Tuesday Book: Putting New Labour into focus
John Rentoul is chief political commentator for The Independent on Sunday, and visiting professor at Queen Mary, University of London, where he teaches contemporary history. Previously he was chief leader writer for The Independent. He has written a biography of Tony Blair, whom he admired more at the end of his time in office than he did at the beginning.
Tuesday 03 November 1998
HOW THE MODERNISERS SAVED
THE LABOUR PARTY
BY PHILIP GOULD, LITTLE, BROWN, pounds 16.99
IF HISTORY is written by the victors, this is the first draft from the small group of true believers around Tony Blair. It contains an inside account of Blair's two victories, first in winning control of the Labour Party and second in taking a reformed party into government in a landslide.
Philip Gould is a true believer in the cause of New Labour - a rebranding he proposed when advising Neil Kinnock in 1989. But his book is not the antiseptic propaganda suggested by its subtitle, although it is partisan. Nor is it a superficial defence of the disciplines of marketing which Gould helped to introduce to Labour politics, although it does defend the use of focus groups, opinion polls and aggressive advertising. It is passionately argued, well written and based on interviews with many of the players, as well as on Gould's endless memos in which he captured the private discussions of the party's inner circle.
Gould has been in the back room with the "modernisers" since Peter Mandelson recruited him in 1985. His account of the 1987 election adds little to what is already known, but his depiction of the tensions and mutual loathings that paralysed the Labour campaign in 1992 is much worse and more convincing than any so far. Nor has that campaign's legacy of bitterness against John Smith been so bluntly expressed since his tragic death. Gould argues that, had Smith lived, he would have lost in 1997. Smith was seen as "legal, decent, honest and truthful", he says, but he failed to change perceptions of his party as untrustworthy and irrelevant. What is more, he quotes a conversation the day before Smith's death in which Blair agrees: "Labour will only win when it is completely changed from top to bottom."
The modernisers blamed Smith's refusal to soften plans for higher taxes on the better-off for losing the 1992 election. As leader, Smith probably would have kept a higher tax rate for those earning more than pounds 100,000 a year. Gould thinks the categorical promise that "income tax rates will not rise" was "central" to Labour's victory last year.
What Gould fails to rebut, however, is the charge that modernisation is simply a matter of delivering, not even what suburban England says it wants, but what Philip Gould says it says it wants. Gould's closeness to Blair is based on his ability to tell him what the voters are thinking, which in turn rests on regular direct contact with the electorate through focus groups - informal discussions with small groups of floating voters.
This book is a persuasive defence of modern polling techniques as a means of direct communication with the people. Where the critics of such methods go wrong is in suggesting that, if you use polls and focus groups, you end up with value-free politics. But that is not possible: there will always be leadership, judgement and ideology. Gould tells how, when he reported that his focus groups took against John Prescott as deputy leader, Blair responded: "I suggest you go away and refocus your focus groups."
That riposte applies to the findings on tax, too. To what extent did Gould's own prejudices on tax influence his research? It is possible that if Labour had proposed a new top tax rate, it might have been popular, and countered perceptions that the party had dumped its core values and did not stand for anything.
As well as the puzzle of whether Smith would have won in 1997, the book reopens another question that ought to trouble historians rather less. Gould takes exception to my biography of Tony Blair, in which I suggest that Mandelson decided straight after Smith's death that Blair should be the next leader, rather than Gordon Brown. According to Gould, his friend was in an agony of indecision, torn between his other two friends, and refused to commit himself until the following week. This is not a dispute that requires inside information to resolve. Mandelson went on television on Saturday 14 May, two days after Smith's death, listing the candidates for the succession, Blair first, and saying the new leader should appeal to "those extra, additional voters that we need in order to win" - a form of code that would not require the services of Bletchley Park.
But Mandelson seems to be guilty merely of excessive courtesy towards Brown, whereas the really corrosive myth of this period is that fostered by Brown, namely that Mandelson was scheming against him. As Mandelson rightly tells Gould: "Within hours of Smith dying, the whole world had gone to Blair. It wasn't something that could be organised, managed, manipulated; it just happened."
This is minor stuff, however. This is a book which makes a significant contribution to our understanding both of the recent history of the Labour Party and of the character of the Prime Minister.
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