New Labour odyssey

From the back streets of Birmingham via Oxford to election as an MP in 2001, I have been at the heart of New Labour. It was never a middle-class coup—it grew from the core of Labour's traditions
October 20, 2006
30th March 1976, Stella Grove, Birmingham. I am careering down the hill on a street behind my house, on a baby's tricycle though I am seven years old. I don't remember whose trike or why, but it is fun, sort of. In my mind, bizarrely, as I trike down Stella Grove, is the Labour leadership election, news of which was being broadcast to my house as I was going out to play. My knowledge of what is at stake, or who are the leading personalities, is childishly hazy. There are no politics in my house and I've heard no conversations about it, just the broadcast. From which I have deduced that there is an important election, one candidate in which is Denis Healey, the man with the eyebrows. I remember wanting him to win, presumably because of the eyebrows.

4th May 1979, Bowstoke Rd, Birmingham. It is a bright, happy, good-feeling spring morning. The television is on. This is a dramatic occurrence. There is no television in the mornings. I think that this is how things must feel in wartime, when exceptional events demand unusual accommodations. My memory has fixed it as a Nationwide special, with Frank Bough; but that may be false, as so much memory is. There is no doubt we had woken to the nation's first woman prime minister, and that this was big stuff. My mother, to her surprise, had voted for her, mainly because "the Labour" would get rid of all remaining grammar schools, to one of which she wanted to send me, but partly because she was a woman. There was a sense of optimism in our house that morning; a house which was broadly social and compassionate in its leanings, but not at all interested in politics. I went off to school feeling that it was a red letter day.

June 1984, Anfield Rd, Liverpool. My father has taken me on one of his pilgrimages, part of which involves visiting the site of my uncle Bobby's old butcher's shop, gone since four or five years, on Anfield Road. The streets are empty except for old paper bags and hungry looking cats. Nothing moves unless it is blowing in the wind. No people. No cars. Nothing. I cannot believe this is England. I live in an ordinary part of Birmingham. My school is in Handsworth, which burned itself down in riots a couple of years ago. One kid in my year got stabbed to death by another at break time. I am by no means a posh kid from the south. But this place, this Anfield, this mid-1980s Liverpool devastation is beyond my ken. The oppressive grey cloud of poverty enveloping everything, the sense of hopelessness you almost bite into; this is a crime. A great wrong is being perpetrated on these people, by distant human forces which evidently do not care and must therefore be morally deficient. I am 15 now, and I am angry.

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October 1984, High St, Birmingham. I throw my money into the bucket, peel the "Coal not Dole" sticker from the strip, press it on to the lapel of my coat, join the people chanting and rattling buckets, turn and face the rest. I've read The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, The Communist Manifesto, Germinal and Walter Greenwood's Love on the Dole. If this is class war—and it is—I know which side I am on.

July 1985. Months now since the end of the strike, I take the sticker off. We lost the class war. I have finally got around to joining the Labour party. I write a letter to the Guardian excoriating Neil Kinnock for his lily-livered attitudes and exhorting him to a real socialist alternative. I am 16. The letter, though vibrantly well written (I found a copy recently), is unoriginal as well as wrong, and is not published.

Around this time I have a conversation in a pub with my Dad's mate Alex, who I think is a member of the Labour party. He is certainly some kind of lefty. Yet he tells me that everything I believe is not just nonsense, but dangerous nonsense. We're not going to seize the means of production, distribution and exchange, or anything like it, and to go on as though we are is a disgraceful indulgence. He tells me that, "If one old lady gets one hot dinner she wouldn't otherwise have had under Labour, and that was the best we could do, then it was worth it. That's real Labour politics." This sets me thinking, and stays with me.

