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Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle: The Blair Revolution

Martin Kettle

 

First published in Renewal volume 4, number 2 (1996), pp. 94-7

 

The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?
Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle
Faber, 1996 

 

I have had some dodgy invites in my time, but the way I was asked to write this review definitely counts as one of them. The Blair Revolution is obviously an important book, explained Renewal's reviews editor, and lots of politicians have strong views about it. Unfortunately none of them are actually prepared to commit themselves in print. Could I therefore do the review instead? Thanks, guys. Remember to put flowers on my grave occasionally.

That little anecdote tells you something worrying about the present condition of the Labour Party, and particularly about the feelings engendered by one of this book's authors. Peter Mandelson. Actually, I seem to have seen reviews of The Blair Revolution by two or three Labour MPs who have lived to tell the tale, though not necessarily by any of the Renewal persuasion. But the point remains powerful and striking. Here is in some ways a significant book, but large sections of the most articulate parts of the party are not prepared to talk publicly about it. This sound more like a Communist Party attitude than a Labour one. But however you look at it, this is not a good sign for the future.

The morning when I sat down to write this review, I watched Tony Blair interviewed by Peter Sissons on the BBC's 'Breakfast with Frost' programme. Blair's treatment of the interview seemed to me to epitomise both his own approach and the approach embodied in The Blair Revolution. Here he was, the leader of a party which by any previous standards is miles ahead in the opinion polls as an election approaches and therefore, you might think, in a good position to pull no punches. Here he was, principal scourge of a governing party which was writhing in chaos over the beef industry, the latest in a long succession of crises to abort its increasingly improbable political recovery. No danger from that quarter then. So what did Blair do?

Did he raise Labour expectations? No. Did he kick the Conservatives when they were down? Not really. Did he tell the viewers that when he got in, on the wave of the massive apparent support for Labour in the polls, things would be dramatically different? Not at all. Blair's talk was deliberately minimalist. It was all about stripping down commitments to core objectives. It was about dampening expectations not raising them. It was about reassuring people that there was no hidden agenda to be unveiled after the election. The language cleverly sustained a radical as well as a conservative interpretation, but the balance of this intention was unmistakable. The performance was audacious. But the content was very, very cautious.

It is perhaps unfair to start reviewing Mandelson and Liddle with an instant reference to Blair. After all, they are them and he is him. They should not be judged by what he says, nor he by what they write. And yet it is inevitable that this book in seen universally as a cutting from the same stem. Blair and Mandelson are closer than any two Labour politicians. Mandelson is, in effect if not in formal fact, the deputy leader of the party. Liddle is part of the circle of policy advisers put together by Mandleson and David Miliband for Blair. The book is being marketed as 'an inside account' of New Labour's plans, and it self-evidently is. To judge this book is also inescapably in some measure to judge the Blair project itself. And so I repeat that the book too is very, very cautious.

This is not to make a value judgment — yet — about it. But I do think it is important to be honest about recognising this fundamental and persistent caution in its content. It pervades the book. It is even, in a sense, the book's own deeper message. The Blair Revolution offers very few hostages to fortune, as of course its authors fully intend. Where some books are cannibalised, this one has been Campbellised, made teflon-smooth against the Central Office hit-men. It says what it means and it means what it says. Those who read it should do the authors the courtesy of realising that they are not trying to say something other than what is in these pages. This book is not in code. This is really what they mean. And, given the proximity to Blair himself, it is as close as anything can be to what Blair means too.

Most book reviews have to explain to the reader what the book in question actually says, since it is unlikely that all but a tiny fraction of those who read a review will actually buy or read the book. With this book and this magazine's readership, this seems less essential. The Blair Revolution has been out for more than two months now. It has been serialised in my own newspaper (perhaps I should confess here that I was responsible with the book's authors, this being a small world, for choosing and editing the Guardian's extracts). It has become a small best-seller. And I would guess that its market penetration of the readership of this magazine is, or ought to be, well-nigh a hundred per cent.

So I will swiftly explain for those beyond the reach of Faber's marketing that The Blair Revolution is an account of New Labour's view of the world, an exposition of the policy options for a Blair government, and a blueprint for how Labour might rule. It intersperses its text with a series of imaginary tales of the sort beloved by marketing and advertising people, about typical families and citizens ('Peter has got in with a really bad lot' — that sort of thing) and what New Labour might do about their hopes and fears. It is unapologetically a Blairite tract, and it even contains an obsequious chapter on the Wise Leader himself that the late Robert Maxwell would not have been embarrassed to publish.

