Labour: Things didn't get better

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After 13 years in office New Labour has been beaten. Pat Stack surveys the wreckage of a party that attacked its own voters.

As the Tories and Lib Dems scrabbled together their unsightly coalition it seemed a lifetime ago that Tony Blair was being greeted with anthemic pop songs and cheering crowds bathing in the optimism and hope for a new dawn. This time the optimism was replaced by cynicism and bewilderment at the haggling that finally allowed David Cameron to sidle into 10 Downing Street, while Gordon Brown slouched out in just about as dignified a manner as was possible at the end of a wretched campaign.

While Labour did not suffer the predicted meltdown, they were a deeply unpopular government which had disappointed the millions who hoped it would put an end to the Thatcherite nightmare and improve all our lives.

So how did they disappoint and shatter those hopes? It is difficult to know where to start, so why not at the beginning. Almost the first act of the government was to hand a colossal piece of financial power over to the unelected and unaccountable governor of the Bank of England. This was the precursor for the Blair/Brown love-in with high finance, the rich and the powerful. If Margaret Thatcher had handed ludicrous freedom over to the speculators, risk takers and glorified gamblers of the City with the big bang and deregulation, then New Labour was not going to rein them back in.

Back then Blair was new enough to do a blokey "I'm a guy you can trust" routine on television. The act quickly lost its shine. If Brown never quite displayed the same sycophancy and awe towards the rich, his policies were every bit as friendly to them as Blair's. What's more, Brown grandly announced that he had abolished "boom and bust" from the economy. The man had actually solved one of the great problems of capitalism!

How ironic then that what finally did for his government as much as anything else was an economic mess unlike anything seen for generations - a crisis largely created by the unregulated speculators, risk takers and glorified gamblers of the banking system.

While leaving the rich to their Thatcherite freedoms, New Labour did nothing to remove the shackles Thatcher had put on the unions. Labour took union money but treated union leaders with almost open disdain and increasingly regarded the public sector workforce as an enemy.

Contempt

Anyone who witnessed the recent behaviour of the judiciary towards British Airways workers will have seen how profoundly unfair the Tory anti-union laws are, yet Labour left them intact. Undoubtedly Blair would have liked to ditch the unions altogether, but Labour needed their money, and as we've seen, Labour's core voters - who New Labour took for granted at best and were contemptuous of at worst - provided the vital votes that prevented the much feared meltdown at the election.

Nowhere were voters more contemptuously ignored than in the case of the Iraq war. Blair's crusade became even more wretched when the "weapons of mass destruction" turned out to be every bit as mythical as the unicorn or the city of Atlantis. Now he was seen as not just a dupe but a liar also. With his dodgy dossiers, alarmist warnings and the unleashing of Alastair Campbell on the BBC to try and stifle all questioning, he had become utterly discredited.

If these events paved the way for Brown's accession it should be noted that he failed to utter one word against the war, and indeed was the chancellor who funded it. Nor was Iraq an aberration. Blair's enthusiasm for war in the Balkans and Afghanistan had paved the way for the Iraq adventure. While he may have had "no regrets" for this craze for military adventure, the overwhelming majority of Labour voters looked on with rage and dismay.

Perhaps the most bewildering thing about New Labour was their authoritarianism. The promises of freedom of information and civil liberties disappeared behind never ending legislation bringing in new laws, new punishments, reduction of access to legal aid and trial by juries. A succession of hardline home secretaries - David Blunkett, John Reid, Jack Straw - regarded civil liberties with contempt, and used the fears aroused by 7/7 to wind up the hysteria and clamour for more legislation.

In the wake of that hysteria they happily allowed trials without jury, people to be charged with crimes that weren't specified even to the defendants and the US to transport prisoners to destinations where torture awaited them. They also acted as apologists for torture in Basra and the hell hole of Guantanamo. This smacked of the sort of behaviour you would have expected from Tory governments at the height of colonialism.

Spin, spin, spin

This was all explained away by the endless spin that came to so discredit the whole New Labour project. The backroom spinners were more powerful than even some senior ministers. They spun wars as crusades for freedom, cuts as modernisation and defeats as victories. They even spun ruthlessly against one another as Blair and Brown endlessly crossed swords in a battle of personal ambition that had nothing to do with policy or principles. How befitting that in the last seconds of the whole project, there with Gordon, Sarah and the kids stood Alastair and Peter, the kings of all that is spin.

All this was a betrayal of the hopes of those who had booted out the Tories. Surely, though, the ultimate test of the government was what it did to narrow the gap between rich and poor? Nobody expected full-blooded socialism, or even nationalisation, but surely New Labour would create a more equitable and fair society?

Sadly they utterly failed to do so. Britain is still one of the most inequitable of the advanced capitalist countries. The recent winner of the euro millions who won £84 million only scraped into the top 800 rich people in Britain. Little wonder British capitalists were, until the banking crisis, largely happy with Blair/Brown.

In contrast one of the first things the New Labour government did in office was to cut single parents' benefits setting a horribly austere moral tone to the new regime and showing its contempt for some of the most needy within society. To add insult to injury, many of those elected to defend the poor and vulnerable had not only failed to do so but had feathered their own nests. Not even the best of spin doctors could spin away Hazel Blears, Jacqui Smith, the flippers and the plasma screen fans.

So things didn't get better and Labour lost, Brown's gone, and a new leader will be elected. One of the most alarming things about the leadership contest so far is that Ant & Dec Miliband and the other frontrunners seem to want to draw the same lessons from the defeat.

Despite some hypocritical platitudes about the Iraq war they fixate on the notion that Labour lost because they were seen as soft on immigration and benefits. In opposition Labour is going to have to learn a new language. Let us hope it does not become the language of the bigot.