Mike Phipps reviews New Labour: Was the Gain Worth the Continuing Pain?, by Dr Gaye Johnston, published on Kindle by Edition Publishing.
This is an ambitious book. The late Michael Meacher MP in his Foreword hails it as “a systematic analysis of the biggest internal coup d’etat in the history of the Labour Party.” It “contains a wealth of hitherto unreported material of how this was achieved. The Blairite machine gathered and fostered its own panel of ultra-reliable potential candidates (often special advisers of existing MPs) and helped to train and prepare them for the day when winnable seats might become available, exactly as the Blairite ‘Progress’ faction continues to do within the party to this very day.”
And the legacy of this takeover remains. The leader may be Jeremy Corbyn, but the MPs, party officials, leaders in local government and many more remain the excrescence of a bygone era. Party employees especially have a long history of right-wing bias and working against left-wing candidates. A former Party Director of Communications openly boasted in 1998 of how he had worked to label the Grassroots Alliance slate for the NEC as “hard left”. Party staff are known to grade Conference delegates according to their loyalty to the leadership and harass delegates about how to vote. Staff themselves were pressurised to behave in a certain way by the increased use of short-term contracts.
Many of the powers of the NEC were delegated to hand-picked subcommittees in the New Labour era. Labyrinthine policy filtering mechanisms were introduced, undermining the sovereignty of Party Conference. Even a moderate Labour figure, Graham Stringer, declared: “The National Policy Forum is a charade. I don’t know anybody, including cabinet ministers, who doesn’t think that.”
Parliamentary selections especially were skewed in favour of leadership-backed candidates. With the introduction of OMOV in the early 1990s, illicit use of Party members’ contact details and inappropriate use of postal ballots were the two main mechanisms to do this. But in last minute selections, the NEC cam impose a candidate, as it did with New Labour enthusiast Chris Leslie in Nottingham East in 2010. Systematic interference by Party officials is documented here in a number of detailed case studies and there is strong evidence of dossiers being compiled by officials on candidates deemed insufficiently loyal.
Even more centralised procedures were introduced for selections for devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales. Research found that 80% of Scottish and Welsh Party members sampled considered the process of selecting list candidates was “undemocratic and unfair”. “During the New Labour era there was unfairness and deceit originating from the Party hierarchy and staff,” concludes the author.
Democracy within the parliamentary party was shut down by New Labour. Press releases were sent out in the name of MPs, who had not seen them, welcoming policies the leadership had announced. Whips organised barracking of “disloyal” MPs at PLP meetings. Political differences were replaced by personality-based factions - “gangs”, as one MP termed them.
To say the membership were neglected during the New Labour years would be a major understatement. Between 1997 and 2010, individual membership fell 62% - down to 154,000 - and key unions left. This wasn’t simply the result of New Labour abandoning many of the historic values of the Party in favour of neoliberal economics and right-wing social policies. As John McDonnell points out, “New Labour had a ruthlessness that brooked no opposition – a brutality such as we’ve never seen before in the Party. They suppressed dissent and brutally discarded people, even some who supported New Labour but were no longer of any use to them.”
This mentality continued to infect the Party even after the departure of Blair and Brown from office. \When Ed Miliband, newly elected leader, went to greet the Party’s staff, he found they had all got home early in protest at his victory. New Labour supporters in his Shadow Cabinet pressed for - and won - a new method for electing the leader to replace the system which had elected him. Later they would turn on him for introducing - at their behest - the new method that would elect Jeremy Corbyn as leader - twice.
But the damage New Labour did to the Party was nothing compared to the state in which it left the country. Their capitulation to markets and indulgence of the City “led directly to the severity of the UK’s suffering during the world economic crisis,” Johnston argues.
This was not just down to a failure to regulate the banks. Public sector housing was curtailed - in 1999 just 84 council houses were built under New Labour - precisely to create an under-supply that drove up demand and allowed the private sector to cash in and the banks to capitalise on a credit boom.
A universal welfare state was undermined by creeping means testing. Trade union freedoms were not restored. Inequality rose, leaving a good half of the population effectively disenfranchised. “This, together with the Iraq war, will be New Labour’s legacy,” argued Michael Meacher. Worse, it left large swathes of the working class alienated from the very Party that was supposed to represent them.
The irony, for a leadership so committed to media management, is that where it did make significant improvements for working people, it often refused to trumpet its achievements for fear of alienating middle class voters. But here, for example in healthcare, public investment was often geared to the interests of the private sector, as with the private finance initiative and other forms of marketisation.
Previous Labour governments - Attlee’s particularly - achieved a lot more - under far less favourable economic conditions. The real problem for New Labour was a lack of political will to do so. Its complete unconcern with issues of inequality has contributed to escalating poverty and a fractured society.
Over fifty major ‘stakeholders’ in the Party were canvassed for their views in the assembling of this book. This included 27 backbench MPs and as many CLP secretaries, as well as some staff, union leaders, excluded parliamentary candidates and conference delegates. There’s some repetition, but the result is an unanswerable indictment of New Labour and an essential handbook for new activists.