Thursday, 1 January 1998

Tom Phillips, Contemporary Review

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

Written from a 'critical libertarian left perspective', Safety First will not, I suspect, get Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann invited to many Downing Street cocktail parties. Theirs is a voice from outside the conventional Labour spectrum and, in this stimulating and informative account of the so-called Blair Revolution and the first one hundred days of the 'New Labour' government, they treat the official version of the party's recent history with healthy scepticism. Combining sharp analysis with a robust narrative of political events, they show that serious, heterodox thinking – the legacy of independently minded radicals such as George Orwell and Raymond Williams – has survived the broad left's disintegration into 'new' revisionists, 'old' reactionaries and the persistently extremist fringe.

They raise many important questions about the origins and development of current policy, present Blairism in a convincingly realistic manner and attempt to determine exactly what it is that New Labour stands for. After eight months the hysteria of the election campaign has subsided and Safety First is a timely investigation into the personalities and politics behind New Labour's extraordinary victory.

 Nothing if not detailed, the book focuses on each of the 'major players' in turn. It reveals how, in the early 1990s, these came to be identified with Labour's revisionist wing and formed the distinctively Blairite group which took control of the party and then led it into government. However, although it includes plenty of entertaining biographical material – Gordon Brown's political career at university, for instance, or John Prescott's jokey apology for having introduced Peter Mandelson to parliamentary politics – the book's main strength lies not so much in the vividness of its ten portraits as in the lucidity with which the political realities of life within New Labour are described.

In emphasising the effort and determination with which it was effected and the compromises which have had to be made to ensure its success, Safety First does much to counter the myths which the Blair revolution has spawned. To the outsider, it may seem as if Labour has undergone a kind of Enlightenment: that Blairism is a wide-ranging, coherent philosophy to which, over the last few years, the majority of Labour members have been converted through persuasive argument: and that the direction taken in the name of 'modernisation' is the only one which the party could have taken.

In Safety First, the story is rather different. Whilst granting that the tone of Labour politics has become more professional since Tony Blair became leader in 1994, and that the party's public image has been reinvigorated, the authors argue that many of the significant changes credited to Mr Blair had already been initiated by previous leaders and that Labour's much heralded unity of purpose and belief is not as firm as it appears. Moreover, opposition to key policies on education, the economy, welfare and so on has not only come from the Old Labour contingent. Senior members of the leadership, including John Prescott, Robin Cook, and David Blunkett, have, at times, joined the 'chorus of disapproval'.

 The consensus which Blairism supposedly represents has not so much evolved as been forged through good old-fashioned backstage manoeuvring, 'vigorous arm-twisting' and 'constant private rows'. As a result, it is no longer possible to speak of Blairism as a comprehensive radical vision. On the contrary, it is, the authors claim, an altogether piecemeal affair, a curious blend of liberal ethics and populist authoritarianism, patched together and pushed through by a leadership intent on gaining power.

This, of course, should come as no surprise. In the post-ideological world, politics and pragmatism go hand in hand and New Labour, despite its occasionally evangelical rhetoric, remains a political party just like any other.

 If this seems an unduly cynical version of events, Safety First is not a hatchet job. The authors welcome the change of atmosphere New Labour has brought to British politics and praise the energy with which the government have set to work. They even admit to feeling slightly queasy about criticising the new government so soon after it has taken office and acknowledge the possibility that some of their more worrying conclusions may be proved wrong: the 'serious tensions between the goals that New Labour proclaims and the means it has chosen to achieve them' may not be as disabling as they suspect.

Such directness is refreshing. For a long time the left's debate with itself – once considered to be an important part of British political culture by pundits of all persuasions – has been reduced to the level of a tiresome brawl between Old and New Labour and has produced little more than breathless eulogies in praise of this faction or that. With its firmly reasoned arguments, Safety First goes some way, at least, towards reviving the art of constructive political criticism.

Monday, 1 December 1997

Mike Phipps, Labour Left Briefing

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.

