In the years since the election of Tony Blair as Labour leader there has been a succession of frothy hagiographies and vacuous volumes that have promised to reveal all on the machinations of New Labour, yet managed the opposite.
So, it was a relief to learn that Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann were planning to stir the pot with a book that promised to be “anything but the authorised version of New Labour”. And what is promised is largely delivered. Yet their starting point comes not from Blair’s election night but the accession of Neil Kinnock as party leader.
This carefully researched record of a party’s progress – or a process of ideological surrender on a grand scale, depending on your point of view – not only examines the role of many of the key figures, it also records the policy evolution in areas ranging from defence to Europe. If anything, the authors are a little too understanding of the motives and reasons for those who began the decade opposing nuclear weapons, membership of the European Union and the broad sweep of Thatcherite economic and social policy, but who ended up by embracing it.
The sharper barbs are reserved for Jack Straw and his pre-election playing to the gallery, although Straw the minister is not proving to be as bad as some feared.
Equally, there is an appreciation of the sheer hard work of the much misunderstood Gordon Brown, albeit tied to some healthy scepticism that his supply-side economics will have a lasting impact. Not surprisingly, Peter Mandelson does not emerge smelling of roses.
There is plenty of original background material which sheds light on the tortuous relations between senior Labour figures, as well as the rather disturbing allegation that the leader’s office at one point discussed taking over and neutralising the troublesome Tribune, an option that surfaces every so often but has always ended in red faces all around.
One conclusion drawn by the authors is obvious though rarely discussed. It is that New Labour owes rather more to Old Labour than it would care to admit. The new government – especially in areas of constitutional reform – has taken up where James Callaghan left off, but with rather more success so far. The big difference is that any pretence at redistribution for greater equality has been dropped. Whether this still entitles New Labour to be described as a democratic socialist or even a social democratic party, is a question the authors answer only indirectly.
But for those who want to be informed rather than simply entertained, Safety First is a must.