September 1986, St Bernard's Church, Great Barr, Birmingham. A meeting in an upstairs room of the Newton Ward Labour party. I don't really understand these meetings or the point of them. Of the seven present, one is my age. At the end of the meeting he asks if I would like to join him at a gathering of the LPYS (Labour Party Young Socialists), where I will meet like-minded folk my own age. There is a suggestion of girls. I am about to accept when a hand taps my shoulder from behind and advises against. Doesn't say why, just says, "You don't want to bother with that." Because he is old, I am inclined to defer; but I also have a sense that this advice is well aimed. Only when I get to Westminster years later and meet former student politicians (a species which, as an undergraduate, I abhorred) do I learn that the LPYS is a coven of Trotskyists. But this is as close as I get to them during the 1980s. By the time I meet them properly, on and off over the next 20 years, they are a spent force. I am just, by a couple of years, too young to have been involved in the bloodshed and havoc they begat. But nobody much older than me escaped it. Modernisers my age (I am 37) and younger took our cues from people in the generation above whose politics were profoundly affected by the battles against Militant and its spawn. And thus we also were shaped by it, but at one remove.

April 1990, Oxford. In my last term at university, I am interviewed by shadow Europe minister, George Robertson, for a job as his researcher. He asks me about my politics, and whom I count as my influences. I sense (rightly) that to mention Balzac and Chekhov would not go down well. I confess to having been a 15-year-old Bennite, but assure him that I've grown out of that. And I say that I am an admirer of Peter Mandelson. I know almost nothing about Peter Mandelson—with whom, to this day, I have never exchanged more than a few words—but I feel that his is the name which most unambiguously represents the forces of progress inside Labour. I feel it is the right answer. George confirms that it is. "Ah, yes, Peter Mandelson's a very good friend of mine," he says. (What they really are is allies, but I do not yet know this.)

My answer these days when people ask which modern Labour politicians I admire is "Neil Kinnock and Larry Whitty." I also have great admiration for people like George Robertson, who kept the flame of sanity alive inside the Labour party when it was unfashionable to do so. In the mid-1980s, when Kinnock was still unilateral and anti-European and Blair and Brown were soft-left Tribunites because that was the way to get on, people like George Robertson (and Giles Radice, John Spellar et al) were actually saying what they believed, things which are now commonplaces—criminals: bang 'em up; defence: security through strength; tax: little as necessary, and so on. In no sense would George have recognised himself as a "moderniser." He saw himself—still does, I don't doubt—as voicing a common-sense Labour tradition stretching back to Bevin. Far from being modern, he was, and is, a child of the "old" Labour right.

There is a good argument which says that the aspects of New Labour (always an à la carte offering) which have proved least durable were those bolted on to the old right tradition: electoral reform, devolution, elected house of Lords, distance from the trade unions, a general penchant for gimmickry and fluff. The one element which is sometimes added to this list, but which shouldn't be, is a positive attitude to European integration.

20th November 1990, Lords Bar, Palace of Westminster. Thatcher 204; Heseltine 152. I've been working in parliament less than six months and it seems like the most tumultuous days since Suez are upon us. She who is the personification of evil is being eaten by her young. As we baby researchers throng in the Lords bar (the staff bar, the only one that we are allowed to use: scruffy, smoky and ruled by a termagant called Nora), watching events unfold on television, we are filled with joy. We hate her with a pure, personal passion which in retrospect is slightly sinister. We know that the coup is electoral bad news for us, but we don't care. We just hate her. We hold her personally responsible for the cruel ugliness of the 1980s and want to see her suffer and die.

In the backs of our minds, we know that she has been right about some things that we were wrong about; but this is a notion with which we cannot yet cope. It is, literally, a disgusting thought. (Though somewhere in our deeper recesses, some of us recognise this truth will eventually have to be confronted.)

10th April 1992, 4 Millbank, London. Those relatively few who have turned up to Labour's victory party do not stay long. I never thought that we would win, but there are plenty here who did. The planned razzmatazz seems achingly shallow. It didn't feel like the super-modern campaign that was reported. In charge of the "Europe Desk" at the party's Walworth Road HQ, I had an office but no computer, a desk but no chair, a phone, but no ability to get an outside line when it got busy (when, for instance, we launched the manifesto). As it happens, no one calls. I pass the days writing short stories.

As well as the bitter, bitter disappointment, the sense of hopelessness and pointlessness, I feel for the first time a slight sense of shame. This was one that we should perhaps have won. Notwithstanding the press—the viciousness of which obsesses us—and the electoral dis-appeal of the persona Neil has crafted (the real Neil, once he revealed himself after the election, people liked), we also failed to offer a set of policies people wanted. And, more importantly, we failed to construct a prospectus which erased and replaced the negative perception of Labour which had become the on dit in the 1980s.

