Looking back on New Labour
With the release of Gordon Brown’s new memoirs, SOLOMON HUGHES reflects on the limitations of Blairite politics
OVER 20 years on from Labour’s 1997, there is another round of looking back on New Labour, most recently in Gordon Brown’s memoir My Life, Our Times.
A lot of reflection is around when and how “things can only get better” turned into “things can only get bitter.”
When did the promise of 1997, the bright morning that saw the end of Michael Portillo, get tarnished? The Iraq war? The privatisations? The treatment of the disabled? Or were the flaws really uncovered by the financial crisis of 2008?
Brown’s memoir is particularly interesting as he shows that at least some of the frustration with the Murdoch-pleasing and the privatisation and the deregulation also happened at the top.
He’s a lot more positive about New Labour than most readers of this paper. Brown, quite wrongly, defends the private finance initiative, which I think was one of the worst forms of privatisation.
But he does express frustration that, thanks to Tony Blair and Alan Milburn, Labour also started contracting out operations and other NHS privatisations. Brown also regrets not being able to force through better regulation of the banks after the 2008 bailout.
Disillusionment with some of the failures of 1997 spread to the top. For my own part, I was pre-disillusioned and to some extent became more illusioned with the Labour government over time.
Through the 1990s I worked in the library of Birkbeck College, part of the University of London. I was also the Unison branch secretary, involved in the day-to-day business of the labour movement.
Baroness Tessa Blackstone was the boss of Birkbeck throughout that time. She was a longstanding Labour Party figure who joined the “modernising” New Labour wing and went on to become a minister in the 1997 government.
In many ways I lived under a New Labour government before 1997 and saw the limits of Blairite promise early.
People sometimes say the trade union movement was broken by losing the miners’ strike, but that isn’t really true. The defeat of the miners’ 1984-5 strike was a very serious blow to union strength, but millions remained, and remain, members.
Disputes and other union activity persisted and continued to have some success. It took another 30 years of wearing away and legally hemming in of unions to reduce them to their present, weaker state. Even in their current condition, unions can still have a significant impact for their members.
So I helped organise plenty of union activity, from regular, successful, if unspectacular, strikes around the annual pay round or London weighting. As with most runs of one-day strikes, you often won something but never a huge amount. You got out what you put in.
The trade union movement was also lively enough, even in a small branch like ours, to do solidarity action. Over 1989-90 Britain’s ambulance workers were involved in a mammoth six-month pay dispute.
It was one of the most remarkable grassroots union battles I have seen. Conscious that striking might put patients at risk, the ambulance workers instead occupied their stations and ran a worker-led emergency service on strike days.
A national network of supporters, much like a scale model of the miners’ support groups, raised cash to pay the striking workers wages.
The strike was enormously popular — in fairness, even the “modernising” Kinnock leadership of Labour was supportive. The ambulance workers won. At Birkbeck, we raised money, welcomed ambulance workers to our meetings and even joined a not-very-legal half-day solidarity strike in their support.
We, along with other union branches, were able to show wider solidarity. Our branch supported the campaigns for Justice for the Cardiff Three and the Tottenham Three.
The former were wrongly jailed for the terrible murder of a young woman, the latter for the killing of PC Blakelock in the Tottenham riots.
Both cases showed that those from ethnic minority communities and the vulnerable were subject to “stitch-up” injustices. Both campaigns were won as the men were exonerated.
So workplace trade unionism was alive. It also came into confrontation with the increasingly New Labour leadership of Baroness Blackstone.
She was an impressive, intelligent character, but she acted increasingly like the rest of the educational establishment. Under her lead we faced aggressive steps by management that we resisted with varying degrees of success.
We were able to blunt an attempt to increase our hours with a local strike, but we could not stop some staff being unfairly victimised and sacked while the college also made nepotistic appointments of senior managers’ relatives. We were able to win some compensation for sacked staff in employment tribunals.
While this pre-1997 New Labour management would have a go at the workers, it would also gamble the university’s money on the financial markets.
Birkbeck almost lost all its short-term reserves because they were put into Barings Bank, which collapsed after a “rogue trader’s” gambling in 1995. Luckily the rescue of Barings restored the funds.
Most strikingly, Blackstone pioneered the sucking-up to Rupert Murdoch. In 1995, she helped negotiate a News International Lectureship at Birkbeck. In return for funding a course, Murdoch got the respectability he didn’t deserve. News International also funded the painting of a portrait of Blackstone.
So when New Labour came to power in 1997, I wasn’t surprised by the pro-Murdoch policies, the enthusiasm for the City and the Establishment, the downgrading of union demands. If anything, I underestimated the positive changes — the extra nurses, teachers and welfare money.
In 1997, Labour inherited an NHS that was in the bad state to which it has returned. Social spending stabilised it and other public services. What I think I underestimated is the degree to which Labour is a movement.
The party allowed itself to be dominated by New Labour, but there was still some compromise with “old Labour.” As a simple calculation, those things which the 1997 government did that were “Labour” were mostly good, the “New” parts mostly bad.
Spending on hospital and school building was good, doing it by PFI was bad. Extra money for the NHS was good, contracting out was bad. The minimum wage good, the “Dome” bad. The very worst aspects — setting Atos on the disabled or joining George W Bush’s Iraq war, were the most “New Labour.”
The Conservatives are also defined both as leadership and movement, although in their case the “movement” characteristics often push them further down the road of horrible.