Hazel Croft, Socialist Review

Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)
The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £15)

Why has Tony Blair been able to shift the Labour Party so far to the right, and why was the left wing inside the party so impotent in the face of the breathtaking speed of Blair's changes? Both these questions are tackled in those two new books. Safety First is an accessible account written by Paul Anderson, former editor of the left wing Labour paper Tribune, and Nyta Mann, who still writes for the paper. The book puts the New Labour project in the context of the last 50 years and is a useful resource for socialists.

Firstly it's a good read. Here you'll discover that Labour's spin doctor in chief Peter Mandelson once flogged the Communist Party paper, the Morning Star, outside Kilburn tube station. You'll also discover how nearly all the leading figures of the Labour cabinet ­ Gordon Brown, David Blunkett, Jack Straw, John Prescott, Robin Cook and Tony Blair himself ­ in the past made speeches which would bar them from even getting selected as a Labour candidate today.

But there is an important point to all this. It illustrates the route travelled by so many who start out wanting to change the capitalist system but see the only route as through electoral and parliamentary means. So the book shows how much Tony Blair and his group of advisers have attacked the traditions of Old Labour, but also shows how Blair's New Labour project is a continuation of the reformist policies of the whole Labour tradition.

So it was not Tony Blair who began the process of 'modernisation'. Rather, many of the biggest rightward shifts, such as the ditching of unilateral nuclear disarmament and accepting most of the anti trade union laws, happened under the leaderships of Neil Kinnock and then John Smith. It was also Kinnock and Smith who began the process of curtailing Labour Party democracy and debate and who began the obsession with image and the media.

Safety First is flawed in its analysis, however. The authors accept much of the 'modernisation' of the Labour Party, agreeing with the expulsion of Militant and accept many of the earlier changes.

The authors of The End of Parliamentary Socialism, Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, are much more critical of Labour's shift to the right and Blair's ascendancy. Both authors are associated with the group of left wingers around the late Ralph Miliband, and Leo Panitch continues to edit the yearly socialist journal Socialist Register.

Their book is a much more academic analysis than Safety First. It concentrates on the failure of the Labour left, particularly of those grouped around Benn through the 1970s and 1980s. At its height the movement around Benn attracted thousands of people to meetings up and down the country, culminating in the campaign to get Tony Benn elected as Labour's deputy leader in 1981. Its emphasis was not on mobilising workers' action. Indeed the movement was at its height after the defeats of workers' struggle in the late 1970s and the disillusion which would see Labour booted out of office in 1979.

Rather the Bennites sought to democratise and change the internal structures of the Labour Party itself. This, the authors admit, was its downfall. The Labour left, the book concludes, by 'concentrating on trying to change the Labour Party ... became trapped in that struggle'. And, 'It never solved the problem of having to fight for its goals through unending party committees and conferences without becoming absorbed by them.' This is damning criticism which the authors hope will provide us with important lessons in rebuilding the left today. Pantich and Leys not only argue for a rejuvenation of the kind of debate which the coterie around Tony Blair have extinguished, but for a break with New Labour altogether. This is an important and welcome step which raises one of the key questions of how socialists should organise.

The authors quite rightly argue that 'the route to socialism does not lie through transforming the Labour Party'. They want to build a new form of socialist organisation which avoids the pitfalls of the Benn campaign and which does not get bogged down in a fruitless attempt to change the Labour Party.

The next question is what type of organisation is needed? Unfortunately Panitch and Leys explicitly reject revolutionary organisation. Indeed they argue that the '"Bolshevik" language' (of 'demands', 'lines' and so on) of some of those involved in the Benn campaign 'was not only incapable of reaching out beyond the ranks of organised labour, as Benn could, but also repelled many people who needed to be persuaded'.

Despite the authors' criticism of the Bennite left, their detailed account underplays its weaknesses. They do not examine, for example, how Tony Benn's continued membership of the Callaghan government gave left credibility to massive spending cuts implemented by the Labour government.