This can scarcely be stressed strongly enough. The greatest, but most unheralded, Tory triumph during the period 1979-92 was their ruthlessly successful destruction of Labour's historical reputation. Such that by 1992 it was generally accepted that Labour's short periods in office had been disastrous, characterised by economic calamity, crazed ideological demagoguery and trade union power gone mad.

The period when Labour did go off the rails was 1980-83, under Michael Foot, culminating in the longest suicide note in history. Sadly, at the same time as one of our greatest rhetoricians was articulating our craziest platform, a truly ideological government really was wreaking havoc in the land, in a disastrous first term that should never have been followed by a second let alone another three.

I've since concluded that there was a melding of the two in the national subconscious. The Tories were acting like crazed incompetent demagogues, while speaking the language of housewifely good sense. And while we were talking the language of revolution, the industrial and social fabric really was disintegrating all around us. And somehow it came to seem like our fault. From this springboard that we fashioned, the Saatchis and Kelvin Mackenzie astounded us with backflips and pikes while we floundered untutored and incapable in our armbands.

July 1992, shadow cabinet corridor, 1 Parliament St (House of Commons). We're all working for Margaret Beckett. All of us young modernisers (we know who we are) are on the phone trying to get Beckett in as deputy leader. Not that she is modern, obviously. But she is moderate. And we're at the stage where moderate is the best we can hope for; modern being out of the question. The same can pretty much be said of John Smith, for whom we are not phoning because we know he is going to win. Smith is not modern either, but he is credible. This is a priceless commodity. Thanks to the work of Kelvin Mackenzie, the Saatchis, Tony Benn, Derek Hatton and Michael Foot, there is hardly a man or woman in the Labour party with a serious dollop of credibility. Smith is one. We are more than happy to have him as leader.

By "we," I mean the mainstream of young modernisers around at the time. There was a tiny hardcore of ultra-modernisers who were not happy. I was not one of them, nor was Blair or Brown or the people around them. We felt that Smith could do enough to win the next election, beyond which there would be a time for real modernisation.

21st July 1994, Llanystumdwy, Gwynedd. My mother's sitting room. The coronation of Tony Blair is on the television. "Have you got new shoes?" my stepfather says, "I can smell fresh leather." I confirm that it is indeed fresh leather: new shoes, though a pair identical to their predecessors. I feel no great excitement watching the crowning; no sense that a different era is about to begin. I know a few ultras who do, but I do not, and nor do most of the like-minded people I know. Many of them I can see on the television attending at the kingmaking. At this stage he is just the new leader, not the Messiah.

I vaguely know Blair, I've briefed him on European things, and he was always very good and very pleasant. His repositionings on labour law and crime were skilful and modern. So there is reason to be optimistic. But at the end of the day he's just the new leader of an old party that has been in opposition since I was at primary school. And now my own children are in sight of primary school. And there's no point to politics if you're always in opposition.

2nd May 1997, Royal Festival Hall, London. As the result comes through from Edgbaston, I am standing next to David Hill at the victory party, the party that I seem to have spent the last week telling the world's press that they can't get into. Instead, they are banked up outside, seven deep in an enormous corral. Gisela Stuart's victory in Birmingham, Edgbaston, stupefies both David (a fellow Brummie) and me. "Fucking unbelievable," I remember him saying, over and over again. All of us had wondered at times if we would ever hold office again. And few, if any, believed the polls that said that we would win by a landslide.

Jim Naughtie is presenting radio coverage on the infant BBC Radio 5 Live, blaring out on speakers outside, where the world's press wait. I keep going to minister to them, because that is my job. I am struck that he is unable to disguise the excitement and delight in his voice at Labour's success. (In the years since, he has mastered this art pretty well.)

The sun comes up and we are all standing there outside. The hundreds of people around me, daft with delight, are mainly people I know. I am 28 years old. When we last won a general election I was five. Blair tells us that we have been elected as New Labour and that we will govern as New Labour. Most of the people here don't know what that means. Those of us who do also understand what an important thing this is to say. And how much easier to say than do.

In the end, it really is what happens. He sticks to the New Labour prospectus on which we were elected. That is why we win the next two elections; and why we will win a fourth. And that is his legacy.

