New Labour's electoral victory means a sea-change in the way Britain's political elite runs the country. Mike Fitzpatrick on what's new and what's not
Not just the new Tories
From the moment the exit polls predicted the scale of Labour's victory on 1 May to the final confirmation of the wipeout of the Conservative Party the following day, the television pundits were lost for superlatives. It was the biggest swing in any election since the war, the heaviest defeat for the Tories since 1906 (or was it 1832?), the greatest ever victory for Labour. It was striking that the most experienced commentators, those who have spent years analysing the minor shifts of votes in post-war elections, appeared most awestruck by the apparently seismic electoral shock of May 1997.
In fact, the size of Labour's landslide was more indicative of the changing character of parliamentary politics in Britain than of any upsurge of mass popular enthusiasm for Tony Blair and New Labour. Indeed, in the long run-up to the election, numerous commentators noted the mismatch between Labour's big lead in the opinion polls and the lack of public interest in the campaign - as evidenced by posters in windows, turnouts at local meetings and involvement at constituency level. The fact that Labour's victory was won with the lowest turnout at a general election since 1935, despite considerable efforts at increasing voter registration, especially among the young, confirms the lack of popular engagement in the election.
In common with last year's presidential election in the USA, the British general election reveals the changing character of party politics in the post-Cold War world. Following the collapse of the familiar polarities of West and East, capital and labour, capitalism and socialism, the old parties have become detached from their traditional social roots and their distinctive ideologies. Of all the political parties in Britain, Labour has gone the furthest in cutting off its links with the past: this is the whole meaning of New Labour. As Peter Snow can confirm, a party without roots can swing in a way that threatens to unhinge the old swingometer.
When Labour wins back Basildon and Harlow, this can be understood according to the familiar rules of British politics. When it also wins Wimbledon and Finchley, Edgbaston, Romford and Enfield Southgate, then it is clear that the game itself has changed. (It is worth noting that, under the new groundrules, what swings so easily one way could soon swing another.) The 1997 general election marks a new era in which political allegiances may have become more volatile, but also one in which rival party machines have become much more similar in policy, personnel and style. As party politics has become more fluid, so the political realm itself has become more restricted. Real power has shifted further from elected representatives to the civil service, the judiciary and other state agencies. New Labour has won its biggest ever parliamentary victory at a time when the authority of parliament is lower than at any time in modern history.
What then did the results reveal? They showed, above all, the extent of popular hostility to the Conservative Party after 18 years in office. Not only was the average swing of 10 per cent against the Tories unprecedented, the swing was even greater in the Tory heartlands than it was in traditional Labour territory. The anti-Tory wave swept out government ministers, loyalists and Eurosceptics alike; even supposedly popular 'one nation' Tories in safe seats, like Edward Heath, suffered a dramatic fall in votes. Young people, the middle classes and women all turned decisively against the Conservatives. Though the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish Nationalists also advanced on the anti-Tory tide, the major beneficiary was inevitably New Labour.
The arrival of New Labour's new MPs at Westminster has been warmly welcomed on all sides. The new faces are younger and more female - and everybody is delighted to see the back of many of the old faces of the Conservative Party. Yet, behind the impression of novelty lie strong elements of continuity with the old order.
The sentiment of 'time for a change' was the key to Labour's victory. In many ways this is ironic, given that one of New Labour's central themes has been its abandonment of the Labour Party's historic commitment to major social change. During the course of the election campaign Tony Blair reiterated his commitment to continuing many of the features of Tory Britain - such as anti-trade union legislation, privatisation, restrictions on public spending - which Old Labour had always pledged to reverse. Blair was careful to offer only the most modest changes, such as smaller class sizes and shorter hospital waiting lists - lest New Labour raise expectations of change. Fear of change is a much stronger sentiment in the ranks of New Labour than any commitment to innovation.
After Labour's victory, even the defeated Tories were full of admiration for the election campaign masterminded by Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. There is no doubt that the New Labour machine was well organised and the candidates tightly disciplined. Yet, from the decision to dodge a head-to-head television debate between Blair and Major at the start, to the distribution of Union flags to a stage-managed crowd welcoming Blair to Downing Street at the end, a spirit of caution and moderation dominated the Labour campaign. While voters clearly wanted a change from the past, New Labour sought to reassure them of its devotion to Britain's traditions, a strategy that reached its nadir in the promotion of Fitz the bulldog in an election broadcast.
