Steve Richards: Were New Labour mad, bad, and dangerous?

Running a party from the very top becomes as destructively intense as one in which virtually every member is consulted in advance on what should be in the Budget

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Peter Mandelson's memoirs have generated several front-page headlines of which the following is typical: "Mad, bad and dangerous". Mandelson is not referring to the government's decision to support the war in Iraq, or indeed any other policy. This was Tony Blair's view of Gordon Brown, as expressed to the author. I recall similar headlines in the 1970s, usually in relation to Tony Benn. At its end, and out of power, New Labour meets the older version it had tried so hard to avoid.

I have not yet read the full book. Perhaps there is more to it than a soap opera revisited for the thousandth time. But the serialisation gives the ugly impression of a small bunch of egomaniacs obsessed by grabbing or keeping the baubles of power. As one of the more principled figures from the last government observed to me yesterday: "With these headlines, thank God we haven't got to face the voters in the next few months."

In reality, quite a lot of the rows focused on policy differences of some significance, as they did in the 1970s and 1980s. In the Blair/Brown era disputes related to "tax and spend", Britain's membership of the euro, public service reform and the overall strategic direction of the government. Contrary to fashionable orthodoxy, Blair was not "pro-reform" and Brown "anti-reform". Such a simplistic divide suggests only one set of reforms were available and anyone who suggested another set was "anti-reform", a perception that was mad, bad and dangerous.

The eruption of differences over appropriate reforms should not be a cause for alarm. Every government is a coalition. There should be intense debate about policy before final decisions are reached. What made New Labour unique was the limited number of individuals involved in the important and necessary debates. Most of the time they were confined to two individuals and their closest courtiers. In effect, Brown and his small entourage of trusted advisers were the only counter within the government and the Labour party to what was happening in No 10.

Similarly, Blair alone was the constraint on Brown, if the Prime Minister was lucky enough to know what was happening in the Treasury. Quite often I found Brown's forensic critique of Blair's agenda formidable and substantial. Others fumed at Brown's resistance to Blairite reforms. Unavoidably, the debates became ridiculously highly charged when they were fuelled by intense rivalry and, in Brown's case, insatiable hunger to become Prime Minister.

The destructive headlines still being generated by the small number who took over a political party in 1994 are darkly ironic. They acquired total control in order to avoid vote-losing front pages about mad, bad and dangerous behaviour. In the early years, Blair/Brown/Mandelson were obsessed with keeping the rest of their party as far away from the media as possible, fearing any echoes with the late 1970s and 1980s. As it has turned out the trio has produced some of the most deadly news stories in their party's history, ones that echo precisely those that accompanied Labour's battles in the 1970s and 1980s.

The trio that seized control had a strong case at first for acting in the way they did. In the 1970s and 1980s Labour's methods for holding leaders to account were a recipe for eternal opposition. En route to losing the 1979 election Jim Callaghan screamed during one day-long meeting of the party's mighty National Executive Committee: "Why don't we lock the doors, throw away the keys and spend the rest of our lives in this meeting?"

Callaghan was Prime Minister at the time with the International Monetary Fund knocking on his door. He was obliged to spend the day at the NEC as the economy collapsed. Party conferences were marked by endless "defeats for the leadership". Cabinet meetings were long events in which several mighty figures, all of them potential leaders, held sway. Callaghan, and Harold Wilson before him, did not have to worry only about their Chancellor, but about Roy Jenkins, Tony Benn, Tony Crosland, Shirley Williams, David Owen and many others. There could be no intense equivalent of Blair/Brown because the layers of accountability would have made it impossible.

Not surprisingly, after decades in which Labour was almost destroyed by splits and the reporting of deep divisions, Blair and Brown rushed to the other extreme.

They decided the policies. They agreed the message. That was the end of the matter. Only Brown could stop Blair and vice versa. One of their blazing rows was the equivalent of a cabinet meeting, a party gathering and an annual conference debate. It was decisive. There was a lot of speculation during the second term about whether Brown supported Blair in relation to Iraq. I knew he did for the simple reason that he did not try to block it. Only he could have done so. The rest of the cabinet had been conditioned to accept whatever the duopoly had decided. Brown made his moves on other issues, most of them in connection with the delivery of public services, because he disagreed with Blair. He did not do so over Iraq.

Their method of running a party, to some extent followed by David Cameron and George Osborne but without the mad, bad, dangerous intensity, is fatally flawed. It becomes too dependent on a few ambitious individuals getting on and getting it right.

Over time there will be positive lessons to learn from the New Labour trio. Before very long there will be considerable interest over how they managed to raise taxes in a way that still made it possible for Labour to win elections.

The current chancellor George Osborne plans to lay a big "tax and spend" trap for Labour by the time of the next election when he will almost certainly propose tax cuts. It will take much ingenuity and courage from Labour's new leader to avoid falling straight into it. From 1997 until 2005 the reverse was the case, with the Conservatives responding in precisely the way that the New Labour trio had intended.

One of the brightest of the Labour intakes from the last election, to the left of Mandelson, tells me he has every intention of buying the book for strategic insights, and he will almost certainly find some.

But the biggest lesson from this latest version of the soap opera is that running a party from the very top becomes as destructively intense as one in which virtually every member is consulted in advance on what should be in the Budget. Sometimes, a leader and a Chancellor benefit from being compelled to consult more widely before making policy decisions.

Such an approach becomes more possible now it is no longer fatal for governments to acknowledge a degree of internal difference, a positive consequence of the coalition and one that a media used to feasting on "splits" has not quite adapted to. Iron discipline that collapses into deranged indiscipline, as those holding the whips start to beat each other, is no longer a necessary sequence.

That does not mean giving control back to a party. Parties are too weak to acquire such assertiveness. But there must be a model for party politics that navigates between two extremes in which mad, bad and dangerous becomes an inevitable epitaph. For now New Labour leaves behind a perceived legacy that is almost as dangerous for the party's next leader as the one that a series of leaders faced after it left power in 1979.

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