Reading Lewis Minkin’s new book The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management is like sitting alongside a skilled forensic scientist as he dissects the multi-layered elements that contributed to the death of the body in front of him. This isn’t quite where Blair left the Labour Party, but it’s not far short.
The book reads like a thriller. What makes it captivating is Minkin’s grasp of the scrupulous planning that went into Blair’s managerialist coup, which, for a time, took ownership of both the Labour Party and the country. Minkin reports a ‘wry comment from Blair describing “New Labour” as “the newest political party on the scene and the smallest. It has about five people.”’ ‘From within New Labour,’ Minkin continues, ‘the takeover of the party by this small minority was quietly and sometimes boastfully acknowledged to be a coup d’etat over the party.’
Minkin describes it as a ‘rolling coup’ in that ‘it involved a series of unilateral major moves over several years’. These moves are what the book reveals.
I once described how the Blairite revolution turned Labour from a political party into a Tupperware party, but I was wrong. The description is far too benign. No one falls out of love with Tupperware, at least not in the way the country fell out of love with Blair. Tupperware is also as useful to the poor as to the rich. And Tupperware never stripped meaning and values from everything it touched. Blairism did. In doing so, it ruthlessly exploited (and then dumped) a lot of decent people whose lives had been devoted to the Labour Party.
Even today, many of these – MPs as well as party loyalists – have difficulty acknowledging how extensively, and cynically, they were taken for such a ride. For them, the book should be compulsory reading.
If it has a weakness, Minkin’s analysis falls short only in the absence of a meta-narrative; this is something like explaining the Chilean coup without any reference to the USA. I shall return to this later.
The Blairite plan was never just to lead the Labour Party, but to emasculate it. To do so, every aspect of the party’s machinery of governance had to be subjugated to the leader’s whim. Minkin takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through this process and the machinations that lay behind it. Minkin describes the greatest unity of the small vanguard of ‘modernisers’ as their shared ‘negative appraisal of the party, including and particularly its affiliated unions and associated collective body – the TUC.’
Minkin’s dissection covers the entirety of my parliamentary life (and more). It always puzzled me how, despite all the warnings and bollockings, I never got expelled from the parliamentary party. Now I know.
It wasn’t that Blair’s ultras lacked a desire for purges; it was just that they screwed up more often than they expected. Their ‘managerialist’ obsessions, which politically house-trained the party, created a space in which MPs, whips and others still backed away from pooing on their own carpet. The machine knew that Blair would get the blame – ultimate proof that his control‑freakery had no limits. And since protecting the leader had already displaced promoting the party as the Supremacy’s overriding duty, the hounds always got called off.
To be fair, some of this was also down to the wiser counsel of whips such as Nick Brown and George Mudie. Both were better people than the Supremacy deserved, and it was good to see Minkin recognise this in his description of events. I guess that many of the Labour rebels were also saved by divisions between the Blair and Brown camps, in what was to become the running distraction throughout the Labour years in government.
For me, the friction between these two characters – equally damaged, equally obsessive – was often a manipulated divide, spun out to lock the parliamentary party into the smallness of playground politics rather than the bigger canvas of real politics. Loyalty invariably displaced integrity (or clarity) in the debates of the day.
Minkin captures this brilliantly in his description of the seminal moments surrounding New Labour’s first internal rebellion – the vote on lone parent benefits. ‘Dealing with the issue of a cut in lone parent benefit became a significant landmark in the early management of New Labour in government, and had major consequences. For Blair and Brown,’ Minkin surmises, ‘showing prudence and control on this was all the more important because the left-wing Campaign group appeared to them to be the driving force of a limited opposition. They, the usual suspects, had to be faced down and publicly pulled into line some time or the other, so why not over this early issue and now?’
Minkin describes much of this as a tactical misjudgment on Brown’s part rather than a cynical move on Blair’s. Standing in the middle of it felt slightly different. Many of us saw no real divide between Blair and Brown. Neither showed an ability to step back and accept they may have got something wrong. Both were obsessed with demonstrating their power as leaders. Loyalty and obedience became articles of faith, outside of which Labour’s world would crumble.
