhelming majority. No provision was made for presenting the case for alternative policies, and ministers spent long hours dissuading delegates from supporting alternative motions. Policy documents were sent on substantially unchanged to annual conference, where with the exception of a few minor amendments accepted last year they were rubber-stamped. Policies as important as the rejection of a federal Europe were decided without discussion or even anyone taking notice.
The same policing was applied to the selection of candidates or important delegates. The Labour Left had fought for and obtained the right for CLP GCs to de-select Members of Parliament. The modernisers responded by introducing one-member-one-vote (OMOV) for all but the party leaders, hoping to drown out activist voices with those of the silent "majority", and used selection panels to filter out candidates who were "off message", that is anyone who might have their own ideas and exercise their own judgement. The candidate selection panels for the new London Assembly excluded a leading figure of the Labour Left, Christine Shawcroft, on the grounds that she lacked or had failed "life experience", as well as a Blairite who did not support government plans for performance pay for teachers. A candidate for the NEC, Raghib Ahsan, was disqualified on the spurious grounds that the meeting of his CLP that nominated him was inquorate.
In order to purge Old Labour from local government, the leadership introduced selection panels with instructions under Project 2000 to apply managerial rather than political criteria in vetting candidates. Candidates were tested on their ability to solve administrative problems rather than their experience in the party or their commitment to its ideals. The aim was to find candidates with the proper professional and middle class profile. The vice-chair of Hampstead and Highgate CLP, David Taggart, a veteran working class activist, was eliminated because he could not answer questions like how he would sell the idea of "best value" (a form of competitive tendering of local services that even ministers find difficult to explain) to his constituents.
In determining the lists for the European elections, run on a proportional list system for the first time, party leaders only allowed obedient and conforming personalities to go forward. Only pre-selected candidates were notified of the opening of nominations and given lists of members to canvass. The candidate who received the most votes in London was the pro-government Charles Grant, but he was a biographer of Jacques Delors and the head of an EU think tank, who knew too much for Blair’s comfort, and so was excluded. Successful candidates were not afraid to boast that they knew nothing about the EU, but would carry out instructions from party headquarters. Blair did not want dedicated Europhiles in his MEP delegation to question his leadership, especially if, as seems probable, he rejects the single currency after the next election.
Blair’s "control freakery" in candidate and party selections was ignored by the media until the fiasco of the London mayoral election. The party’s London regional board had spent most of its time trying to figure out how to stop Ken Livingstone, the wily Labour Left politician who had headed the resistance to Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s and who embodied the anarchic spirit and mocking humour of working class London – a veritable titi londonien. Livingstone was too prominent a figure to be simply excluded without it being noticed, so the leadership arranged the mayoral selection through an electoral college that gave the deciding votes to loyal MPs and MEPs.
The internal party contest was marked by the heavy-handed intervention of Blair, who conducted rallies for his candidate Frank Dobson. His barely veiled endorsement of Dobson was included in the ballot paper, which itself was hidden away in a New Labour-style magazine that most activists would be likely to bin. Internal polls showed that two-thirds of party members supported Livingstone. The final electoral college tally gave Dobson 51%, giving rise to suspicions of ballot rigging. In the actual election Livingstone running as an independent got the overwhelming support of Labour voters.
Until last year the leadership was able to control and stage manage annual conference for the television audience. CLPs were discouraged from sending contemporary or emergency resolutions or dissenting delegates. In the conference hall delegates, often provided with official scripts, were signalled to the chair by anonymous security men in suits. There was no debate or real discussion.
The facade of unity was broken last year by the eruption of the pensions issue, in which union leaders held firm to linkage with national wealth and earnings. The level of British pensions, which were de-linked from earnings by Mrs Thatcher, is set at about one-quarter that of the German and well below the British poverty line. The government added insult to injury last year by raising it by the level of inflation – a mere seventy-five pence. By standing firm on the issue despite considerable arm-twisting by ministers, union leaders administered the first internal defeat to New Labour.
The vote at conference on this issue revealed that most CLP delegates supported the government, but this was not an accurate reflection of member opinion. Almost one-third of the CLPs failed to send delegates. Many loyalists were chosen by self-appointed constituency executive committees. For New Labour has hollowed out active membership, leaving most CLPs in the hands of a few loyalists. Blair had vowed to "break GC culture", by which he meant rebellious activists.8 With its 21st Century Party consultation the leadership tried to persuade members to replace GCs with less frequent all-member meetings that could easily be manipulated or ignored by local officials. The model example was the Enfield Southgate constituency of Blairite MP Stephen Twigg, which abolished both local branches and the GC, replacing them with bi-monthly social functions entertained by the likes of actor Tony Robinson, a personal friend of Blair.
While nominal membership in the party has probably declined by a quarter to a third from the level of 400,000 at the time of Blair’s election, active membership has fallen by more, as have party donations. One proxy of active membership is the number who vote for CLP representatives on the NEC, which has fallen 57% since 1997 to about 64,000.