The spectacle of New Labour draping itself in the Union flag, and proclaiming itself the party of traditional family values, law and order, private enterprise and national defence creates a misleading impression of New Labour as the new Tories. But, as Blair and his acolytes never tire of repeating, New Labour is New Labour - while upholding much of the legacy of Thatcher's Britain, it has its own distinctive agenda. What New Labour stands for, above all, is the creation of new forms of regulation in British society, to replace the traditions and institutions weakened or destroyed in nearly two decades of Tory rule.
As I commented in last month's LM, New Labour's endorsement of Martin Bell's candidature against Neil Hamilton at Tatton indicated the party's readiness to use the issue of sleaze to shift power away from discredited old institutions, particularly parliament, in favour of even less democratic bodies and less accountable officials. Both Labour and, more reluctantly, the Liberal Democrats withdrew candidates selected by their local parties in favour of a TV journalist appointed by a cabal of party fixers and endorsed by the Guardian and other pro-Labour newspapers in a spirit of sanctimony and patrician contempt for democracy. Bell's victory, despite a lacklustre campaign, has given fresh impetus to New Labour plans to turn the Nolan Committee into a permanent constitutional commission, an appointed quango literally lording it over elected MPs.
The key objective of Labour's proposals for constitutional reform is to bypass the institutions of Westminster in the hope of winning greater public approval for government policy through commissions or quangos, local assemblies or a reformed House of Lords. As Blair's pre-election gaffe of comparing the status of the proposed Scottish assembly with that of a powerless parish council revealed, New Labour is not pursuing changes that will make government more democratic or accountable, but the opposite. With Peter Mandelson, minister without portfolio, at his side, Blair is ready to step outside established structures and procedures to impose his authority on the nation, just as he has done on the Labour Party.
One of the first measures of the new government - Chancellor Gordon Brown's handing over of control over interest rates to a committee at the Bank of England - indicates the anti-democratic character of New Labour's much-vaunted commitment to constitutional reform. As the Guardian's Larry Elliott commented, 'last week more than 13 million people voted for a Labour government: the name of [Bank of England governor] Edward Arthur John George was not on the ballot paper anywhere' (7 May). Yet New Labour has no qualms about handing over operational control of monetary policy to an unelected and unaccountable body.
New Labour's anti-democratic and authoritarian instincts are not confined to constitutional issues, but extend across the range of its social policy. They are most familiar in the pronouncements of Jack Straw on matters of juvenile delinquency and crime and in the party's policies on education and workfare. Plans announced for Labour's first Queen's speech include measures to enforce curfews on young people and 'fast-track' justice for juvenile offenders.
With its substantial influx of young, female and openly gay MPs, New Labour projects an image of diversity and tolerance. However, on closer examination, it emerges that both these virtues are tightly rationed. Even before Blair had appointed a chief whip, all members of the parliamentary party had received a letter from him inviting them to a meeting. Blair told the full assembly of Labour MPs that strict discipline would be maintained and emphasised that dissidents faced expulsion. Never have there been so many Labour MPs - and never have Labour MPs been so regimented
by the leadership.
New Labour may promote more women ministers and encourage more gays to try to become bishops or generals or policemen (though neither theme was prominent during the election campaign). But, outside this narrow range of concerns, New Labour displays an extreme intolerance towards sections of society which do not bask in the warm glow of its approval. Young delinquents have been scapegoated and stigmatised; they face the loss of legal rights, curfews and other restrictions. The homeless, beggars and squeegee merchants risk being rounded up and incarcerated. Indeed children and families in general face the prospect of more official interference and surveillance as the government promotes parenting and sets times for homework.
New Labour MPs may present a younger and trendier image, but their instinct is always for tighter regulation and control rather than for liberation and experimentation. The election has brought a younger generation into power at Westminster, but this is a new generation which echoes its elders' fears and apprehensions about the young to a much greater degree than it shares the energy and enthusiasms of youth. A party which trumpeted as one of its few pledges to the nation the promise that 'young offenders will be punished' seems spectacularly unlikely to realise the aspirations of young people.
New Labour's distinctive agenda is the quest to revive confidence in British capitalism by creating new institutions and new mechanisms for restoring the links between individuals and communities and the system. While Blair's landslide election victory gives him the authority to push through the New Labour agenda, the system itself imposes tight limits on what the government can achieve. It will not be long before it becomes clear that New Labour means austerity and authoritarianism. Challenging the anti-democratic and anti-libertarian dynamic behind the New Labour regime will be the key to building a new opposition.
From the decision to dodge a television debate to the welcome in Downing Street, a spirit of caution and moderation dominated the Labour campaign
Reproduced from LM issue 101, June 1997