As I walk down the Embankment towards Millbank Tower to clear my desk at seven in the morning, I am almost overcome by a sense of having been part of a wonderful reclaiming of my own country. The lines which keep going round in my head are the hackneyed but beautiful ones from Richard II:

"This royal throne of kings, this scepter'd isle,
This earth of majesty, this seat of Mars…
This blessed plot, this earth, this realm, this England."

I can also hear Bob Hoskins in the Long Good Friday, stomping around in the "meat warehouse" scene, shouting "This is my fucking town, right? My fucking town" at all the junior gangsters hanging by their feet from meat hooks.
When I saw the film again recently I discovered that he says nothing like that. But it certainly expresses how I feel: my country, again, at last. Abandoned by Trotskyists to Tories for nearly 20 years, and now finally reclaimed, not for Labour, but for everybody, for normality, for decency.

And that's how I still feel in September 2006. As I write, the Blair leadership seems on the cusp of conclusion. But despite all the apparent "sleaze" and so-called spin and the mistakes and the character assassination and all of that, my overwhelming sense is that New Labour has reclaimed Britain for decency. The Thatcherites were wrong that people only care about themselves. The British people care about each other. Not quite in the way the Scandinavians seem to or the Cubans are obliged to. But in a quiet, practical, balanced, utterly British way, we care about our neighbours. We don't want it rammed down our throats, but we believe in society.

2nd June 1997, my suburban garden. My soft-left, "old Labour" friend has come round to express her indignation. "Have you heard what he has said? About teenage mums. It's outrageous. He can't say things like that. A Labour prime minister can't say things like that. It's not right." What he has said is something along the lines that in an ideal world, if possible, it would be better for children to be brought up by both parents. That teenage pregnancy should ideally be avoided. But hang on, I say, isn't this just common sense? Isn't this what everyone thinks? Wouldn't nearly everyone who lives on your very working-class estate agree with this?

"Yes they would," she admits, "But that's not the point. It's not what we, what he, should be saying."

And therein, I realised with final clarity and some elation, lies the essence of New Labour. We will no longer deal in what ought to be, but what is; not how we might like people to think, but how they do think. Not—as critics have had it ever since—that we will say what they want to hear, but that we will hear what they have to say. Partly because if we keep ignoring them, they will keep ignoring us, in the course of which transaction we will keep betraying them; partly because they are more often more right on more things than we have been for 20 or 30 years.

It is easy to forget now how dysfunctionally constrained by an archaic quasi-ideology we still were as late as 1994. What became clear early in the New Labour ascendancy was that this had changed.

Tony Benn likes to say that there are signposts and weathervanes in politics. He, obviously, is a signpost. People like me, who have changed their views as the world has changed, are weathervanes (inconstant, insubstantial and useless). He is right that he and his ilk are signposts of a sort: old, wooden affairs, pointing in the wrong direction, to a way through the woods so overgrown that it can scarcely be seen.

It is those who helped to modernise the Labour party to enable it to become a socio-economically transforming socialist government, redistributing more wealth and power in its first term than Tony Benn's endless opposition could have done in an eternity, who are the real signposts. We are signposts of the modern kind, electronic ones flashing on the motorway, changing as the traffic or weather changes. And the people interpreting the conditions, deciding what to write on the signs, should be guided above all by common sense, by the axioms and attitudes of the people in the cars.

One of the most misleading mischaracterisations of the New Labour project is as some kind of middle-class, Islington chatterati conspiracy. Not only was it never like that culturally, but the ideological underpinning was its very opposite. New Labour was a move away from exactly those kind of left-liberal, 1970s, ILEA, GLC, Hampstead assumptions to a politics that was recognisably derived from the kind of working-class communities from which Labour was supposed to draw its core support, but with whom it had lost touch.

Yes, Blair himself and some of his friends were a bit middle class. And over the years he's had a few posh boys around him. So did Attlee and Wilson, so does everybody. It's in the nature of middle-class posh boys that they crop up where the power and the glory are. Blair also had his quotient of clever grammar school types, and plenty of "normal" people from bog-standard backgrounds too. Look at Blair's three Downing Street political directors (titles have changed): Sally Morgan, Pat McFadden, Ruth Turner, none of them southern, none posh; or his two chief spin doctors: Alastair Campbell and David Hill, neither of them southern, neither posh.

