New Statesman & Society, leader 8 March 1996
Labour’s modernisers are going to have to do a lot better than Peter Mandelson if they are ever to convert the left intelligentsia to their cause
Labour used to have intellectuals: now it has Peter Mandelson. Because of the influence he has in his party’s upper echelons – as great as that once enjoyed by Sidney Webb. G D H Cole, Hugh Dalton Harold Laski or Anthony Crosland, if rather different in nature – the publication this week of his new book, The Blair Revolution, co-written with ex-SDPer Roger Liddle, is a politically significant event. But the book itself is a disappointment.
There’s little in it by way of prescriptions that is not already Labour policy – apart, that is, from the bizarre plan to lend young couples £5,000 as a deposit for a mortgage if they get married. One can just see the happy couples laughing all the way from the bank to the divorce lawyer. Moreover, for the most part, it takes the most conservative interpretation of what Labour policy would mean in practice. Although there’s much of sense in it, it does not offer a “radical, exciting vision”, as its jacket blurb promises. Rather, The Blair Revolution is an exercise in trying to make “safety first” sound daring. Labour’s modernisers will have to do a lot better if they are ever to fulfil their dream of dominating not just their party’s machine, but Britain’s political culture.
Nowhere is the caution more apparent than in The Blair Revolution‘s sections on constitutional reform. In the week of shadow foreign secretary Robin Cook’s triumphant performance in the Scott debate, it is notable that Mandelson and Liddle do not even press the case for a comprehensive Freedom of Information Act, which until recently Labour was promising to pass in its first year of government.
Instead, they back “a public right to know, underwritten by legislation, unless there is a clear stated reason why something cannot be disclosed on grounds of national security, personal confidentiality or strict commercial confidence”. Documents made public should not “include private office working papers and advice to ministers from senior officials”, disclosure of which “would fatally prejudice the political independence of the senior civil service”. Such a mandarin’s charter could not have been bettered by Sir Humphrey Appleby himself. lt would not help a bit in exposing a future government that operated an arms sales policy of the kind revealed by Scott. The House of Lords gets similarly soft treatment.
Mandelson and Liddle back Labour’s plans to remove voting rights from hereditary peers, but are circumspect about what happens after that. “In the long run,” they write, “it maybe that the second chamber needs to be made more representative – perhaps there could be a directly-elected element with an avowedly regional flavour.” Wow. On electoral reform, they are sceptical about the need for change, but back the alternative vote – a system that would do nothing to ensure the representation in parliament of minority opinions – as the best option if a change has to be made. Labour’s promised referendum on electoral systems doesn’t get a look in.
So one could go on through the sections of the book on economic policy, Europe, the future of the welfare state or reforming the machinery of government. Everywhere, the message is the same. New Labour really is a different party from old Labour, it really wants change, it really is radical – but it won’t do anything to frighten the horses.
And to think that the modernisers wonder why what there is of an intellectual left in Britain hasn’t rallied enthusiastically to their cause. The reason is not that there is some diehard old-left clique yearning for the good old days of the 19703 and desperately hanging on to its positions of influence at the Guardian, at the BBC, in the universities and even, God forbid, here at NSS. It’s that the modernisers’ “project”, as they like to call it, isn’t particularly inspiring to anyone with a penchant for radicalism, at least as it has so far been spelled out.
Caution is caution, however it is packaged. And although there are undoubtedly grounds for it in Labour’s case in the run-up to the election – the voters are worried by the prospect of change, and it would be foolish for the party to promise more than it can actually deliver – it can never send the mind or the pulse racing. That might come if there were some grand overall long-term strategy – precisely what the modernisers have yet to elaborate.
Until they do so, and do so convincingly, the majority of the intellectual left will maintain its scepticism about the “project” – as indeed it should. Intellectual political cultures are not like parties: they cannot be captured by skilful manoeuvring and they cannot be disciplined into subservience. It’s the quality of argument that counts – and, so far, the modernisers have not come up with the goods.