And missing throughout the account is the dynamic of class struggle. So there is no sense of the mood of anger and bitterness seething beneath the surface which would sweep Labour into power on 1 May. Indeed the authors accept that Blair's victory was due in large part to the 'Labour modernisers' ruthless redesign of party policy to win back former Conservative voters in the marginal seats of 'Middle England'.

The rejection of revolutionary strategy and organisation ultimately leaves the authors with nowhere to go except along a similar road of a mix of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activity. But it was this similar strategy which proved disastrous for so many socialists in the early 1980s, channelling their energies away from revolution and towards reform.

Saturday, 15 November 1997


Blair's Hundred Days by Derek Draper (Faber, £7.99) 
Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99)
Fifty Years On: A Prejudiced History of Britain Since the War by Roy Hattersley. (Little, Brown, £20)
A Class Act: The Myth of Britain's Classless Society by Andrew Adonis and Stephen Pollard (Hamish Hamilton, £17.99)

Tony Blair's new centrist Labour Party won power in Britain a year after Felipe Gonzalez's old centrist Socialist Party lost it in Spain. We look at the most interesting books on the whys and wherefores, first in Britain, then in Spain

The guests at the launch party for Derek Draper's Blair's Hundred Days were in no doubt that they were at the right party, at the right time. "I suppose we're the new establishment," gushed one young woman to another, as Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair's fixer (and Mr Draper's employer until the writer switched jobs) drifted by.

The Labour Party's excitement at being at the centre of things after 18 years in the wilderness is entirely understandable. But new establishments have a disconcerting habit of taking on the trappings of the supplanted one. The venue for the launch, Quo Vadis restaurant, in Soho, was a little more raffish than Tory clubland. The hair-cuts were perhaps a little more fashionable than at a gathering of young Tories. Nonetheless, the sharply-dressed, champagne swilling, affluent young things at Mr Draper's party could quite easily be mistaken for the young Tories of the mid-1980s.

That raises an obvious question: how far is the Labour government different from the Tory government it has replaced? In different ways all four of these books provide partial answers. As a former aide to Mr Mandelson, Mr Draper cashed in his chips with startling rapidity in the aftermath of Labour's victory on May 1st. By staying in government just long enough to keep a diary of Mr Blair's 100 days, he was able to rush out and publish the first "insider" account of the new government.

Few "instant" books have a long shelf-life and Mr Draper's is unlikely to prove an exception. Still, it is enjoyable in a gossipy sort of way and does provide the occasional insight. The casual brutality demanded by modern news management is underlined by his account of how Robin Cook, the foreign secretary, was bounced into leaving his wife. The newspapers had discovered that Mr Cook was having an affair. Determined not to let this revelation burgeon into one of the long-running "sleaze" scandals that had so bedevilled the Tories, Tony Blair's aide, Alastair Campbell, contacted the foreign secretary to demand that he kill the story by making an instant and public choice between his wife and his mistress. As it happens Mr Cook was at Heathrow airport with his wife--they were about to leave on holiday, in an effort to patch up their marriage. But within hours he had made the required statement. He was leaving his wife. Presumably, the holiday was abandoned.

Despite being spiced by occasional anecdotes of this sort, Mr Draper's book does not deliver what "insider" accounts are meant to provide: a feeling that you have discovered more about what the protagonists are "really like". The Tony Blair who emerges from the pages of "Blair's 100 Days" does not differ much from the one presented by the media: a good manager, a family man, tough but tender.

A much more substantial account of the emergence of "New Labour" than that provided by Mr Draper is offered by Safety First. Indeed anybody looking for a primer on Blairism would do well to start here. It is supposed to have been written from a "critical libertarian left" position. But, whatever this means, it fortunately does little to get in the way of a solidly researched account of how Mr Blair and his key political allies have revamped Labour policy.

