During this year’s leadership election campaign, it was interesting to hear Liz Kendall speak about Tony Blair’s victory in 1997. Unfortunately, Kendall (the most ‘Blairite’ of the four candidates) incorrectly associated Labour’s landslide of ’97 with the privatisation-friendly small state policies which dominated that year’s election manifesto.
Blair’s project worked because it was a real alternative to eighteen years of harsh Conservative rule. It was led by a young and charismatic man who preferred ‘sofa-style politics’ and would often ask others to ‘call me Tony’. He had slick presentation skills and an agenda of meaningful reform – something which marked a clear break from the days of Michael Foot. But the 1990s was a different era – a time of spin doctors and great acting. This is exactly what the electorate came to loathe and what senior Labour figures failed to recognise.
Since 1997, the Conservatives too have kicked into life and reformed their ways. The seemingly disastrous leaderships (in electoral terms) of William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard forced a review of Conservative electoral strategy. Another leadership election passed and David Cameron emerged as the new and youthful commander with the aim of making the Conservative brand seem more compassionate. Sound familiar? The Tories actually based their 2010 campaign on ‘New Labour’. No wonder Cameron is thought of as the ‘heir to Blair’. But even then, they failed. Cameron proved that the brand is dead – multiple long-term international wars, a world banking crisis and the expenses scandal ensured that.
Tony Blair was very much of its time. He finely tuned the party to suit the needs of ‘middle England’ and based his manifesto upon a successful neoliberal economy of the pre-millennium.
During his five year term as leader, Ed Miliband attempted to pull the party back towards the centre-left. He did so by making zero-hours contracts, employment and education spending the party’s main priority. There was however, one area which his team failed on spectacularly. The economy.
Between 2010 and 2015, Labour was desperately trying to find an alternative economic policy that wasn’t the well establish principles of Gordon Brown or the politics of ‘change’ during the Cameron coalition.
Between Labour’s election defeat and the party’s special conference in September, Tory Chancellor George Osborne was able to project the idea that Labour was somehow the root cause of the international banking crisis and collapse of the American housing sector. Clearly this is a lie, but for the Tories that didn’t matter. The seed had been planted and it stuck. ‘Labour had wrecked the economy’.
But how were the Tories able to outmanoeuvre the Labour beast? It was simple. They’d done their homework. Over thirteen years, they’d watched Labour transform from a battered protesting wreck into an election winning machine that could munch through marginal seats in their hundreds.
Liz Kendall and those who misleadingly call themselves ‘moderates’ fear Jeremy Corbyn. They suggest that his election marks the end of the Labour party. This is wrong. Instead, Corbyn’s premiership confirms the death of ‘New Labour’.
Over their own thirteen years of opposition, the Tories have built up a complex scheme of how to deal with Labour leaders. Such a scheme involves making Cameron more aggressive in his attempt at statesmanship – an example being his line about ‘terrorist sympathising’ opposition. So far, it’s been easy for them. Until now, Labour leaders seemed to come ready made out of a machine. They were Oxbridge educated, white, middle-class men who had served as special advisors after graduating, worked for various think-tanks and were elected in their early forties. Not that I blame them for being white, male or for having studied at Oxbridge. They’ve just become increasingly predictable.
So what can the Labour Party learn from the events succeeding Tony Blair’s leadership victory twenty one years ago?
- The Party’s image is never fixed and must evolve over time to match the ever shifting objectives of opposition parties.
- Miliband’s transition away from ‘New Labour’ isn’t complete. Corbyn has to finish the job.
- A new leader does not always result in a new party. Ed Miliband was surrounded by too many Blairite aides and cabinet ministers to successfully push through his programme of party modernisation. By 2010, MPs were still dreaming of an impossible 2nd
- Follow the will of the grassroots party membership – as hard as it sometimes may be – they know best.
Jeremy Corbyn is Labour’s only choice. His approach to daily politics attracts voters who moved towards UKIP, the SNP and the Greens and his ability to listen has doubled party membership in just three months. Asking the party to retain a regenerated version of ‘New Labour’ is lazy and is an indicator of how party mandarins will not listen to the advice of their own members – the people that campaign on the doorstep – the heart of the party. I’m sorry Liz Kendall, but “doing a 1997” won’t work in 2020.