In the same way that the Mafia asks you to destroy something precious to demonstrate loyalty, Labour MPs were asked to give a kicking to some of the most vulnerable in society. This was a difficult step for many to take.
For the machine, however, it was the first big test of their ability to put the squeeze on people; and there were members of both the Blair and Brown camps who loved it. MPs could be leaned on, cajoled, abused or bullied, all in the name of loyalty. Many had their constituency officials phoned and told to kick their MPs into line. Some had their families phoned and told not to get too comfortable with an MP’s life because they would be thrown out before the next election. All were told it was New Labour (i.e. Blair) that they owed allegiance to. Conscience was a liability, not an asset.
Both Blair and Brown may have wished to run with their ultras’ demands for a purge of the 47 rebels who ignored these entreaties, but the impact on the parliamentary party was different. Most were reluctant to expel those who went into a division lobby that their hearts told them they should have been in too. It established an achilles heel that was (fortunately) to remain throughout the Supremacy.
One of the strengths of Lewis Minkin’s book is its description of how all the groundwork for this managerial coup had been done long before the 1997 election. The machine may have been surprised by the scale of the Labour victory but it already knew that it would rule by manipulation and disinformation, rather than through a new era of democratic engagement.
When Blair talked of ‘an unbroken line of accountability’, he meant everyone, and everything, being accountable to him. His (initial) personal popularity was played out in talk of ‘direct democracy’ – a leader connecting directly to the people. It was a great way of sidelining every structure of accountability that the party had ever created. Minkin describes this with painful accuracy.
Minkin details how ‘the Blair coup’ set out to turn the parliamentary left into ‘a sealed tomb’: one that would not be re‑opened by new, dissenting, Labour MPs entering parliament. Under the guise of ‘improving the quality of candidates’, Blair’s machine filleted the panel of those approved for selection by ‘eliminating candidates who “appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements”’.
At the heart of what Minkin calls the ‘rolling coup’ was Blair himself – vulnerable, charismatic, insecure and obsessive – the centrepiece of a giant political Ponzi scheme. Truth was always a moveable feast. Statistics, or supportive polling data, would always be found to justify the latest move to ‘marketise’ and individualise everything advanced by New Labour. It wasn’t just Clause Four that Blair wanted shut of; it was the whole notion of collectivism. Business, particularly big business, wanted none of it.
So it was that, under the guise of new social partnerships, huge tranches of the social fabric of Britain were transferred into the pockets of the private sector. My only quibble with Minkin is that this was as much Brown’s agenda as Blair’s. The debacle of PFI and PPP debts that remain tied round the neck of public services is their common legacy to the country, not just a Blairite one.
The shadow of Nuremberg
Without doubt Blair was a consummate performer, with an unparalleled ability to lie for any cause. It is only fitting, however, that his greatest lie should be the source of his ultimate undoing. On most issues he simply moved on and the machine behind him swept contradictory evidence under the nearest carpet. But war doesn’t work like that – not, at least, when it is a war of choice.
As the chair of Labour Against the War, I knew how far we had gone to bring real ‘evidence’ within the reach of MPs. Weapons inspectors had come into parliament, assuring us they had no evidence of any remaining weapons of mass destruction (WMDs). International diplomats had arrived urging more time, and more diplomacy. We even circulated our own detailed pamphlet to all Labour MPs on the eve of the Commons debate, dismantling the claims made in Blair’s ‘dodgy dossier’. But most of us knew that Blair had already promised Bush the war he was looking for. Nothing was going to deflect Blair from his own jihadist inclinations.
Minkin is right in depicting the debate as one of Blair’s most outstanding parliamentary moments. It was where he pushed ‘Trust me’ and ‘If you only knew what I know’ to its limits. It was some achievement to get decent people to vote in ways that Nuremberg would have judged an inadmissible defence.
