Book festival: New Labour’s Old Guard
The Labour Party’s longest period in power is over. But was New Labour a success? And what will its legacy be? Nick Eardley speaks to Alistair Darling and Polly Toynbee, two people intimately connected to the party.
11 May was the end of an age for New Labour. As Gordon Brown turned away from his lectern on Downing Street, bidding farewell to the country, the weight of the world seemingly lifted from his shoulders, he knew that the next day would be the first for thirteen years that the party he had been at the fore of for almost two decades would awake in opposition.
The Blair-Brown years had been the most rewarding for the party in its history: three successive general election victories, 13 years of uninterrupted government. Britain has changed almost beyond recognition since Blair’s heroic arrival in Downing Street in 1997 and the days of “Cool Britannia” – an extended NHS, devolution, peace in Northern Ireland, the Human Rights Act. But it has also seen some of its greatest challenges, arguably areas where the most significant failures of New Labour are evident: wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a failure to regulate the banking system so costly it led almost to the collapse of the financial system, the worsening of income inequality. How will the party’s dominance of Westminster politics be remembered?
Sitting in his Edinburgh constituency office, a two-minute walk from Charlotte Square where he will give this year’s Donald Dewar memorial lecture, Alistair Darling explains how the recession was not the government’s fault, and tells me the ways in which his party improved the country. Darling was one of just three ministers to serve throughout Labour’s time in power – along with Gordon Brown (who made him chancellor) and Jack Straw. Perhaps surprisingly for someone still serving in a Labour shadow cabinet, he is prepared to deviate from unwavering praise, conceding that Labour should have done more.
“You can always do things better—there are people in different parts of the country who can quite rightly say you could have done more—but I will not say that everything we did was wrong.
“In terms of economic reform and greater opportunities for people, we have a lot to be rightly proud of that did make a real difference. But obviously at the same time as that you had Iraq, which dominated politics, certainly in the early part of this last decade, which is deeply controversial.”
Darling’s concessions may not quite amount to a denigration of Labour’s time in power, but they hint at the feeling that the party did not go as far as it perhaps would have liked.
The Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee is well versed in assessments of the former government’s triumphs and shortcomings. This autumn will see the publication of her third book on the subject, co-written with her partner David Walker. It will be a full evaluation of New Labour between 1997 and 2010, one that she admits is more “pessimistic” than the pair’s previous analyses.
“I think there is a strong underlying passion for more equality and they are sort of shocked at themselves. They thought they’d tried hard. But even then they hardly managed to stand still in the growth of inequality, and not to reverse it, and I think they are all pretty depressed at themselves about that.”
Toynbee is reluctant to pinpoint exactly how the Brown-Blair years will be remembered; as a Labour cheerleader she believes that as the coalition implement far-reaching cuts as part of their austerity programme, more will look back and say that the relative largesse of the New Labour years was a good thing. Nonetheless she thinks Labour’s achievements came largely in the 1997-2001 term. She talks of the New Deal, the minimum wage, devolution – “the best stuff they did.” But Iraq left a gaping wound that never properly healed.
“All the most memorable things date back pretty much to the first year; after that is was a sort of continuing disappointment. That would be putting it mildly with the Iraq war, but certainly that was the great error that broke the spirit of the party. It broke them internally, even all those obedient people who voted for it. It left them deadened in a way, and unadventurous about new things.
“They will be blemishes forever, we are never going to forget them. I don’t think Blair’s reputation will ever be what it might have been because of it.”
However destructive Iraq was, Labour won the following election – albeit with a reduced majority in parliament. Darling and Toynbee agree that the fundamental shift in the party that came with the rewording of Clause IV in the mid-nineties saw it appeal to the middle ground in a way it had never done before. This, they contest, will not change.
“There is no way they could go back to that” says Toynbee “or if they do it will be a tiny rump of a party with nobody left in it.”
Darling agrees: “Where the Labour party failed in the seventies and eighties is that it never adapted to the world in which everyone else lived.”
Britain seemed to favour change, as opposed to continuity as represented by Brown when it went to the polls in May. With him on the ropes after the economic crash, after thirteen years of ups and downs, and with internal squabbles moving towards open rebellion, the demise seemed inevitable.
Darling, however, thinks differently. The party was not destined to return to opposition simply because of the public’s desire for change. It failed to win the argument.
“I think we could have made a stronger argument, but we didn’t. We lost and we have to accept the consequences of that.
Perhaps those at the top of the party were too concerned with the government’s legacy, and how they would be remembered.