Jim Larmour reviews the recent five-part BBC Documentary on the New Labour years.
When Tony Blair’s New Labour swept to power in 1997 to the soundtrack of ‘Things Can Only Get Better’ by pop act D: Ream, millions of working-class people shared that aspiration. Communities up and down Britain — ravaged by cuts and job losses, de-regulation of capital, all-out assault on trade unions and the massive transfer of wealth to the richest in society — breathed a sigh of relief. After 18 years of uninterrupted Tory rule, under Margaret Thatcher and later John Major, things indeed could only get better.
Here was a Labour government with the largest majority in their history — and the largest of any party in Britain since 1935. Yet by 2010 the dream had turned sour, with millions left disillusioned, divided, frustrated, and prepared to do the unthinkable and vote in the Tory-led coalition government of David Cameron.
So where did it all go wrong? Anyone who sits through this five-part documentary by the BBC will find few answers unfortunately. Instead, we are presented with an uncritical look at the Blair and Brown years through the eyes of spin doctors Peter Mandleson and Alastair Campbell, as well of dozens of MPs and senior civil servants loyal to the leadership. Except for Claire Short MP, who resigned over Blairs role in the invasion of Iraq, there are no dissenting voices, no alternative views. New Labour is presented as an inevitability and the only possible way a ‘social democratic’ party could be elected again in Britain after Thatcher.
Of course, all this suits the current media narrative, where the latest Labour leader Keir Starmer is now presented as Blair mark two: a safe pair of hands, continuing the latter’s policies but lacking any ability or charisma.
Episode one begins with the miners strike of 1984/85 and Tony Blair telling us, incredibly, that the working class needed to change its old ways; it had to accept that old jobs and industries would go, and it had to modernise and face reality. Not one word of support for those fighting for their jobs, their families, their communities. Not one word on the role of the government and state in provoking the conflict, the violence of the police.
Margaret Thatcher said the same at the time, which is no coincidence as Blair mentions his admiration for her regularly throughout. Indeed, the most telling moment of the whole show is Blair being asked about his ambition to be prime minister, he reveals that as a young lawyer he was overwhelmed at the sheer splendour of Westminster and believed he had a divine calling to serve there one day. Not spurred on by injustice or inequality — rather we get a picture of a young Tony Blair being overcome with Stendhal Syndrome in the foyer of the Houses of Parliament.
Brown vs. Blair
The documentary constantly attempts to ramp up the rivalry or dislike, and on Gordon Brown’s part, jealousy, between him and Blair. Blair is portrayed as the young charismatic leader, a great orator; Brown the scowling, slightly dour but by far intellectually superior second-in-command. All this makes for better TV , apparently, though it was hardly ground-breaking stuff. They shared the same beliefs and vision and were close friends for decades, though Brown did at times appear to be slightly alarmed at Blair’s attempts to take the party too far to the right.
Much is made of Blair’s visits to the US and his allegiance with the then President Bill Clinton, and it’s obvious Clinton’s style rubbed off and influenced him. In came fanfare, style over substance, spin and diversion instead of real policies. Certainly, both Blair and Clinton were kindred spirits when it came to embracing the rich and powerful, both enthusiastic on the virtues of global capital.
Old manufacturing jobs and industries would go to regions where they could be made cheaper, but the trade-off would be new highly-skilled and well paid jobs for the west; they got only the first part of their gamble right. Blair, fully immersed in the European Union project, argued strongly that the UK should adopt the Euro. He also favoured privatisation and introduced private finance initiatives PFI to the NHS as well as promoting private hospitals for operations.
Blair had, of course, quickly paved the way to the centre ground even before his election success in 1997. He had loosened the links with the trade unions, famously abolished Clause 4 of the Labour constitution – calling for the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange — and built relationships with big business owners to show New Labour were no threat to wealth. The documentary shows how all the time he was supported by moderates within his party and trade unions.
Blair’s new best friend was Rupert Murdoch, the union buster of Wapping, and they were so close that Blair actually became godfather to Murdoch’s daughter. The right-wing rag owned by Murdoch, The Sun, supported New Labour in the 1997 election. With the Tories in disarray, it was time for British capitalism’s B-team to have their day, safe in the knowledge that the rich and powerful would stay rich and powerful
At first, buoyed on by the feelgood factor of ridding the country of the hated Tories for what looked to be a long time, New Labour introduced some progressive policies. Powers were devolved to Scotland and Wales and a national minimum wage that saw an uplift in pay for millions of the lowest paid was introduced — all be it at too low a rate.
Blair’s crowning glory however was playing a major role in getting a peace agreement in the North of Ireland. The fact that both the British state and the IRA privately accepted neither could win and that the population of the North had had enough of two decades of brutal conflict barely got a mention — it was Blair, Clinton and Bono who brought peace to the ‘warring Irish’.
The seeds of Blair’s downfall were in his enthusiastic support for US imperialism in the era following the 9/11 attacks on New York. He committed British troops to a war in Afghanistan, and, more shockingly, he ignored UN law to launch an all-out invasion of Iraq, on the premise that the Iraqi regime held weapons of mass destruction and that an attack on the West was imminent.
This was later proven to be totally false, of course. Blair had simply lied, and the US-led assault on the region produced hundreds of thousands of civilian causalities, the destruction of countries, and the rise of ISIS . Over a million people had marched in the UK against the invasion. When asked his opinion on this, a smug and unrepentant Blair simply answers, “They have to respect there is an alternative view”.
By now Blair and New Labour’s popularity was on the wane. Their government was mired in scandals, many of which related to bribes and backhanders from the rich, and many involved Peter Mandleson, who would be briefly sacked only to again reappear, with seemingly more comebacks than Elvis in Vegas . By Blair’s third stint in office he was so unpopular that he stood down in 2007, midway through his term. Scotland was lost to the SNP and increasingly the working class of Britain saw New Labour as an out-of-touch party which didn’t care about their interests.
Gordon Brown at last had his wish to become prime minister, though hardly in the circumstance he had hoped for. The party was in a mess and within a year the global economy faced the biggest recession it had seen since the 1930’s, and New Labour finally lost power in 2010 to a Tory/Lib Dem coalition
Blair now sits on a personal fortune estimated at £60 million, and this month it was revealed he had purchased a multimillion pound home in London through a third party to avoid property taxes. In the concluding episode Blair is asked if he had any regrets – “Not going further with the modernisation of the party,” he replied. When Margaret Thatcher was once asked what her greatest achievement was, she replied “Tony Blair and New Labour”. That says it all really.