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I thought George Mudie's rather intemperate reaction, reported here, was about four months out of date - made in October, Reid's speech could have been interpreted as a positioning move for a leadership bid, but things moved on from the pre-conference infighting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.