Many CLPs are incapable of conducting election campaigns with leafleting, door to door canvassing and poll watching. The importance of local campaigning can be exaggerated in the age of mass communication, but two connoisseurs of the rank and file estimated that a doubling of activists in 1987 and 1992 would have increased the Labour vote by more than 5%, leading to victory.9 Party activists are now thin on the ground in most CLPs, not only those from the Labour Left but also the Blair generation, those who have joined the party since 1994.
Not much is known about this generation except that it has not turned out to be the bulwark of middle class economic conservatism that New Labour had counted on for support. An early sounding found that it was actually more working class than were older members and just slightly more moderate on nationalisation. New Labour drew young people who thought they could make a career in politics, along with older Social Democrats, but it did not attract members from the professional and managerial ranks to which Blair in government directed most of his attention.
Blair failed to root his own political culture in the party. When the inevitable disillusionment with Blair set in, it drove out the Johnnies-come-lately of the Blair generation, leaving more socialist stalwarts of the older generation behind.
New Labour is a risky venture. The party can no longer count on its activists, the traditional industrial heartlands and working class supporters to win elections. It has come to rely on the boyish smile of its leader, media spin and the caprices of middle England. Middle England is satisfied with the politics of economic stability, which Blair inherited from Major, but it could be shaken by an economic downturn, or abstain because of government failures on crime, education, health and transport. Labour has lost a large percentage share in almost every election since 1997, due mostly to low turnout – national and local by-elections, European parliamentary elections, and Welsh, Scottish and London regionals. In a dreary pre-election climate marked by foot and mouth disease, rail accidents, rising crime statistics and the world economic downturn, the Tories despite deep unpopularity could conceivably make a running by default.
In any event, a second term Labour government would be faced with very difficult dilemmas that the present leadership, committed to neo-liberalism, probably cannot resolve. With its Comprehensive Spending Review it recognised the need for greater public spending – even if the 40 billion pounds that it has pledged to public services will not bring it up to the relative levels enjoyed under Major – but not that of greater and more progressive taxation. The discourse of the Chancellor Gordon Brown, who is touted as Blair’s eventual replacement, is a confused mixture of Old and New Labour that is not likely to win back traditional supporters. The continuation of the present trajectory, especially in the event of an economic downturn, will further deplete the ranks and could lead to a split with the unions.
New Labour came to power with the boast that it had transformed British political life and would rule for a hundred years. It drew upon a faulty class analysis – in which some mechanistic Marxists10 were complicit – that the working class had died and that we were all middle class now. While the role of the industrial working class in British society had doubtless been diminished, it was partly the result of political choices, the acceptance of de-industrialisation and Thatcherite repression. Britain is actually more class divided and unequal than ever before – at least since the Victorian age.
It was the first majority working class society, and according to the Social Attitudes survey most people still consider themselves to be more working class than middle class. It is a country with a crumbling public and industrial infrastructure and low productivity, which some on the rive gauche like to compare to Eastern Europe. There is still a working class majority in the broader social and political sense of wage earners who need and want more state intervention in the economy. As in France, professional and industrial workers agree on the virtues of welfare and public spending.11 Whether the Labour Party, severely shaken by New Labour, will be able to lead this majority in the future remains to be seen.
1. e.g. P. Gould, The Unfinished Revolution: How the Modernisers Saved the Labour Party, Little, Brown and Company, 1998.
2. See especially M. Wickam-Jones, Economic Strategy and the Labour Party: Politics and Policy-Making, 1970-83, Macmillan, 1996.
3. The best introduction is the almost too brilliant D. Howell, British Workers and the Independent Labour Party, Manchester U.P., 1983.
4. Cf. H. Pelling, A Short History of the Labour Party, Macmillan, 1961, and R. Miliband, Parliamentary Socialism: A Study of the Politics of Labour, Allen and Unwin, 1961. Pelling’s authoritative The Origins of the Labour Party, 1880-1900, Macmillan, 1954, while anti-Marxist, was suffused with class.
5. The fullest account is R. Heffernan and M. Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory: Inside Kinnock’s Labour Party, Verso, 1992. Also, E. Shaw, Discipline and Discord in the Labour Party: The Politics of Managerial Control, 1951-87, Manchester U.P., 1987, and H. Wainwright, Labour: A Tale of Two Parties, Hogarth Press, 1987.
6. M. Smith and J. Spear, eds, The Changing Labour Party, Routledge, 1992.
7. Cf. N. Fairclough, New Language, New Labour, Routledge, 2000.
8. Times, 20 November 1998.
9. P. Whiteley and P. Seyd, Labour’s Grass Roots, Clarendon Press, 1992, p.198, and their "The Labour Vote and Local Activism: the Impact of Local Constituency Campaigns", Parliamentary Affairs 45, 1993, pp.591-93.
10. The historian Eric Hobsbawm contributed to this revisionist way of thinking in M. Jacques and F. Mulhern, eds, The Forward March of Labour Halted?, New Left Books/Marxism Today, 1981, just as the Labour Left was gaining ascendancy.
11. T. Haines, "Professional Classes turn Leftwards with Blair", Times, 2 March 2001.