The Labour Party allowed itself to succumb to an ideology from its fringe, which disastrously perverted its understanding of the world and its own self-image.
And I’m not talking about the 1990s. An excellent piece in Prospect by Siôn Simon MP argues:
“The greatest, but most unheralded, Tory triumph during the period 1979-92 was their ruthlessly successful destruction of Labour’s historical reputation. Such that by 1992 it was generally accepted that Labour’s short periods in office had been disastrous, characterised by economic calamity, crazed ideological demagoguery and trade union power gone mad. The period when Labour did go off the rails was 1980-83, under Michael Foot, culminating in the longest suicide note in history. … From this springboard that we fashioned, the Saatchis and Kelvin Mackenzie astounded us with backflips and pikes while we floundered untutored and incapable in our armbands.”
The article’s a mix of autobiography and political analysis – and I think it’s right. Harold Wilson famously said: “The Labour Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” In the 1980s, it was nothing.
The zealous confidence of the hard left joined forces with Conservative Central Office and the right-wing press to entrench an image of Labour as extremist ideologues. This idea penetrated deeply and widely: nine years of blood, toil, tears and sweat under Neil Kinnock, perhaps the party’s finest ever leader, wasn’t enough to exorcise the demons. The public in 1992 didn’t trust Labour to be a moderate, progressive government – and too many in Labour still couldn’t trust a moderating leadership to be progressive.
Tony Blair changed this. Building on Kinnock’s and John Smith’s work, he changed Labour’s outlook and the popular view of Labour. But at the same time, he partly legitimated the negative historical view. The look and feel of Blair’s Labour was very different even from that of Smith’s. This change of image was greater than the political changes, making it seem like a bigger break with Labour’s past, even its immediate past, than it really was.
The narrative of ‘new and ‘old’ Labour propagated the idea that this was something truly discontinuous and that everything that had gone before could be grouped together as the old. The notion of the ‘sell-out leader’ versus the ‘true-believer activists’ didn’t exactly hamper Blair’s electoral strategy. But it also cultivated a suspicion that new Labour, rather than the early 1980s, was the aberration.
Labour in 1997 felt so different that it made 1992 and 1983 Labour look similar. But in policy terms, the Blair–Kinnock distance is pretty comparable to the Kinnock–Foot distance; and in terms of core values, which don’t change with circumstances as policies must, Foot is clearly the odd one out. (Looking further back, Blair is far more plausible than Foot as a political descendant of Wilson or Hugh Gaitskell.)
The new Labour modernising project was uncomfortable for a lot of the party, and seriously traumatic for some: it was the last dose of shock therapy (perhaps not as strong as the sum of Kinnock’s many reforms, but much more sudden and concentrated). It persuaded the public to give Labour the chance to prove it could be that moderate, progressive government. Success – despite some needless misjudgements – has also shown (most of) Labour that the best way to be the people’s party is to make sure you have the people on side.
Gordon Brown’s job – and that of his cabinet – will be to make sure we don’t forget this. Reclaiming the mainstream for social justice wasn’t a temporary one-man act: it was getting back to what Labour is really all about. We lose sight of that at our peril.