A blog by Luke Akehurst about politics, elections, and the Labour Party - With subtitles for the Hard of Left. Just for the record: all the views expressed here are entirely personal and do not necessarily represent the positions of any organisations I am a member of.

Friday, January 05, 2007

Reid's speech

I couldn't go to see John Reid's speech yesterday morning as I had a work meeting that clashed with it, but a friend from Hackney who did go rang me to tell me how good it had been and was highly impressed that Reid hung about for an hour talking to the party members in the audience.

The good Doctor himself was telling members he spoke to that he now meets Gordon Brown on a weekly basis to ensure lines of communication are open and that they are singing from the same hymn sheet. We can therefore assume that Brown gave some kind of general OK to the content of yesterday's speech.

I thought George Mudie's rather intemperate reaction, reported here, was about four months out of date - made in October, Reid's speech could have been interpreted as a positioning move for a leadership bid, but things moved on from the pre-conference infighting remarkably fast, and I assume from the mood music that all the deals have been done to secure Reid a decent job in a Brown Cabinet... do keep up Mr Mudie! Our most senior politicians are not fools - they looked over the precipice in September, saw the public didn't like infighting, and have stepped back.

I prefer the interpretation but here by journalist Paul Linford - "On one level, it could be seen as almost an endorsement of Gordon Brown. He says that "personal attacks" on the Chancellor by the Tories will "rebound" and makes clear his view that Brown's achievements "tower above anything anyone in the Tory Party has ever aspired to or could ever aspire to."If you take this comment at face value, he appears to be saying not only that Gordon is New Labour to the core, but that attempts by the Conservatives to portray him otherwise are doomed to failure."

My personal take on both Reid's comments about staying New Labour and the similar stuff from Blair at the New Year:

- It's a bit of a no-brainer - obviously if an incoming leader announced they were a) Old Labour and b) didn't give a monkeys about the middle classes, they would be on a fast ticket to another 18 years in opposition.


- We can't carry on using the "New Labour" brand for ever. As a way of emphasising continuity between Blair and Brown and reassuring key segments of the electorate it just about has some value and ressonance through to the next General Election, but beyond that you are getting into territory where very few electors can remember any other kind of Labour, and it starts to beg the question "new as compared to what? You've been in government for 10+ years" - already you have to be well into your 30s to have voted for Kinnock in '92 and in your 40s to have any adult memory of Michael Foot as leader. There soon won't be many electors who have much memory of what "Old Labour" was...
- It depends exactly what is meant by "New Labour" - if it means ultra-modernisation for its own sake, disdain for the party grassroots, hostility to the unions and an obsession with market solutions to public services then even I'm not New Labour and its support is confined to a tiny handful of people. If you are going to divide people up in politics it's a good idea to divide them with the majority on the same side of the fence as you.
- If however it means wanting an efficient party that campaigns and communicates in a modern way, is in touch with voters' aspirations, has broad appeal across society, and ain't going back to being loopy on defence, tax or crime, then I think New Labour is still the dominant ideological force in the party - and encompasses both Brownites and Blairites.
- I think Gordon has to have some wriggle room to redefine the government to reflect his own thinking - I genuinely don't fear that he will chuck the baby out with the bath water and expecting him to change nothing is unrealistic and would not necessarily help us electorally, as people want some evidence that their discontent with the government is being addressed.

I don't subscribe to a Year Zero approach to Labour history that says everything was crap before 1994 and suddenly the Messiah appeared in the form of Tony Blair and led us into the land of milk and honey. I think New Labour isn't as new as that on two levels
- first off there was immediate continuity with the previous 9 years of reform under Kinnock and Smith - the same people at national and constituency level who fought against Militant, to drop unilateralism and nationalisation, and for OMOV, were the people who fought to elect Blair, change Clause IV and win the '97 General Election.
- secondly there is longer range continuity with the revisionist tradition in the Party going back to Bevin, Morrison, Gaitskell, Healey, Crosland et al - as former No10 advisor Patrick Diamond wrote a whole book about this (New Labour's Old Roots (Polity, 2004)) whilst working for the PM I assume it is a view Blair shares.