But the war, its consequences and the absence of WMDs turned out to be Blair’s unforgivable sin – the lie that will dog him to the end of his days. Hubris had given the public, and the party, something to hate him for.
The only thing Lewis Minkin’s book lacks is a wrap-around. For all we come to understand about the ‘how’ of Blair’s rolling coup, there is nothing that addresses the ‘why’. It isn’t enough to put it all down to control-freakery. To learn anything from this, we have to put it in a context. Psychologically, Blair was always drawn towards wealth and celebrity, and has draped himself in more of it than can ever buy forgiveness. His favoured acolytes all went the same way, becoming payroll beneficiaries in everything Blair privatised. But the brains are to be found elsewhere.
My take is that Blair had long been groomed by the neoliberalism that was running away with American politics. The agenda was not to make Labour ‘business-friendly’ but big business-compliant. The global agenda of the time was about turning public services into corporate profit streams.
Deregulation of financial markets, the World Trade Organisation, the TRIPS agreement on intellectual property rights and a series of US adventurist wars were all part of a bigger project. The creation of new global creatures – corporate citizens – required the creation of new cultural norms within which they could flourish. Rights were to be transferred from citizens to corporations. Duties went the other way. Somewhere along this trajectory from citizens to serfs is where we are now.
Blair was not the architect of this. His shallowness, vanity and venal interests just made him a willing partner. The real Supremacy lay elsewhere.
Some, in parliament, understood this. And it is in a tribute to them that I want to end this review. The Campaign group of Labour MPs barely figure in Minkin’s book, but they were the only bolt-hole of real political thought that I found throughout my parliamentary years. Some of their leading voices get no mention at all, yet they were the MPs you would always find on picket lines, at trade union and social movement rallies, on anti-war marches and at the forefront of campaigns to restore rather than exploit the planet.
Epitomised by Tony Benn, these were the Labour MPs – socialists – who set out to explain that we always had bigger and better choices open to us than the Supremacy would have had us to believe. Of course it is sad that neither the trade union movement nor the party had the courage to wrap itself around those holding out this bigger vision. But if Labour is to salvage anything from the superficiality of the Blair experience it will be the knowledge that we cannot manage our way out of the current crisis, any more than we can shop our way out.
The world is locked into a series of crises for which corporate feudalism has no answer; crises not susceptible to individualised solutions. Tomorrow’s security will only be found if we grasp just how interdependent we really are. Solutions will have to be on the scale of a new post-1945 settlement – with the planet as much as ourselves.
Tony Blair was never going to be relevant to this. But the very thing whose removal came to symbolise his rise to the Supremacy – Clause Four of the Labour Party constitution – could well be. What if common interests and common ownership/stewardship turn out to be the only viable form of tomorrow’s politics? Think about it: the return of Clause Four – in local, national and global terms. Now that would really piss him off.
The Blair Supremacy: A Study in the Politics of Labour’s Party Management by Lewis Minkin is published by Manchester University Press. Alan Simpson was the Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010
As the relaunched Tribune prepares its second issue, Hilary Wainwright assesses the history of the paper and the left Labour MPs who rallied around it – and the lessons it offers today’s Labour left
As anti-Corbyn Labour MPs kick up a fuss in the press about possible reselections, Hilary Wainwright looks back at the strikingly similar alarm in the parliamentary establishment in the 1970s and 1980s
In a world of isolation and a left which tends towards despondency, collective joy is our weapon against neoliberalism. Sam Swann reflects on The World Transformed 2018
Michael Calderbank brings you a bite-sized guide to what went on at conference, and what that means for the future of the party.
Labour needs to develop a socialist strategy that goes beyond a single election manifesto. Leo Panitch and Sam Gindin look at the challenge of state transformation
If we want a radical socialist government, it starts with democratising the party from the bottom up. Dan Gerke argues in favour of mandatory reselection.