• The End of New Labour?

    The local election results, and the subsequent opinion polls, suggest that the game is up – not just for Gordon Brown, but for the Labour government. It seems unlikely now that recovery is possible. If anything like the local election result is repeated in a general election, Labour could be out of power for a decade or more.

    This may, in other words, be one of those watershed moments in British politics when an apparently well-entrenched political hegemony is suddenly seen to be vulnerable and is about to be replaced by another. In my own political lifetime, I can recall several such moments, when the commentators’ solemn pronouncements that the status quo was unlikely to change were suddenly falsified by an overwhelming swing in political fortunes.

    It may not be premature, therefore, to begin thinking about an obituary for Blair/Brown and their New Labour government; for, make no mistake, Labour has not only won as New Labour and governed as New Labour – it will have lost as New Labour too.

    It is of course true that no government goes on forever. The cumulative disappointments that inevitably attend the exercise of power mean that any government’s survival for three terms is a signal achievement. In judging New Labour, we should not, therefore, be too harsh about the fact that they may now face defeat.

    The obituary writer might however linger longer over New Labour’s legacy. The body politic is, after all, like a tree trunk. A dendro-chronologist is able to derive a huge amount of information from a cross-section of the trunk; each ring is a detailed record of climatic conditions, natural disasters, liability to disease, and so on.

    Similarly, the political scientist or historian can see in the development of a given society the imprint and permanent record of each particular political era. British society today still lives with the legacies of the great Labour post-war government, the trauma of Suez and the “never had it so good” prosperity of the Macmillan era, the confusions and struggles – at home and in Europe – of Heath, Wilson and Callaghan, and the harsh – some would say bracing – certainties of Thatcher.

    What, then, when the dust has cleared and a sober assessment is possible, will the tree rings show about New Labour? What mark will they have left on British society? If, as New Labour enthusiasts proclaim, the new doctrine was a break with the past and a new beginning, surely what remains will be of considerable significance? And – given the unparalleled opportunities offered by huge parliamentary majorities, a virtually defunct opposition, a charismatic and gifted proselytiser as leader – the government’s programme of reform will have left a particularly lasting legacy?

    Sadly, where the tree ring marks the point where the New Labour era ended and another has begun, it is likely that its outline will be blurred and in places non-existent. The “break with the past” will hardly be visible. There will be a broad continuity between what went before and what came after; the New Labour interlude will stand out hardly at all.

    There will be clearer marks at places – the Northern Ireland peace process to set alongside and offset the Iraq war for example – but the broad themes will show little change. The tolerance – even encouragement – of inequality, the blind faith in market provision, the exaggerated respect paid to the rich and powerful, the abandonment of the weak and powerless, the impatience with public service and the public sector and organised labour, the reliance on spin rather substance, the belief that the purpose of government is to keep power rather than use it, all represent themes that have changed little in what may well be seen by future commentators as merely an interregnum between Thatcher and Cameron.

    It is a sad reflection of this ethos that one suspects that there may be many in New Labour whose main response to Gordon Brown’s travails will be one of schadenfreude. Some will say that if only Tony Blair had remained at the helm, everything would have been different. But, like Mrs Thatcher before him, Tony’s supporters will conveniently forget that he was forced out because he had lost the confidence of his party and the country.

    Gordon has had to reap what Tony had sown. I was one of those who hoped and believed that Gordon could save the Labour government, that an injection of more recognisable Labour values might restore some faith in a doomed enterprise. But Gordon has been simply overwhelmed by the torrent of disappointments and resentments of erstwhile Labour supporters. His personal qualities or lack of them have become the lightning rod for all those who wanted change but did not get it.

    There is a certain rough justice in this. The New Labour project proved itself to be adept at winning elections – at least for a time. Where it has failed, as readers of the tree rings will one day confirm, is in using government’s power to bring about the change that was needed and that they promised. Instead, they wasted their opportunity and delivered more of the same. All of those who framed the New Labour project are implicated in that failure.

    Bryan Gould

    This article was published in The Guardian (online) on 12 May 2008
    12 May 2008