I also don't subscribe to the view that the Leader defines the nature of the party. Of course it has been tremendously important to Labour's recovery as an electoral force in a presidentialised political system that we had three very charismatic reforming leaders (Kinnock, Smith, Blair) in a row, but they weren't exclusively personally responsible for the change and neither will Blair's departure suddenly change the nature of the Labour Party. I was active in the Party from 1988 onwards and I don't just remember a series of changes at a national level - I remember years and years of slow, steady organisational work by the right of the party (and to be fair the soft left on some issues and in some places) to take control of affiliates, wards, CLPs, district parties, council Labour groups - some of it vaguely directed from on high but a lot of it spontaneous and locally organised by people who had just had enough of losing elections, had had enough of the fruitcakes and entryists ruining their local parties and knew it had to change. These people haven't gone away and whilst the tide has turned in a few places the vast bulk of the structure of the party down to a ward level is organically controlled by people who whilst they might not call themselves Blairite, Brownite or New Labour, are when push-comes-to-shove moderates.

Finally, there is the question of which groups of voters New Labour was designed to appeal to. The use of the phrase "middle classes" by Reid and Blair has confused a few people because it means different things inside and outside Labour - for the Hard Left it means "plutocrats", to some people like me it can be a pejorative term for museli-eating Guardian/Indie reading lefties, but to the vast bulk of the public the "middle classes" mean "me" - the huge majority of the British population self-define as middle class - and it's in that sense that Reid and Blair used the term.

We need to remember the context in which New Labour was created. It wasn't designed to win a landslide - the scale of the 1997 victory was unexpected and a fantastic piece of collateral benefit. It was actually designed with a more narrow objective of getting from the 271 MPs Labour had in 1992 to a small working majority - hence only about 70 key seats were targetted. These were not what sociologists would define as "middle class" areas - the lusher suburban gains and places like Hove were accidental gains that were untargetted. They were New Town seats like Harlow, Basildon, Crawley in the South East, owner occupied seats in the Pennines like Batley & Spen, Colne Valley and Calder Valley, and gritty bits of "middle London" like Eltham, Ilford South, Edmonton and Mitcham & Morden.

In terms of segments of voters in 1992 Labour's coalition of support was limited to the Guardianista intelligensia, the Celtic fringe, ethnic minorities, areas of declining "rust-belt" heavy industry, council tenants and the public sector pay-roll vote of people working in health, education or local government. In '83 and '87 we didn't even hold on to all of this vote.

The objective of New Labour was to add to these segments some of whom would self-define as middle class but who were largely in marketing-speak C1s and C2s - lower middle class and skilled working class voters e.g. owner-occupiers (critical in the Pennine belt of seats), people who had done right-to-buy on their council properties, people in the kind of skilled blue collar or white collar jobs that would now be Amicus members but were then in the AEEU or MSF, Sun readers etc. These were people whose families had voted Labour until 1979 but had then or in '83 switched to Thatcher because of the Winter of Discontent, concern that Labour was dangerously leftwing on crime, defence and Europe, and straithforward self-interest on tax and right-to-buy.

I would hope that all the key players in the party agree that these are the kind of people we need to keep as part of Labour's coalition of support, whether we choose to call that New Labour or not.


Anonymous Innocent Abroad said...

As I was an active member of the Labour Party in the late 70s and early 80s (indeed I was the agent for Hackney North in the 1982 Borough elections), I perhaps have a better recall of why Labour lost the 1979 and 1983 elections than you, Luke.

1979 was lost when the IMF "broker's men" intervened (those were the days of fixed exchange rates, sounds like the feudal system, doesn't it :) ) in 1976 - there was some (but in my view at the time not enough) recovery in 1978 - then the Winter of Discontent just re-inforced the impression of incompetence.

Despite all the policies you so dislike, and Foot as leader, we were doing well in the polls in the early 80s until the Falklands. This galvanised the conservative (as opposed to Conservative) element in society in all classes - including people in classes DE who rarely voted before then.

I agree with you about RTB though - had the Callaghan government passed a law providing Council & HA tenants with it on the same basis as private tenants (i.e. a flat one-third discount of market price) coupled with a (funded) "duty to replace" it would have shot that particular Tory fox. It's also worth recalling that in the 1970s Heseltine was calling for Council housing to be given away to its sitting tenants, i.e. abolished completely.

More generally, and coming back up to date, you forget that the electorate is ageing, and that older people are more likely to vote - there are still plenty of people who remember the 1970s and 1980s.

I haven't read all through your blog, so please forgive me if you have covered this already, but I'd be interested to know whether, and if so in what sense, you consider yourself to be more left-wing than David Cameron. You may of course agree with Tony Blair that such a notion is out of date, but I have to say that I can see nothing in your views (or any of our political leaders') that competently addresses the triple challenge of the 21st century - the "three Gs": global warming, globalisation and global terrorism.

