Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Looking back on New Labour

I’m going to cheat a bit with my column this week as it’s the first one after the summer break. 

My cheating is to quote at length stuff someone else has written about the merits of New Labour:

‘Looking back to those early years, long before the shadow of Iraq fell across the New Labour project, several thoughts occur to me.

First, how much Tony Blair got right. He was surely right about the need to seize the middle ground and stay there. His decision to rewrite Clause IV … was in retrospect a master stroke … His strategy of promising little and delivering more … was surely vindicated. Likewise his determination to tackle the huge benefit culture (ironically, the new government’s most enduring legacy from the Thatcher decade) and to reform public services, education in particular. And as we contemplate a Tory government, propped up by Liberal Democrats, laying waste to public services, who can say that Blair was mistaken in his desire in his desire to realign politics by bringing the Lib Dems into New Labour’s big tent? Had he succeeded we might not be where we are today.

‘Peter Mandelson … was a man of excellent judgement in every respect, except in relation to his own affairs … His third and final visit to government, in the autumn of 2008, arguably made the difference between mere defeat and annihilation.

‘Hand on heart … I can say that, whatever the disappointments, thirteen years of Labour government made a significant difference to the lives of my least prosperous constituents. Unemployment, especially amongst the young, feel to levels not seen since the early seventies and, as unemployment fell, so did the epidemic of crime and antisocial behaviour that blighted the lives of my poorest constituents.’

Who wrote this assessment of New Labour? Stephen Byers maybe? Alan Milburn?

No, these quotes are from Chris Mullin’s introduction to his newly published third volume of diaries, covering the years 1994-1999.

That’s right, those words are the verdict of Chris Mullin, former Campaign Group member, one-time lieutenant of and editor of key books by Tony Benn, whose previous works include the hard left’s pamphlet guide to running a purge ‘How to Select or Re- Select your MP’.

Chris Mullin claims elsewhere in his introduction that he has ‘a tendency towards pessimism.’ But what shines through in his book is realism about how politics works, and what is achievable, respect for the motives of people he disagrees with, and a deep sense of humanity.

Obviously I’ve quoted the pro-New Labour points above to make a point, and there is considerable criticism of aspects of Blairism as well.

But it is a balanced account.

If you haven’t already bought a copy of ‘A Walk-On Part’ or the two previous volumes you should – they’ll help you come to your own assessment of recent Labour history.

I hope that somewhere Mr Mullin has kept and will publish his pre-1994 diaries so we can understand his role in the Benn insurgency and his journey away from the Hard Left towards a more pragmatic stance. He hints at the causes of this being linked to disillusionment with the Stalinist regime in his wife’s home country of Vietnam but the full story would make interesting reading.


Luke Akehurst is a constituency representative on Labour’s NEC, a councillor in Hackney, writes regularly for Progress here, and blogs here


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Luke Akehurst

is director of We Believe in Israel and a former member of Labour's National Executive Committee


  • I’d say that for a fair and balanced and enjoyable read about the New Labour years, there’s no better port of call than Mullin’s diaries. I seem to recall reading though that he only started writing in 1994 – may be wrong but I was pretty certain of that.

    One thing that for me has remained underrated about the diaries is Mullin’s politics, which I’d describe as “sensible leftism” and that I think would have a considerable constituency in parts of the country that Labour has largely given up on – the South, the countryside etc.

    Like many of us whose voices get drowned out in the consensus of the crowd, Mullin has deep anxieties about the directions the world is going in, and the crazed focus on economic development – as he puts it, the developing world seems hellbent on repeating all the mistakes that we did during our own period of development, sacrificing many of the good things in life in the process.

    The powers that be in the party would do well to bear in mind his concerns. The dehumanisation and de-democratisation of politics and life because of apparent economic imperatives is a severe problem we have, both as a party and a democratic nation-state.

  • Iwas a carer during labour years and under labour the care allowance became counted as income As I worked full time I had an agency helper in you put up her wages but not my income.At first I believed your hype and I remember congratulating my social worker her on extra income they was getting from government there was a pause and then she said they were onstrike because of cut backs. to be fair this was during first 4 years of government and maybe things became better later my mother only lived for 4 years while Iwas full time carer .My sister was single mum who was going to university you took away her grant.When exspense scandal came out I saw who you really cared about.Is it trueBlair had his exspenses shreddedand how much do we pay for his body guard.I try not to be bitter but whenI read an article like yours the pain returns.

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