Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)
Ten full weeks before the May 1997 general election, Tony Blair’s aides told the media that the new Prime Minister would enter No.10 shortly after 1pm on 2 May to facilitate live reports for lunchtime news bulletins. Such details are typical of this highly informative book by two journalists from a New Statesman/Tribune background. It also encapsulates the authors’ dilemma, torn as they are between undisguised admiration and profound cynicism about New Labour.
The book is firstly a history of how Labour’s policies have evolved. Especially good is the clear account of economic policy from Keynesianism to monetarist betrayal, through the Alternative Economic Strategy and the long march back to monetarism under Gordon Brown. This is also a book about the personalities who make up New Labour and their own evolution – or U-turns. One example is the young Frank Field who once complained, “The poor get poorer under Labour.” Field of course is now Minister for Welfare Reform, preparing proposals that might truly fulfil this prophecy.
The authors are withering about Labour’s unswerving bipartisan approach to foreign affairs. Former Shadow Foreign Secretary Jack Cunningham is singled out for his “dilatory work-rate” and “indolence, ignorance and slavish adherence to the British Government line on Bosnia.”
But it’s the right-wing defence team of George Robertson, John Reid, John (now Lord) Gilbert – “the most consistently unpleasant back-bench propagandist for NATO and nuclear arms” – and John Spellar, “chief fixer” for the right-wing electricians’ union, who come in for the most scathing criticism. “If they weren’t all bought up by the bloody CIA, they might as well have been,” one Cabinet member is reported as saying. Defence is emblematic of the timidity behind the rhetoric of this government: the policy’s a mess, cobbled together primarily to reassure Labour’s opponents and the arms industry that things will go on much as before, despite the end of the Cold War and the changing relationship with the US. The Eurofighter, for example, ten years behind schedule and originally targeted at a country which no longer exists (the USSR), will still be built with at least £14 billion of British taxpayers’ money.
There are insights into Blair’s personal style too. Perhaps the most telling is his attitude to Labour’s MEPs, now topical again following the recent suspension of four of them for speaking out against the leadership’s underhand attempt to remove its opponents by changing the method for selecting candidates. The origin of this scheme lies partly in the modernisers’ resentment over a 1995 Guardian advert by 32 MEPs against the ditching of Clause IV. But his frosty relationship with the entire Euro-Labour Group, even those who slavishly support him, indicates Blair’s distrust for any public activity in the Party beyond his patronage and control.
Overall, the book’s analysis – that New Labour will abandon any principle in the interests of electoral popularity – is rather superficial. The problem is far deeper: the current leadership is ideologically committed to an economic and political project that will inevitably bring it into conflict with the interest of the workers’ movement. Still, at 456 pages, this is the most detailed and accessible guide to New Labour yet.