11:15 am, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I actually agree with Luke on much of what is written here. You are sounding extremely sensible. Much better than when you bang on about how much you love nuclear weapons or how you don't care about collapsing Labour membership.

The party's identity as 'New' Labour has run its course. After nearly 10 years of Labour government it is clear that 'Old' Labour's perceived major faults - economic incompetence, trade union militancy, and some loony ideologues - are no longer a concenrn. A renewed Labour government should distance itself from our current unpopular administration with a number of policy changes and an image overhaul. Dogmatically sticking to 'New Labour' will get us nowhere.

11:41 am, January 05, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Innocent Abroad says they are "interested to know whether, and if so in what sense, you consider yourself to be more left-wing than David Cameron".

I'm assuming here a conventional left-right axis going from a lot of state intervention and great equality (though these are not necessarily linked) through to total free markets and a very unequal society. There are of course other axes you can measure e.g. radicalism on questions of liberty and democracy. Stalin or Mao would have ranked left on the main axis but not on democracy or freedom.

Although the answer in both cases is yes, the sense changes depending on whether we are talking about Cameron before he ran for leader or since.

Before he ran for leader, he was not on the left of the Tory party. Wet Tories I know find it hilarious that he is now presented as such. He worked for Thatcherite Cabinet Ministers (notably Lamont) as a Special Adviser, was an orthodox anti-European as a parliamentary candidate, and stuck to the party line as an MP and before i.e. opposed every progressive move such as the minimum wage that the Labour Party has made in government.

Since becoming leader he's done some cuddly photo opps with seals but is yet to reveal policies that would help position him on a left-right spectrum.

Personally I came into politics because I was angry about the unequal society that the government Cameron was a Special Adviser in created. I continue to be motivated by anger about the poverty experienced by the people who live in the council ward I represent.

I find it very difficult to believe given his personal background, political track record or life experience that Mr Cameron gives a fig about poverty in Britain, other than thinking that sounding like he cares about it might win him the votes of the totally naive.

He is leader of a party where my former parliamentary election opponents Bob Spink and Gerald Howarth remain free as MPs to spout bigotry and prejudice.

My politics are on the right of the Labour Party- and on some issues that don't fall on a conventional left-right axis such as defence, terrorism or crime I'm not fussed if they do outflank the Tories.

But on the main socio-economic axis
a) I want strong trade unions with striong rights in the workplace - I doubt Cameron does
b) I want high levels of public spending
c) I want an economy run in the interests of working people (i.e. keeping unemployment down is the prime driver)
d) I want redistribution and greater equality with an eventual absolute absence of poverty and class privilege - I doubt Cameron does
e) My politics are class based - I want the working class (in the broadest sense) to run the country - not to have a Cabinet of Old Etonians as Cameron does.

I'm pro-European (pro the Euro and a European Constitution) - Cameron isn't. A strong multi-national political entity with international trade unions is the only way to deal with the down side of globalisation.

I'm pro proportional representation - he isn't.

I support a 100% elected House of Lords.

I support greater powers and autonomy for local and regional goverment.

I'm pro actually banning the most irresponsible or selfish polluting behaviour or taxing it out of existence - is Cameron?

On issues of personal behaviour I'm more or less a libertarian - if it doesn't hurt other citizens you should be allowed to behave how you want.

I'm in favour of continued high levels of immigration - as long as it is controlled, not illegal migration, and I'd like more areas of the country to be as ethnically diverse as Hackney.

I don't know - do you think I'm to the left of him?

1:15 pm, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

you sound a bit lib demmy to me

1:22 pm, January 05, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Oh some I forgot, might as well throw them in -

I'm in favour of the abolition of the remaining selective schools.

I'd like to see the nationalisation of all independent schools.

I'm against top-up tuition fees.

I'm against foundation hospitals.

I'm sceptical about the current reform agenda in health and education.

1:39 pm, January 05, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

But in the interests of balance I am in favour of (as most readers have worked out):

- Use of the West's military and other resources to assist regime change to remove fascist and communist dictatorships
- NATO and a close alliance with the USA
- Supporting the State of Israel
- Supporting Tony Blair (except on the couple of policies mentioned above)
- Keeping our nuclear deterrent
- Loads of new civil nuclear power to reduce polluting with greenhouse gases
- Expelling Trots
- Keeping the leftwing of the Labour Party as far away from power within or outside the party as possible (but going for a beer with them after defeating them in meetings/conferences as it isn't personal ... it's political)

1:54 pm, January 05, 2007

Blogger Dave said...