Indeed, the fact that the authors are on the left, but are fairly sceptical of the Blairite project, gives them certain distinct advantages in comparing old Labour with the new sort. It means that they are steeped in the internal debates that the party experienced throughout the 1980s and early 1990s, when non-enthusiasts could have been forgiven for switching off. But it also means that, although they understand what Mr Blair is about, they are immune from the tendency to gush in awe, which has marked much early comment on Britain's new prime minister.

As a result they are able to give an engaging account of the ideological contortions that attended the birth of Blairism, as well as entertaining pen-portraits of the main protagonists. A long memory also yields the occasional amusing vignette. Buried in a footnote is a jewel of a comment made in 1993 by Alastair Campbell, who is now Mr Blair's fiercely loyal press secretary. There are few if any circumstances I could envisage that would lead me not to vote Labour, but if I thought Labour wouldn't spend more on health and schools, or that they wouldn't adopt a more interventionist approach to the economy, or that they wouldn't raise my taxes, I would have to think a bit. This is not an 'irresponsible shopping list'. It is the absolute minimum surely that the public will accept of Labour.

The contrast between the expectations of long-time Labourites like Mr Blair's own press secretary and the actual actions of a Blair government remains striking--and raises again the question of how exactly Mr Blair differs from his Tory predecessors. A joke doing the rounds in London at the moment captures the point. "Did you know that Tony Blair MP is an anagram of 'I'm Tory Plan B' ?"

In fact, it is easy to point to things that Mr Blair has done that would have been difficult to imagine coming from the Tories: start devolving power to Scotland and Wales, speak out against racism in the armed forces, push through a total ban on hand-guns. His large majority has also allowed him to take greater risks in the search for a peace settlement in Northern Ireland. But none of these actions--laudable as they may be--goes to the heart of the traditional Labour concerns raised by Mr Campbell: the desire for greater equality, for a "fairer" distribution of income, for more spending on public services. Yet, as is demonstrated both by "A Class Act" and the "prejudiced" history of post-war Britain by Roy Hattersley, the deputy leader of the Labour Party under Neil Kinnock, these issues have not lost their force.

Old right, new left
The emergence of Mr Hattersley as a strong critic of Mr Blair has its ironies. Through much of 1970s and the 1980s he was regarded as a standard-bearer of the right in the Labour Party, fighting to prevent his party being captured by the hard left. Yet now that the "right", in the person of Mr Blair, has emerged triumphant, Mr Hattersley is a disappointed man.

Specifically, he believes that Mr Blair's New Labour has stopped fighting for a less unequal society and has abandoned the poor in the search for the votes of the "suburban middle class". As Mr Hattersley's history makes clear, he regards the search for a less unequal society as the thing that makes sense of post-war British history. He is evidently bewildered to find his own party giving up the chase.

Readers will be less bewildered by this turn of events--and less sympathetic to Mr Hattersley--if they turn to A Class Act. Its authors, Andrew Adonis, a political columnist for the Observer, and Stephen Pollard, head of research at the Social Market Foundation, concede that Britain has, in many ways, become a less equal society but argue that this is, in large part, a consequence of the misguided social engineering of the old Labour governments whose values Mr Hattersley trumpets.

In particular, A Class Act contends that the educational reforms of the 1960s and 1970s--reforms which Mr Hattersley rega Labour's crown--increased social inequalities by destroying the selective grammar schools, the main educational ladder for talented but poor children. This denied the poor an opportunity to improve themselves and served to increase the demand for private education, exacerbating divisions of class and wealth. It is a contentious message but it is amply demonstrated by the figures that Mr Adonis and Mr Pollard have so carefully marshalled. They show, for instance, how 50% of the places at Oxford University now go to public-school (ie, privately) educated children compared with 38% in the more meritocratic Britain of 1969.

Yet A Class Act is a frustrating, even if fascinati tracing the way inequality of opportunity pervades most aspects of British society, from health to education to housing, it does little to suggest how things might be improved. There is no rousing last ahead for Mr Blair and his advisers.

