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.

Sunday, 5 October 1997

William Keegan, Observer

Anyone who attended the 1984 Conservative Party conference in Brighton approaches that town with caution. One understands why they take such precautions with security. Even so, as I was quizzed about the Swiss army knife I use for sharpening pencils ('you will keep this about your person at all times, won't you, sir?'), I couldn't help thinking that this was unnecessary on two counts. For one, the Government is now talking to the IRA, and second, the terrible 1984 bomb was planted well before conference-goers arrived.
It was a commonplace last week that the security seemed even tighter than under the Tories. New Labour, extra caution, as the title of a new book on Tony Blair's government reminds us, Safety First - The Making of New Labour.*

New Labour is not only cautious; it is sensitive to the market. As a late applicant for a pass, I was told I should have to pay a penalty of pounds 35 and wait at least half an hour. 'Do I have to pay now, or when I collect the pass?' 'When you collect.' Happily, the system broke down, and I neither volunteered, nor was asked for, the pounds 35. New Labour is still coming to terms with greed and the market.

It was a funny old conference. (I judge on the basis of a two-day sample: I have long believed that attendance at the whole of a conference should be accompanied by a Government health and sanity warning).

This was the conference at which Labour finally came to terms with the fact that it had won the election. It was a celebration, but New Labour triumphalism was held in check by the prominence of figures such as Ken Livingstone and Diane Abbott, and by the way Peter Mandelson was shown to the waiting room.

There were even signs of a healing process. Having been put in their place by a succession of moves by Blair, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, the trade unions and the left are grateful for small mercies. Gordon Brown, whose caution was born of terror of losing the election and extinguishing the party, has by no means relaxed his guard; but he did feel able to send more reassuring signals to the people, party members and others, who voted for something a little more ambitious than New Labour's formal position – or 'project', as they like to call it.

'This country's government - for 18 long years a force of reaction and division – is now, and will be, a force for social justice and progress . . . From now on, fairness and justice will be the rock on which taxation policy in Britain will be built . . . We are now renationalising (my italics) our National Health Service . . . (The cut in VAT on fuel) is only the first step in securing justice for pensioners . . . Let the minimum wage be a permanent memorial to the life and work of John Smith . . . High and sustainable levels of growth and employment, the aims of the 1945 government, reaffirmed in 1997 . . . these are our values. Socialist values.'

New Labour speeches have a low verb count. Whether this affects fertility remains to be seen. But there have been clues in many a Brown speech, echoed last week, that for all the criticism he has had to bear in 'modernising' the party, he has not forgotten his roots. The same can certainly be said for Robin Cook and John Prescott. Which brings us, via the organ music, to the leader.

Although the nationalism was cloying and not entirely consistent with the European aspirations, Blair delivered the right speech for the audience and the occasion. The most hardened left-wingers I talked to afterwards were embarrassingly generous with their praise. The Cynical Tendency had an afternoon off; I overheard a colleague ask the person he assumed to be the speechwriter 'where did you get that Milton quote', to which the answer was 'from Milton'.

Blair is good at telling an audience what it wants to hear, and this was not an occasion for acknowledging his debt to Thatcherism, nor for praising that person against whom most of his party fought for more than a decade. It was noteworthy that the Prime Minister's acknowledgement of his debt to Kinnock won prolonged applause, as did his commitment to multi-racialism.

The book that seems to have influenced him most is The Strange Death of Liberal England. His speech implied that his main 'project' (ugh!) is to mend the almost century-long split between Labour and the Liberals. Keynes and Beveridge got their mentions; so they should: those great Liberals inspired the economic and social policies New Labour abandons at its, and our, peril. Modification and up-dating yes; dismantlement, no.

Labour's caution is seen in the way Brown referred last week to 'the mistake of 1964, when our government failed to take the tough, long-term decisions for change early on' and 'the mistake of 1974, spending hopefully for the first two years . . . and then having to cut back miserably in the next three'. Evidently he has only to mention the albeit vague goal of 'full employment for the twenty-first century' for his Downing Street neighbour's spin doctors (the Chinese call them 'propaganda tzars') to start muttering to the Financial Times. This despite the fact that the Chancellor spends most of his time expatiating about 'employability' - equipping people for new jobs rather than preserving old ones.

The Prime Minister - 'Mr 93 per cent' according to the latest polls - knows he has nowhere to go but down. The crisis in hospitals and schools cannot be waved away by populist and nationalist sentiments. 'Compassion with a hard edge' is a contradiction in terms, as Anthony Howard told Newsnight. 'Hard choices' are going to be made by the people, not the People's Party.

The fact is that, by eschewing increases in income tax, our Prime Minister has himself taken the soft choice. He preaches 'giving'. He will be judged by whether he has given in to Thatcherism.
  • by Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann, published by Granta, at £9.99.