by Jonathan Todd
“‘You know something? It’s really quite satisfying when you help people to fulfil their dreams like that.’ ‘Christ, you fucking fascist,’ Tim said.”
This exchange between Malcolm Glover, a 1980s building society manager, and his son, Tim, features in Philip Hensher’s sweeping The Northern Clemency and comes after Malcolm helps a couple buy their council house. The formalities of this sale conclude thus:
“‘Goodbye, Mr Glover,’ the husband said, shaking his hand, ‘and thank you.’ He let go and, turning, took his wife’s beloved hand, and together they walked down the stairs. Malcolm watched them go with pleasure.”
The positive content of new Labour sought to appeal to voters like the grateful couple: attentive to their aspirations and eager to serve them. Notwithstanding this positive content, new Labour was immediately vivid because it clear about what it was not: the old Labour, the no-compromise-with-the-electorate vehemence of Tim.
New Labour connected with aspirant voters by relentlessly showing itself to be different from a Labour party that would deem it “fascist” to sell a council house to its tenants. It was new Labour because it was not old Labour.
Of course, this old Labour was always a caricature. The Labour party of Clement Attlee, Barbara Castle and Neil Kinnock was never as indulgent and disconnected as Tim Glover. The right to buy, for one thing, was a Labour policy before it was a Tory policy.
The sense, however, that Tony Blair’s election as party leader marked a year zero was reinforced early in his leadership by painting the past as an old Labour wasteland. Blair was the change that the country needed because he had the strength to move his party beyond the likes of Tim Glover.
The longer Blair was leader the less well this crude and simplistic contrast served him. What had cast him in broad strokes as a new leader came to motivate suspicion about him in the party later in his premiership.
If Blair is such a break with what has gone before, then foundation hospitals can’t be something that Nye Bevan would have supported, can they? And academies must have Tony Crosland spinning in his grave?
The doubts were encouraged by the nods and winks of his chancellor, eager to ensure that his heir apparent status was not threatened by the emergence of a contender in the space to Blair’s left. One attempt to counter this perception came in the form of the book New Labour’s Old Roots: Labour’s Revisionist Thinkers 1931-97, edited by Patrick Diamond, a Blair advisor, in 2004. This positioned Blair not as a break with past Labour traditions but as a renewal of them. Similarly, Siôn Simon wrote two years later that new Labour was never a middle-class coup – it grew from the core of Labour’s traditions.
Debates about one nation Labour usually try to tell us what it is. But it will find popular resonance – or not – as much by virtue of what it isn’t as what it is. We are told that it is neither new nor old Labour. But both new and old Labour are contested – and fairly beltway – terms.
Which new Labour? The early version that gloried in breaking with the party’s traditions or the later one that claimed continuity with them? And which old Labour? The one that Tim Glover would have been comfortable in, which only ever really briefly existed amid the lunacy of 1980s Lambeth and Liverpool, or the actuality that, for example, committed to council house sales in its 1959 general election manifesto?
The sharp definition of new Labour in its early phase may in part have depended on a sleight of hand about the party’s past but one nation Labour would benefit from an equally crisp conceptualisation. If this can be achieved while remaining faithful to the reality of the party’s past then so much the better.
However, to a not inconsiderable extent it is because this past is subject to different interpretations, with new and old Labour meaning different things to different people, that the current account of one nation Labour, simultaneously set against both new and old Labour, is not as stark as the early definition of new Labour.
‘Is there a danger that it is all things to all people?’ asked Rowenna Davis at the Labour List debate on one nation Labour last month. One of the reasons why this risk is real is that the fashion for imprecision that plagues modern politics extends to the uses that are made of the terms new and old Labour, which are the traditions – real or imagined – that we are told one nation Labour exists to move us beyond.
If the leadership wishes to distance itself from some aspect of policy under the last government – and returning to government in one term requires that we run against that government as well as David Cameron’s – then it may be better to be spell this out carefully, rather than hoping that it is conveyed by inherently nebulous references to new and old Labour.
If the pluralities of meanings that have congealed around new and old Labour debar even a geek like me from really understanding what is meant, then we can be sure that the barely interested voter in the key marginal won’t have got it. And they matter more than me, obviously.
Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist