No Need for New Labour

14 Jan


There’s a popular misconception that the political repositioning of the Labour Party was what won the 1997 election and kicked the Tories out of power for the first time since 1979. This misconception – this historical lie – is what underpins the claims of self-proclaimed ‘centrists’ within the Labour Party to be the only ones capable of winning elections.

In fact, it was the Tories that lost the 1997 election – and they would have lost against any Labour leader, no matter how red, pink, ‘Old or ‘New’ they were. For those who have forgotten, or never got told, here’s some of the relevant highlights of British politics in the years 1992-1997:

From a narrow win in 1992 onwards and for the rest of that parliament, their sheer viciousness – and economic incompetence – become inescapable.

1992 “Black Wednesday”, the forced British withdrawal from the European Exchange Rate Mechanism and the stock market crash in its immediate aftermath, comprehensively destroys the reputation of the Conservative Party for economic competence. The narrow poll lead they had immediately following the election is transformed immediately. From this point onwards Labour’s poll dominance never slips.

1993 The Welsh Secretary visits a Welsh housing estate with a high proportion of single-parent families – and uses the visit to vilify the single parents who are there to meet him and who are being photographed with him.

The act that enables rail privatisation – once labelled a ‘privatisation too far’ by Margaret Thatcher – is passed. Despite it being controversial and threatening to alienate commuters in their south-east English heartland, the Tories make sure that British Rail is fully privatised before the 1997 election.

1994 Stephen Milligan’s grotesque death show some of the hypocrisy at the heart of John Major’s “Back to Basics” moral crusade. Perhaps not as graphically as Edwina Currie’s later revelation that she and the Tory leader had a four-year affair would have done. Then again,  Tim Yeo MP has already resigned after revelations about how he helped to contribute to the numbers of single parent families. Oh, and Tory MP Neil Hamilton and former Tory parliamentary election agent and lobbyist Ian Greer are named in what becomes known as the ‘cash-for-questions’ affair,. This runs on and on – right up until the 1997 election. It’s this episode that popularised the term ‘sleaze’. For the next three years that word is everywhere.

1994-1997 Rail privatisation. Have I mentioned that this was a policy calculated to lose votes in Tory heartland areas?

1995 John Major resigns as Tory leader, without resigning as Prime Minister, in order to have a leadership election within his party. His eventual opponent, incidentally, is the same man who visited Wales two years earlier to slag off single parents.

Earlier in 1995 the dramatic collapse of Barings Bank at the hands of a single ‘rogue trader’ demonstrates beyond doubt that banks are not being regulated properly. Sound familiar?

A month before that The State We’re In jumps staight into the bestseller lists. Subtleties aside, the key message of the book is that the Tories’ economic model is plain wrong and Britain needs its political institutions radically democratised. Almost anyone with a smidgeon of education is forced to read it – or argue with somebody who has – over the two years running up to the next election. Remember, if you can, that at this point in history the internet is so primitive that it does not influence political opinion.

Also during this year two Tory MPs leave to join other parties, and the Tories lose control of their last councils in Scotland and Wales.

1996 The publication of the Scott Report shows complicity between Tory ministers and companies illegally exporting arms to Iraq – and demonstrates that the Tories were willing to let others go to jail for their misbehaviour.  Just as some other Tories had been in 1995, when they sought to silence vital defence evidence in the very similar ‘Supergun affair’.

The Scott report ran to over a million words. Opposition politicians scrutinising it were given less than two hours to read it. Nevertheless one Labour politician, a habitual left-wing rebel called Robin Cook, managed to read, remember and use enough of it to utterly crucify the government in the debate that followed. Here’s his killer conclusion, direct from Hansard:

Tonight Parliament has the opportunity to insist that Ministers must accept responsibility for their conduct in office and to assert that the health of our democracy depends on the honesty of Government to Parliament. That is what we shall vote for tonight. Of course Conservative Members have enough votes to defeat us. If they vote to reject those principles, however, they will demonstrate not only that the two Ministers who have been most criticised in the Scott report should leave office, they will convince the public that this is an arrogant Government who have been in power too long to remember that they are accountable to the people, and that the time has come when the people must turn them all out of office.

The Tory leader instructs his MPs to treat the debate as a motion of confidence in the government. They obey. The Tories win the vote by one MP – exactly the size of their majority in Westminster.

There is less than a year to go before the 1997 election.

Now tell me New Labour was necessary.




2 Responses to “No Need for New Labour”

  1. Carl Bedani January 15, 2017 at 10:32 am #

    The behaviour and record of the current government should be recognised as being on a par with that of the administration in place over the period you mention, if not worse, would you agree?  Crippling the NHS and flogging it to fat cats when nobody’s looking, forcing dying people back into work to avoid paying benefits, electoral fraud, expenses scams, tax evasion, cover-ups of ruling class paedophilia on a large scale, the list goes on. Yet it is not viewed this way, the chance of this government losing power to Labour seems less likely than ever.  Humans’ relationship with the world has changed enormously since that period in the 90s. Everyone with a computer or smart phone now has a platform to air their political views and to read what’s around. You’re exposed to politics (fake or otherwise) whether you want it or not now just by scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed or on Twitter trying to find out what your friends have been up to.

    Centrist politics is ignored / almost forgotten these days as the extremes of the political poles and populism comes to the fore. We should have seen it coming really.  People whether they want to be or not are now engaged in the entanglement of ethics, wars, images of bombed out cities, refugees drowning etc and maybe because the neoliberal order has got so much more powerful since the end of the Thatcher / Major era it’s really only big businesses that control anything with the government as their mouth piece.  Is this the case?  Is it all just one big Punch & July show?  Big business cares about big bucks, not building homes or getting the NHS in order, they can afford to go to Spire for their ops and have a good Bupa healthcare plan and if the biggest industry is selling arms they’ll live with that. Politics for them comes down to divide and conquor. Sadly this is why Labour will probably lose more votes again to UKIP,  ’cause that’s what UKIP are good at. People have been let down for their whole lives with promises of changes and new opportunities that have amounted to nothing. “Fuck it I’ll vote out of Europe, maybe that’s what I’ve been waiting for. Maybe that’s the answer. That Farage seems like a down to earth guy he likes a pint just like me and he won’t let thone foreigners take my work.”

    So. centrist politicians, Blairites, careerists or whatever you want to call them are bound to advance the lie that a diluted form of conservatism or a merely cosmetic re-branding is the only way of wresting power from the elite, it’s a viable path they can take if they’re not confident people are interested in their plans for making Britain a decent functioning society.

    What is it going to take to hold on to traditional Labour voters and to win more?

    • nosuchthingasthemarket January 15, 2017 at 12:44 pm #

      Thanks for the comment Carl. There’s a whole lot there to reply to, and each point would be worth a blog entry in itself. To avoid giving hostages to fortune, or writing carelessly, I’m going to avoid all but one of your issues for the moment.

      The first point you make is entirely correct. The current administration is indeed just as nasty as that in place during the period I addressed, for all the reasons you mention.

      What I’m aiming at in this post, however, is less ambitious than the comprehensive strategy you seek. It’s simply offer a crib sheet for anyone countering the argument that Labour needed to move to the right in order to win the 1997 election. The extreme right within the Labour Party – those who are popularly referred to as ‘centrists’ – depend on that historical lie for much of their legitimacy. Nailing this lie whenever it’s used, whilst not sufficient to destroy the right within the labour movement, is an essential part of allowing decent people to be heard above the hysterical media din of right-wing lobbyists.

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