Do most people self-define as middle class? Haven't got the stats to hand, but I thought the empirical evidence was just the reverse - around two-thirds of the population self-define as working class, even where this is patently not the case.

2:15 pm, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Cor, touched a nerve, didn't I?

As for equality, didn't I read somewhere that we are now a more unequal society than when Major left office? Isn't the Labour Party led (tho' not for much longer, Praise the Lord and pass the ammunition) by a man who's on record as saying that if one of his sons became a headteacher, he'd regard him as having failed in life? So much for "education, education, education"...

As for your views on foreign policy, we can at least agree about the EU. It's absurd, for example, that national governments are trying (and failing) to deal with climate change when the principle of subsidiarity clearly means that this should be dealt with on an all-Europe basis.

The rest of them - NATO, keep the Bomb etc - are wholly predicated upon your support for Israel. Israel, as intelligent people (whether Jewish or not) know, is a failed State. (Read Hannah Arendt, or any of the debates pre-1947 between Zionists and their Jewish opponents, and decide for yourself whom history has vindicated.)

The Tory party's membership is much as Labour's was circa 1990 - it still believes in the old verities, but if Cameron is as ruthless as Blair was (and he will be) in fifteen years' time it will agree with you on all points (except TUs, and I daresay you'll have changed your mind by then.)

3:09 pm, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Innocent Abroad said...

Sorry, that last comment was me.

3:10 pm, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Perhaps Luke, but the kind of bile spouted by the Sun and their ilk should not form Labour policy. They are right on identifying a lot of issues of broad relevance in crime and education etc., but they shouldn't be giving the solutions, we should, and there is no reason, if progressive solutions work, why we should use theirs.

To me 'middle classes' means Mail readers who are afraid that the darkies want to steal their houseprices, turn them gay and give them foreign aids.

In short, people who live in the south east and are worried about the impact of immigration on their privet (like my Mum).

5:50 pm, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Basically, what Luke is saying, is that apart from policy regarding missle east, rhetorical style and his attitude towards Tony Blair, his politics are substantively exactly the same as mine.


5:55 pm, January 05, 2007

Blogger Luke Akehurst said...

Innocent abroad says my views on NATO and the bomb are "are wholly predicated upon your support for Israel." Yup, the international zionist conspiracy - all my views must be their fault ;)

... except that Israel is not in NATO and nor is any country in the Middle East except Turkey ... and I doubt whether the Israelis know or care whether the UK replaces Trident as they have their own deterrent, knowing they can't rely on the West to defend them from the anti-semitic theocrats in Iran if they ever get the bomb.

7:45 pm, January 05, 2007

Anonymous Dave Hill said...

Your analysis of what "New" Labour attempted, successfully, to achieve electorally and the need for the party to keep the same sort of coalition together is very interesting, Luke. But I wonder if you are as sick as I am of the political classes' obsession with decoding hidden messages in speeches by Doc Red Top or anyone else about how Gordon must keep Labour "New". There is, as I think you'd agree, just about no difference worth mentioning between Grim Gord and Tone and if Rebekah's little poodle - sorry, the Home Secretary - decides to run for the leadership it will be quite amazing. What matters, surely, is how Labour after Blair, called "New" or otherwise, is going to address such matters as the funding and management problems of the health service, the erosion of trust in mainstream politics, the social and electoral marginalisation of various groups in society whose votes do not decide elections (if they vote at all), the aftermath of the Iraq disaster and so on. Moreover, can they keep that electoral coalition together without recourse to pathetic, tabloid-pleasing, self-defeating mantras about "Britishness" and so on? I'm not terribly hopeful, actually. But wouldn't it be nice if the political establishment, its media included, would get round to talking about such matters sensibly? Nice, but, alas, unlikely I fear.

2:28 pm, January 06, 2007

Blogger skipper said...

Agree most rank and file Labour people are moderates and that the left does not seem to have organised as in the seventies and early eighties. At least this is the situation in Stockport. But a fair number of these 'moderates' have either left recently or been rendered inactive by their opposition to Iraq and other issues.

7:19 pm, January 06, 2007


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