I chose the words in the previous paragraph with care. We get an account of New Labour's view of the world rather than an explanation of it. This is, I think, a weakness, because the text here slips too easily into speechwriter mode. A passage like 'Whereas the left appeared to argue for rights without responsibilities and the right that one was responsible for one self alone, New Labour stresses the importance of mutual obligations' — and there are many more in this vein — is more show than substance. This is New Labour Newspeak and it leaves even those of us who are sympathetic with more questions than answers.

The book is full of policy prescriptions, but they differ very markedly in their thoroughness and their forthrightness. Anyone who read the disputed summary of the book which was leaked to the Observer before Christmas will have been struck — and in my own case encouraged — by the uncompromising list of proposals, including electoral reform and co-operation with the Liberal Democrats. Anyone who saw the BBC1 'On The Record' promo for the book on February 25 or who has heard some of Peter Mandelson's subsequent interviews will also have come away with the impression that he is now an electoral reformer and a supporter of centre-left co-operation. Yet it isn't actually in the book. Read the relevant pages (pp. 205-208) and you will not find words which support those positions.

Against that, the really impressive part of the book is the honest and thorough analysis of what needs to be done to give hope and direction to unemployed — and sometimes unemployable — school-leavers. Mandelson and Liddle may be cynical, worldly-wise inside track operators on some things, but in this section of their book there is real feeling and drive too. Their answers to youth unemployment and British anomie will not be to everyone's taste, but there is no disputing either that they are fired up about the problem or that they have thought through their ideas in this field. There is an unapologetic consistency and specificity in this section of the book. It will be one of the two sections of The Blair Revolution which will be particularly worth revisiting in five years or so to see how practice has compared with theory.

The other is the chapter about Labour in government. This is the part of the book in which we get the nearest thing to passion and in which the generally restrained prose comes closest to throwing off its caution. Presumably, as other reviewers have noted, this is because Labour in government is the idea which excites the authors more than any other. Mandelson and Liddle are men who want office. There can be no complaint about that. After so long out of power, Labour is right to feel passionate about government. The big question will be whether Labour government is a means to an end, or simply an end in itself.

I think the central questions which all Labour supporters need to ask themselves today are whether they understand why New Labour is so cautious, and whether they agree with it. I think there are two principal reasons for New Labour's caution.

The first is Labour's experience of itself. This book emerges towards the end (I hope) of the most disastrous period ever in the party's fortunes. Never has it been longer out of office nor suffered as many consecutive defeats. It is therefore desperate for victory in a way that it never was before. This has involved a huge cultural change in pursuit of the supreme goal, electability. In one sense it is almost incredible that the party of 1981 should have been transformed into the party of 1996. Yet those whose memories do not go back that far need to realise that the Blair generation is haunted by those catastrophic and horrible years. It is understandable that the reckless and self-righteous leftism of those years has persuaded many in the Labour leadership to define themselves in opposition to everything that Labour stood for at that time. Understandable but wrong. And even in the end, I fear, potentially disastrous. New Labour's vision of itself rests on a too superficial definition and a too simplistic dismissal of old Labour.

The second factor is the perception of global economic change. We live in the first period since at least the French Revolution in which people on the left are not sure that they can change the world. Until the 1970s, it still seemed possible that a national government with sufficient determination and support (an elusive combination) could redistribute economic power in a significantly more equitable way. Now, whether rightly or wrongly, this is not widely believed. On the contrary, it is the right's deliberate privatisation of wealth and power which now seems irreversible save at the very margins. The scale of the right's counter-revolution, plus the sense that it is universal, daunts almost all on the left, especially those who cannot forget how close their party was to electoral extinction. Inevitably, this has encouraged New Labour to embrace cautious and marginal solutions. The Blair Revolution articulates that approach very honestly.

This is not an easy book to describe, the authors say at the outset. Nor is that task any easier for a reviewer. The Blair Revolution is part analysis, part manifesto, part serious discussion, part media event. It is not the book which defines the outlook of a generation. But it is a book which embodies the problems of a generation. If it is certain only of its own uncertainties, then so are we all. The Blair Revolution tells us less about the hope of New Labour's success than it tells us about the fear of its failure. Perhaps that's why the politicians won't write about it. 

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