The closest Mr Adonis and Mr Pollard come to pointing a moral is when they observe in an early chapter that: "There are no quick fixes, no blueprints; and if there are plenty of radical ideological experiments waiting to be tried, the experience of the 20th century may, perhaps, teach the 21st to be a little cautious and sceptical." For the Blair government, whose campaign anthem was "Things can only get better", and which rep take "radical" action to tackle Britain's problems, this is a discomforting message.

Friday, 14 November 1997

Bernard Crick, New Statesman

Safety First: The Making of New Labour by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann (Granta, £9.99) 
The End of Parliamentary Socialism by Leo Panitch and Colin Leys (Verso, £15)

It makes me sick when publishers debase language so brazenly. A caption or a sub-sub-title on the cover of Safety First says "The Definitive [sic] Guide to the Policies and Personalities of the British Government". The blurb on the back cover is more cheekily and accurately headed "Anything but the authorised version of new Labour" (their italics, fully warranted).

Paul Anderson is a former editor of Tribune and a former deputy editor of the NS in some historically remote regime (that seems like yesterday). Nyta Mann is a former NS assistant editor. The tone and the standpoint are Tribune at its best: rude, factual, lively and down-to-earth plain English, always provocative, always selective, but crammed full of useful information -- if one has a pinch of salt to add to their pepper.

The book is about how Labour came to win the election. It is sensibly more about the background than about the actual campaign (which was, indeed, "safety first" rather than fireworks) and also about the first 100 days. They call it "a serious attempt to explain the politics of Britain's new government, written from a critical libertarian left perspective that is neither 'new Labour' nor 'old Labour'".

Both claims are fair enough. They see Blair's project as an acceleration, rather than a clean break from tendencies already afoot in Neil Kinnock's campaign to bring the party back to political realism, to forsake the time-honoured pleasures of fratricidal strife, Footite fudge and Bennite self-righteousness (I put it a little more strongly than they do).

They conclude, predictably, that Labour has changed greatly. But they think in terms of social policy and practical outcomes, not just of fallings-short of grand theoretical constructions of socialism; and they end up worried but "too early to tell".

They remind the new triumphalists that the Conservatives killed themselves. Labour could almost certainly have won with bolder policies. Several contributions to the post-election number of Political Quarterly suggest that a bolder tax programme resulting in a smaller majority would actually have landed a stronger, less constrained government.

Panitch and Leys are loftily uninterested in any tactical considerations whatever. Theirs is the familiar grand narrative of socialism betrayed: the subtitle is "From New Left to New Labour", a ludicrous and arrogant antithesis. The latter, for all its faults and uncertainties, is a modulation of a large, democratic political party. The other is a mental construct of two journals, the Socialist Register and New Left Review pretending to be – no, that is unfair – genuinely under the delusion that their far-too-late Marxism gives them an authoritative insight into the minds of "the people" (from the tenured safety of Canadian university departments) far superior to the contact groups of Brother Mandelson.

They go back nostalgically to "student politics" and the fantasy "alternative economics" of the 1970s and Benn's "New Socialist Politics", always a blancmange of Chartism and Simple Simon Keynesianism. These two nice old trendies dedicate the book to Ralph Miliband. He once famously argued that parliamentary socialism was proving the death of true socialism.

Does the Panitch/Leys title imply there was some good in it after all, but even that has now gone out of the window? They are either very muddled or ambivalent about the parliamentary way. At least when clearly hostile they were clear. Intellectuals such as these, rarely thinking politically if at all, confused the grass roots activists of the old Labour Party. One does not ask for repentance; silence would be enough.

Saturday, 25 October 1997

Sion Simon, Spectator

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

This is not at all the book I expected. Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann are keen to point out that they are not Old Labour; but they are certainly not Blairites. They describe themselves as redistributivist libertarian socialists, whose beliefs are drawn from an eclectic range of sources.

