Gillian Peele, Times Education Supplement

Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)

On May 1 this year the British electorate buried a Conservative government which had, to its mind, grown tired, arrogant and sleazy in power, and replaced it with New Labour, a beautifully packaged and relaunched product which looks set to dominate the market for some time to come.

Yet Labour’s massive victory came after an unprecedented series of shattering general election defeats, the cruellest of which was perhaps that of 1992. Labour’s ability to bounce back was the result of a massive reconstruction of the party’s policies, leadership and image – combined, of course, with no little help from the Conservatives.

Paul Anderson, a former editor of Tribune, and Nyta Mann, a former assistant editor of the New Statesman, are well-qualified to analyse the politics of the contemporary Labour party. They are not primarily concerned with retelling the miracle of Labour’s revival, though they add much colour to the story along the way. Rather they seek to uncover the policy disputes, contradictions and the conflict of personalities that lie beneath the smooth face of New Labour.

Tony Blair’s leadership is the obvious starting point of Anderson and Mann’s discussion. The authors believe that Blair has not added very much to the substance of Labour’s policy changes, and argue that Blair was very much building on policy revamping initiated by Neil Kinnock and John Smith.(They do note, however, the extent to which Blair tweaked many policies in a more populist direction, giving New Labour a distinctly different tone from the party of Hugh Gaitskell and Anthony Crosland.) Blair’s contribution was to promote party modernisation through the dumping of Clause Four and then to transform Labour’s policy-making through the involvement of the mass membership.

Such involvement may be superficial and smack of plebiscitary democracy; but it is more likely than traditional Labour channels to produce policies in tune with the electoral Zeitgeist. What worries Labour intellectuals in these developments is the extent to which they also strengthen the leader and his circle, and emphasise the presentation rather than the substance of policy.

On one level, Blair’s contribution to the scale of Labour’s victory was immense. As the authors acknowledge, Kinnock received highly negative responses as leader and Smith, though in many ways appearing more straightforward than Kinnock, also appeared cautious and less than committed to modernisation. Blair’s style fitted perfectly the needs of a party that wanted to differentiate itself from “old Labour” and to appeal beyond traditional Labour constituencies to the media-conscious majority of middle England. Yet the authors clearly have their doubts about Blair’s ability to realise his ambitions for his government, not least because they see no coherent political philosophy underpinning his approach to government.

Detailed chapters neatly document the process of steering New Labour away from its traditional moorings and highlight the tensions in such fields as education, the economy and foreign policy. The emphasis on communitarianism rather than liberty is analysed in the chapter on home affairs. There is a useful chapter on New Labour and the constitution. This area of policy is, in many ways, the most intriguing, both because constitutional issues have provided the party with its most radical themes and because, if followed through, many of its ideas could produce a genuinely different polity in the United Kingdom. A chapter on New Labour’s relations with the trade unions illuminates the schizophrenic nature of a party that remains conscious of its roots and traditions while seeking to deny the most powerful element in its past a privileged role in the present.

Anderson and Mann’s discussion of New Labour policy inevitably focuses also on the personality conflicts and tensions within the Cabinet and the wider party, including, for example, the hostility between Blair and Labour’s European Parliament contingent. It may be that the divisions and tensions hinted at in this account will end Tony Blair’s extended honeymoon with the British electorate and frustrate many of his ambitions.

For the moment, however, as Anderson and Mann note, the sheer size of Labour’s majority allows its whips a latitude of which poor John Major’s parliamentary managers could only dream. Yet, regardless of whether it ultimately ends in tears, New Labour is hardly likely to unravel immediately. Anderson and Mann have written a highly informative guide book to a political party whose identity and character remain in transition.

  • Gillian Peele is tutor in politics at Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford
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