Review of The Blair Agenda by Mark Perryman (ed) (Lawrence and Wishart, £9.99), Tribune, 4 October 1996

After the closure of the Communist Party magazine Marxism Today in late 1991, its marketing manager, Mark Perryman, was at a loose end. So, with a handful of north London buddies, he set up a discussion group, Signs of the Times, to keep exploring some of the ideas about “New Times” that had been central to the magazine’s thinking in its final years.

Ever since, a shifting group of people, some but by no means all ex-CPers, have met for two series of seminars every year. The group has heard from speakers from a wide range of backgrounds: old Marxism Today stalwarts, writers on cultural studies, right-wing libertarian activists, feminist columnists.

 This collection of essays is based on papers given to last autumn’s seminars, and it’s a typically mixed bag. The best two pieces are by Andrew Gamble, professor of politics at Sheffield University, who contributes a typically pithy analysis of the legacy of Thatcherism, and Kevin Davey, a regular on Tribune’s reviews pages, who writes with great insight on the likely tensions inside the Labour Party if Tony Blair wins the next election.

I also liked the contributions by Helen Wilkinson, project director at the think tank Demos, on Blair as the first “post-1960s, post-Beatles, party leader”, and Gerry Hassan, on the impact of Scottish devolution.

But too many of the contributors exaggerate the novelty of the Blair “project”, and there are too many occasions on which authors lapse into pretentious gobbledygook, with buzz-words taking the place of clear thinking – an all-too-common trait of Marxism Today, as I remember. Perryman’s introduction is a case in point. Try as I might, I can’t find much meaning in his claim that “Tony Blair remains the supreme arbiter of the fluid of British politics” or his talk of “the millennial terrain on which Tony Blair and his colleagues will be tip-toeing as they ponder over their red boxes in Whitehall”. Which is a pity, because much that Perryman says is really quite sensible.

One final gripe: again like Marxism Today, the book is peculiarly parochial in its focus. It desperately needs more on the international context of New Labour, particularly on the impact of Bill Clinton’s “New Democrats” and on how other west European social democratic parties have adapted to globalisation and the end of the Keynesian era. Britain might be a peculiar little country, but it has rather more in common with abroad than you’d think from The Blair Agenda.

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