Indeed so catholic are their political tastes that at the pre-launch party Ms Mann introduced me, somewhat sheepishly it must be said, to the finance director of Militant. As someone who dived head first into the warfare of an English metropolitan Labour party in the mid-Eighties, this was, for me, on an emotional par with being introduced to the boss of the West Belfast Brigade of the IRA at a cocktail party in St John's Wood.

Of course, the two are equally admissible in polite society these days: the IRA because we are trying to make peace with them, and the Militant because we (in Labour) have destroyed them. Or so I thought until I bumped into their finance director; though Militant does not quite carry the same menace when introduced as such at the City Golf Club. Nevertheless, good New Labour boy that I am, I felt rather like a charcutier at a bar mitzvah.

Anderson and Mann were part of the phalanx of leftish Londoners ousted from the pre-revolutionary New Statesman by Geoffrey Robinson and Ian Hargreaves a couple of years ago. Their ideological home is in the large segment of the Labour party which feels antagonistic towards New Labour. They are the silent screamers who think that Tony Blair and a small group of beautiful advisers have betrayed the interests of the poor and oppressed for the sake of their own advancement.

This view finds no voice in the modern Labour party; which is why it is so surprising that Anderson and Mann have not taken the opportunity to express it in their book. In fact, Safety First is a rather intelligent tome. It accurately assumes that these days nobody is interested in an oldfashioned leftist critique of anything. Instead the authors have produced a history rather than an analysis; and they have removed themselves, and their politics, from the fray.

But it is very difficult to say, unusually constructed as it is, what Safety First is a history of. It is organised in chapters most of which deal with a senior Cabinet minister and his brief: `Tony Blair and the New Labour Project', `Gordon Brown and the Economy', `Robin Cook and Europe' and so on. Within each chapter the narrative is roughly chronological, starting in childhood (the most interesting bits for those who cannot be bothered to read each new hagiography as it comes out), and ending in the present day.

The unusual element is the way Anderson and Mann dot happily between personality and ideology, history and theory, nuance and the basics. My favourite example is the following passage:
To grasp the full significance of this, it is necessary here to take a short diversion to look at the influence of John Maynard Keynes – or rather, the ideas associated with his name – on Labour's thinking about the economy.

Keynes (1883-1946) was a Liberal...
at which point there follow several thousand words on `how Labour became economically Keynesian and then reneged'.

This is both the strength and the weakness of the book. If you want an informed, relatively neutral, quasi-academic narrative account of how the main figures in the 1997 Labour government are rooted in the politics of the postwar British Left, then Safety First is what you need. It is as well written and pacy as a book can be which feels inclined to quote at this length from the works of the student Gordon Brown:
Socialists must neither place their faith in an Armageddon of capitalist collapse nor in nationalisation alone. For if the Jacobin notion of a vanguard making revolution on behalf of working people relates to a back ward society (and prefigures an authoritarian and bureaucratic state), then the complexity of modern society requires a far-reachinig movement of people and ideas, actin as a stimulus for people to see beyond the immediacy and fragmentation of their existing conditions.
The problem is that while this sort of thing might appeal to people like me, who remember reading Talmon's Origins of Totalitarian Democracy at school and thinking it was as clever as Brown obviously did, we are probably relatively few in number; and we are not the same people who need a tutorial on Keynes.

Safety First does have an argumentative thesis. Very softly posited in the odd passage here and there and in the short conclusion, it is nevertheless interesting. The Comment editor of a national newspaper recently suggested to me that the problem with New Labour is that you cannot criticise them on their own terms, which is true. But this is what Anderson and Mann attempt to do. They argue not that New Labour's reforms were wrong (although that is what they believe), but that they do not really belong to Tony Blair and his modernisers. Not only, they say, were the policy changes Neil Kinnock undertook between 1983 and 1992 of greater magnitude than any which followed, but the reinvention, in policy terms, of Labour during the 1992-7 parliament was `well under way before Tony Blair became leader in 1994'.

Sunday, 12 October 1997

Nick Cohen,Observer

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.