Sorry, Tony: 'new' is no longer sexy

Mark Seddon on why Middle England likes Old Labour's ways

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AS "New" Labour struggles to recover from its miserable fortnight - amid fears that the left is making gains - I am reminded of the party's favourite slogan: look to the future or risk going back to the past. It is being heard again. The fear at party headquarters is that, unless Blairism prevails, Labour will be plunged into a replay of the internecine war of the early eighties.

There was much that was unattractive about this period: the intolerance, the brinkmanship and the misery meted out to Michael Foot by people who should have known better. But, and this may come as something of a surprise to the newly orthodox (many of whom were on the left in the bad old days), the arguments then were over issues of substance: the future direction of a shell-shocked Labour Party; our relationship with NATO and the Common Market and, of course, whether we should keep the bomb.

Take all of that away and you get court intrigue, a struggle for power without even the figleaf of ideological difference. Which is why I happen to believe Tony Blair when he says that he is "genuinely puzzled" by stories of splits between him and his Chancellor. Neither is a malicious individual, but their lieutenants have been engaged in open warfare as part of the manoeuvrings that characterise any court constructed around the individual rather than the collective. And the broad church that was "Old" Labour, although often wracked by argument, was bound together at least by a shared mission of social justice.

With some of the veneer stripped away, even some of the courtier pundits have begun to reflect that here is a party not at ease with itself. Labour's deputy Leader, John Prescott, who has been strengthened by recent events, has felt emboldened to call for a return to more traditional Labour policies. The big test will be whether he and others are serious in their intent to change direction.

But if Labour is to be reclaimed from the narrow sect who currently have it in their thrall, it is time for some myths to be exploded, among them that the party's name has been changed. It has not. There is no such thing as New Labour, only the Labour Party. "New" is obviously a useful device for a time and it can be used to dish all those who do not subsequently fit in as "Old". But a political movement with deep roots can never surrender to the frippery of ad-men. There are compelling reasons for dropping the "new" - especially now that the National Party of South Africa, which created apartheid, has decided to be known as the New National Party.

Another myth is that Labour was unelectable until Tony Blair became leader. This was exploded last week by Jimmy Reid, the Glasgow Herald columnist and former leader of the Upper Clyde Shipbuilders sit-in. Philip Gould, in his Unfinished Revolution, argues that without his own efforts and those of Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair's job would have been even more difficult. But Jimmy Reid took the liberty of looking up some polling figures.

They make fascinating reading. In the month following Labour's defeat and Neil Kinnock's resignation in 1992, the polls showed the following support for Labour: Gallup, 39.5 per cent; ICM, 34 per cent; Mori, 38.5 per cent.

When John Smith took over as leader, he booted out Mandelson and Gould and Labour under his leadership was very much at peace with itself. The public seemed to like Smith's Labour. In June 1994 the polls showed Labour's lead had strengthened dramatically: Gallup,50.5 per cent; ICM, 48 per cent; Mori, 51.5 per cent.

Tragically, John Smith died. Tony Blair was elected Leader in his place and Mandelson and Gould returned. The public liked Tony Blair, too. Yet in the last polls before the general election in May 1997, Labour's support stood at: Gallup, 50.5 per cent; ICM, 48 per cent; Mori, 50.5 per cent. So Smith's Labour Party, without the subsequent bonfire of commitments and the re-writing of history, would have won in 1997.

The de-construction of the "New" Labour myth is essential if we are to finally break away from the corrosive spin culture which has so corrupted politics and infected a substantial section of what has become a courtier press of bag carriers for rival chiefs. The party's own polling, although showing continuing high levels of support for the Government, reflect this malaise. Many voters are now saying that "New" Labour is sleazy and out of touch.

The departure of Peter Mandelson from the government could not have come at more important time.

His spell has been broken and his project has lost its allure. "Old" Labour is becoming popular again, and not just on the committed left.

What says Middle England of the railways? Re-nationalise them, of course! What says middle England of the unions? How do we join? Iraq? What the hell was Blair doing? Ken Livingstone? He's the housewives' favourite. Tony Benn? A much loved elder statesman. And it doesn't stop there.

Mark Seddon is editor of Tribune.

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