Thursday, 5 May 2011

New Labour is dead. New Britain, still worth fighting for

After the weekend’s national outpouring of sentiment, I want to take you back to another, earlier one.

Almost exactly fourteen years to the day, on the 2nd May, 1997, a new dawn had broken – had it not? – at the foot of Millbank Tower. It was a day when, no matter in which pew you sat in Labour’s broad church, no matter whether you liked or hated Tony Blair (and, let’s be honest, most liked him in those days), you were just thankful that the Tories were out of power. We were, in that sun-filled, euphoric moment – and perhaps, in truth, only in that moment – fully united. We had done the seemingly impossible: we had ended the Tory hegemony of a generation.

If you are old enough to remember that morning just try, for a moment, to remember how you felt. I was elated and exhausted, arriving home from a sometimes inspiring, sometimes gruelling campaign as a parliamentary candidate in my native North Yorkshire. I had been fighting alongside people who may not have agreed with me on everything, but were prepared to back me because we shared, not only a common enemy, but a common goal.

That common goal, it is fair to say, was not anything to do with the drawing the right line between private and public sector, nor was it about school class sizes, nor our being tough on crime and the causes of crime. No, it was much more simple than that.

We believed that the Tories were entrenching an old-fashioned, class-ridden Britain with values which no longer reflected those of its people. One which thought it was ok to be the only country in the Western world without a minimum wage; or to openly discriminate against gays and lesbians; or to leave people in rough areas vulnerable to crime because it was not a priority for those in the nicer houses.

In short, the New Labour, New Britain slogan was apt for the times. We wanted a new Britain, we really did: away from John Major’s “cricket grounds [and] warm beer”, away from the little-Englander mentality which had come to dominate. That was the glue which bound us all together, across the spectrum of party opinion. Even those who hated the concept of New Labour could find common ground in the idea of a new Britain: in sweeping away the accumulated dust of the Tory years on the national psyche.

Last Friday was also a national event where people lined the streets, although it was a little different. Nevertheless, it went off fantastically and, as Dan Hodges pointed out, it was a part of our “shared heritage… owned as much by the left as by the right”. Something for all to freely enjoy, without feeling that it was somehow not for us. I was even happy to shrug off the bizarre spectacle of the only two Labour prime ministers still living not being invited to the biggest royal knees-up in thirty years (the despotic King of Swaziland, in contrast, being an honoured guest). Probably some daft, arcane precedent, like the flag-at-half-mast thing with Diana. The outrage about it all seemed really to be small-minded, partisan party-pooping dressed up as righteous indignation.

That is, until I thought about it a bit more.

Reading John Rentoul’s rather fine piece on the matter, and others, it gradually dawned on me that practically all serious commentators felt, on the contrary, that the snub was quite deliberate (including the Daily Mail and Andrew Rawnsley: hardly great friends of Labour). That it was seen, simply, as a politically expedient opportunity to get back at People Whom We Do Not Like.

And suddenly, all those feelings that I had about the pre-1997 Tory Establishment came back to me. That there were, in fact, still people who felt that the Labour government had been an unexpected aberration in an otherwise Conservative century. And that it was really rather nice that we were now all back to business as usual. And that assumption made me, frankly, rather cross.

Now, I’m no republican. I cravenly indulge in the typical doublethink, I suspect, of many Labour members: that there’s no possible rational justification of a monarchy in the 21st century, except that, er, we’re quite fond of it and things probably wouldn’t be noticeably better in a republic, thank you. If it ain’t broke, and so on.

However, “sometimes”, as Julie’s Think Tank nicely observed, “you have to save the Royals from themselves”. As per the Queen’s 1997 Balmoral fiasco. And, to that end, if there remains a member of that family who can finally drag it into the 21st century, it must surely be the young man at the centre of everyone’s attention last weekend. Whose mother had attempted to fight the forces of the Establishment as an outsider and who died that same year, with them still ranked against her.

Whoever’s decision the snub was, it was a particularly poor one: one which reflected badly both on the Royals for initiating it, and on the Prime Minister for not picking it up. It is hard to imagine that Tony Blair would have done the same to, say, Thatcher, had she been missed off a royal guest list. But, as Cameron showed when he deliberately trashed Brown’s hopes of a job at the IMF, he has no problem with putting political point-scoring above promoting his country’s talent. A shame, because even if we don’t share the politics of our prime ministers, we like to think of them as statesmanlike. They represent our country to the world, dammit.

As a rule, moral outrage is a fairly useless emotion: solutions are always preferable to mere protest. It’s always better, if you like, to get even; although, in this case, there is no obvious solution.

But what we should all do is, at least, this: clock the snub. As a simple reminder of the Establishment we are up against: whatever our personal feelings for Blair and Brown. Because, in the end, they are Labour. An insult to them is really an insult to us, and to that new Britain we fought for, and finally got to begin on that early morning fourteen years ago. Whatever may have happened since.

We are not, for the most part, anti-royal (nor should we be, if we ever want to be re-elected). But we are anti-establishment, and rightly so. We cannot and should not attempt to recreate New Labour, but we still hanker after that new Britain yet to be fully realised. And there still exist ever more powerful “forces of conservatism” – with a small and a large C – ranked against us.

It is this fundamental desire to cast off that old Britain, to which some would have us return, which separates us from the Tories and their fellow-travellers; and which ultimately unites us, and compels us to find a narrative which is both right and electable.

As we go into today’s elections, fighting each other over AV and preparing for a new phase of robust debate on what that new Britain entails: let’s just keep that in mind.

Beneath it all, it’s still the same as it was then: us against the Establishment.

This post first published at LabourList


  1. 1997 I had started my M.Litt at Bristol and as Blair was pereceived as a "fine thing" I campaigned for him. Oh dear. As for Rentoul I usually comment as "Ron Broxted".

  2. How many names have you got, then? ;)


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