I have never been one of those on the left who despises New Labour. Though I am firmly of the left and believe New Labour ultimately failed to embark on the necessary structural reforms of society and our political system (and, of course, Iraq), I do not think it valuable to consider it some Tory-lite government. To do so is to disregard the very real social democratic achievements of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown and to choose despair: if they were just Tories in red clothes, then the last true Labour leader was James Callaghan and the last election-winner Harold Wilson in the 1970s. Such a line of thinking is defeatist and thoroughly offensive to those of us whose wellbeing now was helped and secured by New Labour.
I write ‘us’ because, as a child of the welfare state, I know if my childhood had been under more Tory governments then my life now would be not entirely dissimilar to the stories of poverty told up and down the country. Unstable housing or homelessness, irregular access to basic necessities, no financial capacity to enjoy what else life has to offer. As such, I’ve always mythologised the New Labour governments a bit. That suspension of any critical faculties wasn’t a particularly viable long-term plan, however, which is why I picked up Andrew Rawnsley’s 2001 book Servants of the People at a second-hand bookshop many moons ago and blitzed through its 500 pages these past few weeks, initially because I wanted to feel safe in the warmth of a time when Labour held power. Suffice to say, I was not quite prepared for what the book had in store.
The first thing to say is that it’s quite shocking this book exists and existed when it did. It contains the kind of in-depth reporting on the first Blair administration one would expect ten years after having left office, not while it is still the government – and, unbeknownst to Rawnsley or the key players, would remain there for another nine years more. But the degree of detail in this book, which feels like a time capsule at points, is awe-inspiring and makes it essential reading for anybody searching for a meticulous understanding of just what that first New Labour government was like.
From Rawnsley’s writing, it both was and wasn’t what you’d expect. The classic accusations of spin are told in vivid colours, the extent of the influence of Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson and their deference to headlines spelt out clearly. What I was not expecting to learn about was just how much the first Blair administration was, in some regards, Tory-lite, rooted in what it didn’t do rather than what it did. The overriding theme of that first government, which Rawnsley emphasises, again and again, was fear. Fear of losing the next election, fear of being booted out of office, fear of rescinding the control of the country to the Conservatives once again as history foretold was what happened to Labour governments. As a result, the 1997 manifesto was famously cautious and the government committed not to move beyond Tory spending policies. One particular example is how Brown and Blair ordered cuts in disability benefits; the bill passed, but not without a decent-sized rebellion and a slew of miserable faces from the Labour MPs who did vote for it.
Labour had an enormous, impregnable majority. They could do whatever they wanted until the next election. So, why adopt a punitive policy befitting the Tories? I had underestimated the extent to which Tory policymaking and thinking had embedded itself within the broader political thinking of the time. That’s what ideological hegemony and consensus will do. We can look back with more distaste now (as I’m sure those politicians involved do, too) but, at the time, it was just what politics was. Of course, New Labour played its role in unpicking that consensus at times and indulging it in others. It took the financial crisis for the Tories to revert away from accepting New Labour’s public service investments and back to tax-cutting austerity measures. An important warning for how Boris Johnson’s new government will (perhaps) attempt to create a new consensus of public investment and extreme social conservatism, and the challenges for Labour in responding to that.
The book is chock-a-block with anecdotes and tales; it feels structured like a TV series, episodic in nature, every chapter with a clear beginning, middle and didactic ending for the government, the overarching story being its journey of learning how to govern. What’s most clear from these tales, though, is the extent to which it’s impossible to predict how politics will play out. I understand this now to a greater effect than ever before (I continually predicted that this year’s election would result in a Labour minority government, which was fucking wrong, wasn’t it?): though New Labour was ultimately returned to office in 2001 with another landslide majority, it was on a heavily reduced turnout and widespread apathy, the seeds for 2019’s crisis being sewn at the turn of the century.
Crises of the Millennium Done, fuel shortages, Kosovo, Peter Mandelson being shady and foot-and-mouth disease rocked the government and ultimately broke the sheen of Tony Blair in the eyes of the electorate. It’s a stark reminder that no politician is unassailable, the risk often being greater than the reward (if it ever arrives, or arrives in pyrrhic tones). No amount of media spin can prepare for unexpected stories to land, and no national government can have total control over the actions of leaders thousands of miles away.
There are many who looked at the 2019 General Election and decided that Labour has also lost the 2024 election, so sizeable is the scale of the defeat. What I didn’t expect to find in Servants of the People, well-written, informative and exquisite in of itself, were lessons for politics today. Everything is on the table. Events will play out and change the nature of the debate. Nothing is inevitable, nor is anything guaranteed in one moment necessarily guaranteed for the next. Though the book does not know the fates of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson and New Labour itself, we do. All political careers end in failure, and it is an unwise person who disavows the possibilities of an event years from now.
Go pick up Servants of the People: The Inside Story of New Labour!