And the rest of us who were young at the genesis of New Labour weren't anything like the stereotype either. Derek Draper is, even now, a gauche, pasty-faced, pimpled lad from Chorley. His dad, as I recall, worked for the GMB. Pat McFadden's dad worked on the buildings in Glasgow and died when Pat was 12; Mike Craven's dad sold fish in Hull. Neal Lawson was a T&G organiser in Bristol. Ed Richards worked for the UCW. Tom Watson is a third or fourth-generation socialist activist. And so on. We were not privileged or posh. We were rooted in the party and the unions. Any sense that we were any less so than any previous generation is simply wrong.

There were no Brownites and no Blairites. The enemies were the Tories, the Trots and the unimaginative. There was just New Labour and old Labour. Most people in New Labour were really the old right. Most people in old Labour were really the soft left. (There is a soft left and a hard left, but not really an old left, whereas there is an old right and a hard right, but no soft right.)

I'm not sure we quite campaigned in poetry, but there were poetic moments. And if we've governed in prose, it's been mostly good stuff. More HL Mencken than AJP Taylor, more Dumas père than Victor Hugo, but good stuff. People's lives kept getting better. And the new schools went up, and the unemployment lists went down, and the new hospitals went up, and union members got rights, and inflation went down, and gays got rights, and interest rates went down, and kids got rights, and mortgage rates stayed down, and even journalists got extra rights, and crime went down and down and down, and suddenly the police were our greatest advocates, and minority ethnic groups got new rights, and unemployment kept going down, and pensioners got protection, and people got used to it, and it kept happening. And so it went on, and on. And this wasn't strictly poetry, I suppose, but it gives me the same kind of feeling.

And it is not over yet. The New Labour project was never an aberration, bolted on to an ageing workerist party by middle-class opportunists. It grew in a straight line, right through the core of Labour's tradition. And it wasn't the brainchild of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and Colin Byrne. Tony and Gordon became the face of it. And Peter was for a while the brains of it. But it was never about them personally. None of them. Neither of them. They are tremendous characters who have inspired extraordinary things. But they are not, and never have been, the point. The point remains the one it's always been: win power for Labour—use it to bring more justice, equality and prosperity to Britain.

Those who speak the language and understand the nuanced rhetoric of 1990s New Labour have always been few in number. That sect will remain small, and probably eventually wither away, its job done. But the central message and meaning of New Labour will remain where it has always been: in the Labour mainstream. Most of the members of my local Labour party (I was elected MP for Birmingham Erdington, a traditional working-class constituency next door to the one I grew up in, in 2001), like most of the people who live on my street, are New Labour. They don't think of themselves as such—though most will at some time have been admirers of Tony Blair—but that's what their values are. The reason for this is simple: that's where New Labour got its values from. That's who we are.

Very simply put, Labour will win the next election because enough people still agree with my Dad's friend Alex, who explained to me, 20 years ago, that: "If one old lady gets one hot dinner she wouldn't otherwise have had under Labour, and that was the best we could do, then it was worth it. That's real politics."

The Tories didn't care whether the old lady got her dinner or not. And fundamentally that hasn't changed. They now say they care, because they think it's what they now have to say to win. But nobody—neither now nor then—is driven to join the Tory party by a passionate belief in social justice and equality. You can't just bolt on kindness, fairness and reform to a party whose core values are status quo, untrammelled markets, small state, low tax, nation state, church, monarchy, land. They mean opposite things. It's not just fraudulent; it's illiterate.

Unless, that is, they abrogate their core values. The Tories' misunderstanding of our project, which they think they are emulating, is to believe that we part-exchanged our core values when we updated our policies, rhetoric and analysis. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that once you compromise your core values you cease to exist.

Tony Benn, of course, didn't care if we remained in opposition forever and all the old ladies starved, as long as he remained pure.

But New Labour promised: we will get into office, and we will sort things out, we will scrape together the cash and get the old lady her dinner. And then we will do more of this, and we will keep on doing more. Because it is the right thing to do. And that is what we have done. And it is what we will continue to do. It is what anybody would do. That is New Labour.