Watch Out For The New Labour Playbook | Daniel Evans
Yes, Labour is still the party of identity fetishists, true-believer yet Dad’s Army-esque revolutionaries, end of times Gaia environmentalists, and public transport strike supporters, groomers, and much else, but so was New Labour. They just knew how to keep the lunacy contained, repackaged, and were desperate enough to try Blair.
Fortunately, Blair did a lot of damage to his own side, not just the country. Blair’s incrementalism didn’t manifest their objectives quickly enough. They were willing to grumble and tolerate it until the Iraq War. From that point on, it became impossible to contain the lunacy; spiralling down through more and more left-wing figures, from Brown to Miliband and then to Corbyn. Consequently, they have tuckered themselves out.
The loss of monolithic public news and broadcasting will also make it much harder, New Labour’s ilk will try to come back. You can still see them. They haven’t gone anyway. They won’t just come from the party, they’ll come from all the people and organisations on their side. Blair himself is still knocking around. The advice comes regularly to ditch the overt progressive evangelism e.g. November last year, May this year.
There’s been a slow trickle of pieces which say things like “Labour need a big personality to take on the Tories”. They’re trying their best to manufacture this. Have you seen the attempts to make Wes Streeting out as if he’s interesting and not just another factory pipeline student union politician, in career background and mindset? Good grief. Progressives used to rob banks, fight guerrilla wars, and write their defiance in their own blood. Sure, threats should be taken seriously, and it’s unpleasant, but Wes, what are you doing sending limp tweets to old ladies?
Anyway, it’s good news! As it stands, the two go-getting types of the progressives are (at least, temporarily) inhibited: the energised, violent, “true believers”, are somewhat withered, and the “professional” sorts have a monumental amount of work to do. They are rebuilding, though, so keep an eye out.
If they can become credible on the following, they’ll be doing well: 1) Tough on Crime, 2) Pro Business, 3) Strong on Foreign Policy, 4) Strong on Defence, and 5) Solid on Our Public Services. It’s going to be difficult. A lot of Labour supporters don’t want to engage on those policy areas at all in the first place, let alone have workable answers to them.
The thing to watch out for is Blair’s two main tricks, which are closely related 1) talking out of both sides of their mouths and 2) presenting progressive “solutions” in their opponents’ terms.
Regarding the first trick, let’s use immigration as an example: one of the big progressive no-nos, a big right-wing concern, but which they really need to answer.
Just look at the headlines, which tell their own story. Blair admits he didn’t realise how many migrants would come to the UK after EU expansion. OK, but then he also says that immigration is good for the UK economy. Finally, he said that if you want to stay in the EU you have to curb immigration.
None of this is about lowering immigration based on principle or reflects right-wing concerns, or even the general popular reasons why people want it lowered. It’s about tactical necessity, in service of bigger picture goals – staying in the EU and reinforcing hegemony at home. Blair doesn’t admit he was wrong or that mass immigration has been damaging – he is talking out of both sides of his mouth! This helps him to try to flank his political opponents with positions which superficially appear to speak to right-wing concerns.
The reason he does this is very simple and not at all an original observation. In democratic politics it’s (sometimes) a viable strategy to go for (what you think is) the “centre ground”. Labour leaders who won – Ramsay MacDonald, Clement Atlee, Harold Wilson, and Tony Blair, all toned down the crazy in pursuit of the “sensible” and “moderate” centre ground.
Not that it seems to matter – progressives run all the main institutions and the nominal Conservative Party acquiesces and even adopts their agenda and aesthetic – but the key realisation of Blairism is that you must have power to do anything. Public support certainly helps reinforce the perception of complete hegemonic power and the justification for it.
Until Labour gets this by winning an election, the Conservative Party might just safely trundle along. God have mercy on you, Conservative Party. Govern! Or if you must insist on such dull imbecility, get out of the way. Go, all of you, retire to the House of Lords or wherever else you think gives you a veil of dignity, and whatever place can use the content, unaware, and immobile.
Anyway, if Labour doesn’t learn the lessons of Blairism, it risks being confined to 1) old style tax and spend and state power economics, 2) foreign policy which is anti-UK in one way or another, 3) marginal identity fetishism, and 4) screeching denunciation of anyone that dissents. This is because 1) misreads the lessons of the financial crisis, 2) misreads the proper responses to 9/11 and the Iraq War, 3) sees the progressives stuck in the tar-baby of the Culture War (which I am certain it will lose), and 4) just shows them to be unstable, and therefore as unfit to rule.
All of this would be a bit clapped out, but it would be safe and familiar for them, and do they even have the vision to see beyond? Reality and the general zeitgeist have moved on. Conservatives would do well to keep them stuck here.
There are ways out, and Labour seems to be doing a few of these things, though it’s hard to know if they really get it, half get it at someone else’s instruction, or if it’s accidental or coincidental. It’s also unclear how much any of the following will help them.
First, they seem to be hinting at a new progressive coalition i.e. Lib Dems, Greens, etc. tactical voting, selective standing of candidates, to avoid splitting the progressive vote. Will this work? Many use these parties as protest votes and you’d be surprised how many Conservative voters, for example, vote Green or Lib Dem at different elections, for all sorts of reasons, but who would never do it at a general election.
Second, watch out for Labour updating its policy agenda. Safe on this one so far. If they’re sensible it would stop being economically illiterate and suspicious of technology. It would also mean the progressives fully realising that corporations can be used and are willing to side with them if the conditions are right, no matter how temporary. The capitalists really will sell you the rope with which they’ll be hanged. It’s quite something!
Third, watch out for Labour re-discovering the mentality of government. The right needs to do this too, it must be said. The task is to amass power and to assume that (of course) it should be you governing. To do this the left will need some more self-discipline and less self-indulgence. The Labour Party’s sins are pride (how fitting!), envy, wrath, and gluttony. The Conservative Party’s sins are pride and sloth. This tactical swallowing of (some of) their pride doesn’t burden them to pursue policies people actually want. They’ll continue to insist that what voters want aligns with what the Labour Party wants, albeit overlaid with a veneer of sincerity and concern made possible with a more “moderate” leadership. New Labour was subtler still.
New Labour worked because people knew that Blair was prepared to discipline and channel the more insane parts of the Labour Party. Superficially, denial and discipline look very similar. It gave Labour the appearance of normality, reassured enough extra voters, and afforded them the cover of public acceptance to proceed with full-on nation-mutilating progressivism.
Watch out for the New Labour playbook. It will start with Labour controlling its incontinence. It’d be great if the Conservative Party got ahead of the problem by governing. Keep them busy responding to you, keep them too busy to get out of where they’re stuck.