Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99
Blair’s Hundred Days by Derek Draper (Faber, £7.99)
Were You Still Up for Portillo? by Brian Cathcart (Penguin, £5.99)
In the spring of 1996, a Labour whip was found sinking pints in a Westminster bar like a man trying to drown his conscience. His task that night was to force Labour MPs to support a Conservative measure which would allow police officers to search any member of the public they wanted without explanation. ‘Well, you don’t think I could whip this vote sober, do you?’ he spluttered. A few months later, the same whip had to persuade his admittedly flexible friends why New Labour loved Michael Howard’s plan to give police officers unconstrained power to bug the conversations, burgle the homes, inspect the files, steal the property and read the correspondence of anyone they did not like, without going through the tedious formality of getting a warrant from an independent judge.
In the eighteenth century, the courts defied Hanoverian old corruption and said that a secret policeman breaking into a home was a trespasser and should be treated as a criminal: an Englishman’s home was his castle. Overnight, an Englishman’s home was to become a greenhouse. The Police Bill was emasculated, but only because Howard made the tactical mistake of introducing it in the House of Lords, where opposition could not be crushed. Tony Blair and Jack Straw were furious that the Conservatives’ ineptitude prevented them from showing they were madder than George III.
By the time it came to power, New Labour had reconsidered the radical tradition, from which Blair claimed his ancestry at last month’s Labour Party conference. Liberty was to be abused, equality was to be abandoned and fraternity was to be imposed on the Parliamentary Labour Party by the whips. These people really are terribly modern.
The scenes from 1996 come from Safety First, the best of the many books now out on Labour. The authors were writers on the New Statesman and Tribune in the early nineties and filled their days by tracking policy reviews, which others would have found pointless, and interviewing shadow Ministers apparently destined to spend their careers in opposition. Yet heaven rewards the patient. And Anderson and Mann have the ideal background to explain the Labour Government, its personalities and policies to the reader. They are, I would guess, from the Left. But they don’t let their petticoats show too often and are grateful to Blair for doing what his four predecessors failed to do: win an election.
Their rare flashes of anger are worth noting because they may indicate Labour activists’ pressure points. The authors are very suspicious of Blair’s ostentatious God-bothering and appeals to family values, which, they say, are felt by Labour MPs to be ‘at best vacuous and at worst a means of legitimising unacceptable intrusion by the State’. They are worried that George Robertson and his right-wing team in the Ministry of Defence may not have grasped that their dated Atlanticism is a dead end, and treat Gordon Brown’s potentially disastrous decision to give the ‘inflation nutters’ in the Bank of England control of interest rates with justifiable suspicion. (Incidentally, Anderson and Mann say that one of the Bank’s ‘outside experts’ now running our monetary policy is an American called DeAnne Julius, who used to work for the CIA. If anyone knows anything more about Julius, drop the Observer a line.)
As for the party’s leaders, Anderson and Mann treat Jack Straw with contempt and Donald Dewar with respect. They point out that John Prescott has the knowledge and energy to be a great Minister (whatever metropolitan critics of his syntax may say) and that Peter Mandelson is not disliked simply for being a back-stabber and wire-puller but because he is, in the words of one colleague, ‘very, very right-wing’. In a parenthesis, they wonder why so few people have noticed that Jack Cunningham, Labour’s consumers’ champion at the Ministry of Agriculture, received consultancy fees for 10 years from a producer of flavourings for animal feed and a manufacturer of food additives and pesticides.
A book on the history of Labour Party policy sounds dreary. But Safety First is clearly written and cleverly constructed. In 400 pages I noticed just one piece of jargon (an ‘instrumentalism’ on page 203).
By contrast, Derek Draper’s account of Blair’s first 100 days in office raises the interesting question: Do you have to write like a courtier if you want to stay in the loop? The provisional answer is: not quite, but it probably helps.
An extract which appeared in the Sunday Times was widely mocked. Draper was once Mandelson’s aide and, understandably, the knives are out. In reality, Draper’s book is not as bad as his early critics said. The first half, describing the first days of the new Government, is pacey, and revealing titbits are dropped into the text. For example, Draper says that when Blair schmoozed Margaret Thatcher in Downing Street, the couple’s longest and cosiest chat was about welfare ‘reform’, particularly for single mothers. As Neil Kinnock ought to have said on 30 April: ‘If New Labour win, I warn you not to be poor. . .’
Unfortunately, Draper cannot resist presenting Blair as half superman, half new man, and getting through the hyperbolic sections is like wading through treacle in flip-flops. The book ends with Blair on holiday, jotting down his plans for Britain. Draper writes: ‘Having dispatched the baggage of the past, he can concentrate on the challenge of the future. As the sun sets behind the Tuscan hills and his hundredth day draws to a close, he throws the pad to one side and shouts for the kids. Early evening is the best time for a game of football.’ Oh dear.
I know Draper as an intelligent and critical man. But were he to become a sceptical writer, I suspect his career in New Labour would be over. Brian Cathcart is not a Labour insider, but his account of election night is compelling. Were You Still Up for Portillo? tracks how the count unfolded on BBC and ITV from the close of polls at 10pm. The background details about the battles between a gay Labour candidate and a homophobic bigot in Exeter, and the events leading up to the destruction of Norman Lamont, Michael Forsyth, Neil Hamilton and Michael Portillo, are woven into the narrative.
Now, Cathcart is a serious writer, one of the many former deputy editors of the Independent on Sunday and an author of a study of British nuclear policy, but there is no point in pretending that this book is anything other than a 200-page gloat; an orgy of Schadenfreude. Whatever else Blair does, however far he moves to the right, he will be able to say in mitigation that at least between the hours of 10pm on 1 May and 6am on 2 May he allowed millions of good people to watch the massacre of the Tories with tears of laughter rolling down their bonny cheeks and the joy of life surging through their veins.