The birth of New Labour was an electrifying ride into the future, recalls Paul Richards
Before Iraq, before the ludicrous calls for impeachment and citizens’ arrests, before the avalanche of hate, there once was a leader of the Labour party who did a most incredible thing.
He created a political force which dominated politics for a decade, which crushed the Conservative party, which won support across Britain’s class divides, which got hundreds of men and women elected to parliament who otherwise would never have been there, and which changed the lives of millions for the better. In short, he did the very things the Labour party was founded to do, and which none of its leaders, apart from Clement Attlee, had ever quite managed.
He succeeded where Keir Hardie, George Lansbury, Ramsay MacDonald, Harold Wilson, Neil Kinnock and the rest had failed. He turned the Labour party from a party of protest to a party of government. It all started 20 years ago, on 21 July 1994, on a hot sunny day when Tony Blair was declared the winner of the Labour party leadership election at the Institute of Education in London.
This was before ‘New Labour’ – a slogan launched in Blackpool later that year. It was before the change to Clause IV. I sat in a BBC radio car on Hammersmith Broadway with Blair, then shadow home secretary in 1993, when he was asked about changing Clause IV, and had given a non-committal politician’s answer. It was certainly before any idea that Labour could win landslide victories. In July 1994, Labour had not won an election for two decades.
And yet, the sense of excitement Blair generated was electric. Among the team of young volunteers stuffing envelopes (this was before the internet), drawn from the ranks of the Young Fabians and the National Organisation of Labour Students, at the Blair campaign headquarters at 4 Abbey Orchard Street, the atmosphere was evangelical. Among the political class, and the wider Labour family, there was a real sense that things would never be the same again.
So much has been written about the conflict with Gordon Brown. Blair’s own account makes bizarre reading: ‘We were like a couple who loved each other, arguing whose career should come first.’ He describes their conversations as ‘a bit like lovers desperate to get round to love-making but disturbed by old friends dropping round’. It is clear there was no ‘deal’ struck over the tablecloth at Granita, but there was some kind of ambiguous agreement which poisoned relationships at the top of the government for the next 10 years, and which held back Labour’s full potential as a reforming force. Perhaps it would have been better for all concerned if Blair had simply pummeled Brown fair and square in the leadership contest, and spared us all the psycho-drama of the next decade.
With hindsight, it is obvious from the historical facts that Blair was the far stronger candidate, far more effective prime minister, and far better placed to win elections. Blair won three majorities. Brown took Labour down to the second-worst defeat ever. But, even at the time, the mantra was: it has to be Tony. A Gallup survey of Labour party members before the contest started showed Blair on 47 per cent, John Prescott on 15 per cent, Brown on 11 per cent, Margaret Beckett on five per cent, Robin Cook on three per cent and Don’t Know at 18 per cent. As early as 1992, on the weekend of John Smith’s election as leader, the Times magazine ran a mischievous cover story with Blair as ‘the leader Labour missed.’
Blair was a decent family man, in tune with modern life, good on television, English, middle class, comfortable in his own skin. Politically, he had done brave things: on ending Labour’s outdated commitment to the closed shop, on repositioning Labour as a party of the majority, not just union members, on reintroducing morality and responsibility into the socialist lexicon. His speech reacting to the death of little James Bulger, abducted and killed by two children in February 1993, came like a thunderbolt. It talked of a moral chaos threatening to engulf us all. No Labour leader had talked like that before.
From the fall of the Berlin Wall onwards, Blair had used Marxism Today, the New Statesman and the Fabian Society as platforms to revise the 1980s ideas of socialism, to kill off lingering shades of Marxism, and to start a conversation about modern social democracy. His essay for the Christian Socialist Movement in 1993 stated that ‘there is right and wrong. There is good and bad. We all know this, of course, but it has become fashionable to be uncomfortable with such language.’ He reached out to his own Christian values, as did other Labour leaders from Hardie to Smith, made sense of them through his study of moral philosopher John Macmurray, and applied them to a fast-changing, post-Communist world.
The clues about the New Labour revolution that was to come were there in Blair’s leadership campaign, but you had to look quite closely. His campaign had to bridge two Labour epochs, from old to new, from losers to winners, from centre-left, to centre and left. The mini-manifesto that those young envelope-stuffers in the Blair headquarters sent out to thousands was called Principle, Purpose, Power. It was an A4 sheet folded, in full colour, with a picture of Blair on the cover. Blair is wearing a blue shirt, no jacket, with a dark Liberty tie. He is grinning his trademark grin, and holding his hands in his trademark pose. The words inside were penned by Alastair Campbell, tested by Philip Gould, looked over and amended by Peter Mandelson, and signed off by Blair, in a collaboration which would be repeated many hundreds of times over the next decade.
The political ideas are pretty bland: jobs, better schools, NHS the envy of the world, a crusade against crime. There are some challenges to the old left’s idea of socialism-as-nationalisation: ‘our democratic values are shared by the vast majority of the British people. Fairness. Justice. Community. Equality of opportunity. Responsibility. Self-respect and respect for others.’ Blair had worked up his version of socialism as ethical socialism (or social-ism, as he attempted to recast it), based on values not economic doctrine, in a speech and pamphlet for the Fabian Society.
Blair won the leadership contest with 57 per cent of the vote, against Prescott and Beckett, including majorities in the members’, MPs’ and trade unions’ sections of the electoral college. He set about a whirlwind of modernisation under the banner of New Labour, culminating in winning 418 seats in the 1997 general election.
We all know the history of what happened next. The mistakes and tragedies. The triumphs and victories. The slow, grinding social improvements. The national minimum wage, bringing opportunities to millions. Record numbers of doctors and nurses, new hospitals, falling waiting lists, and the highest ever approval rating for the NHS. Schools turning out a generation able to read and write. The wars, from the liberation of Kosovo and the saving of Sierra Leone, to the quagmire of Iraq. The star personalities of the New Labour era: Campbell, Mandelson, Mo Mowlam, David Blunkett, Alan Milburn, John Reid and Charles Clarke. The Dome. A young country. Cool Britannia.
We have heard endless denunciations by: those who never supported him to start with; the ‘I warned him at the time’ from political pygmies who owe their careers to him; the ‘I never agreed with him in the first place’ from people who fawned over him when his approval rating stood at 93 per cent. For every mile of distance they place between themselves and their former patron, the more diminished and small they appear.
The 1960s generation felt the white heat. The 1945 generation built the peace. But we had our moment in the sun. To be young and Blairite, in July 1994 when we started at last to believe we could win, and at last deserved to, was very heaven. Two decades, and a lifetime, later, let us remember how we felt, and ponder whether such a new dawn will ever break again.
Paul Richards is author of Labour’s Revival: The Modernisers’ Manifesto
Photo: Paul Richards
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