Sunday Review on Tuesday: The Purple Book

by David Talbot

It is hard to recall now, but 2 May 1997 was a gorgeous spring morning. It felt as though it might have been 26 July 1945, the day that ushered in the first majority Labour government. The country seemed fresh again; there was a sense of something about to be born, a new world, a new start, a new Britain – a new Labour. Even the Conservatives, if you could find one, did not seem to resent the new era or begrudge this young, charismatic prime minister, who had led the Labour party out of 18 years exile to a stunning victory. It was, however, the beginning of his end. The triumphal procession of 1997 led to excited hopes that could never be fulfilled. It was, as George Dangerfield said of the Liberals in 1906, a victory from which Labour never recovered.

But we bought it, all thirteen and a half million of us. Those were the heady days of the new deal, taxes on the profits of privatised utilities, the minimum wage, sure start and five millennium villages (no, me neither). With British troops in Kosovo, even the wars were better.

Now, of course, it is different. The narrative of disillusionment and betrayal is almost beyond challenging. To speak well of him, these days, is to invite scorn, ridicule and worse among Britain’s self-appointed liberal intelligentsia. It is difficult to recall a former prime minister that was last faced with such rancour – much of it, it should be said, coming from his own side.

In these days of coalitions and ideological flexibility, it is heartening to know that ancient grudges and factional resentments live on in some corners of British politics. Predominantly in the Labour party, it would seem. The publication last week of The Purple Book has brought out the best of Labour’s proud tradition of fully-fledged internecine warfare. Brave, anonymous, briefings given to the Guardian variously described the project as “lazy” and “idiotic”. It has caused otherwise sensible Labour party members to become apoplectic, with those expressing even the faintest mumbles of support immediately being branded a Tory. Or worse: a Blairite.

For critics on the left, those in his own party who believe the very fact of exercising power is a betrayal of their ideals, a purge is now required of his last lieutenants. It is true, that his intellectual origins owe less to the Labour party than any leader in its history. But he is, before he is anything at all, emphatically not a conservative. He wanted to take the party of yesterday’s losers and make it the party of tomorrow’s winners. He invited the Labour party to come with him on a journey. Impolitely, it declined.

The Purple Book is a sure sign that the new Labour wing is starting to reassert itself. This, for those that have got their party back, is an anathema. Are the Blairites on manoeuvres? It’s a query that brings to mind what Stalin famously said of the Pope: “How many divisions has he got”? Blairism may command sleeping legions of supporters ready to spring to its defence. But it seems more likely that, aside from a smattering of uber loyalists, it is an increasingly marginal force.

There is still much in the new Labour playbook that is politically potent, despite the toxicity of its leader. He was a unique figure in Labour’s history and he will remain unique. There was never anyone else like him in Labour’s ranks, and there won’t be either.

The Conservatives have more former SDP members on their front bench than the Lib Dems do. It seems reasonable therefore that the Labour party should be able to tolerate a few Blairites.

Relax: there is no insurrection. It’s not a surprise that Labour haven’t quite come to terms with this, nor remarkable that the party isn’t ready to do so. Nevertheless, at some point it will need to remember how and why he was able to walk down Downing Street that spring day.

David Talbot is a political consultant.


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4 Responses to “Sunday Review on Tuesday: The Purple Book”

  1. Those who fear the Purple book should embrace the horror and go and buy a copy and try reading it. Make your own mind up.

    I rather doubt those who harbour a grudge against New Labour will transmutate into Tony Blair’s shadow just because they have read it.

    Relax. Breathe deeply. Chill. *Repeat process*

    I’m making progress (no pun intended) in reading the purple book and it is an interesting, thoughtful read. There’s some good stuff in it including interesting party history. I’m rather enjoying it.

    I recommend it to anyone interested in the Labour Party. It is, frankly, ‘Mostly Harmless’ and normality will resume for all who finish it.

    Just don’t stand at the gate crying ‘foul’ when you haven’t taken the time to read it?

  2. paul barker says:

    Interesting comparison with The Liberals. Just 17 years seperated their greatest victory in 1906 from their replacement as 2nd Party, by Labour.
    Where does 17 years after 1997 take us ?

  3. swatantra says:

    2014, I think.
    The Lib Dems have discovered their purpose in life. And that is to be the Tories junior partner rather like the Australian Conservative-Liberal Party and the German Merkel- Bavarian Party. Expect a formal link later.
    Labour should forget about forming a coalition with the Lib Dems and concentrate on the Greens and leftish regional parties.

  4. Could you please point me to the review of the Purple Book?

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