“Right idea, badly executed” was the young Tony Blair’s verdict on the Labour Party as he entered politics in the 1980s, as he now recalls in Blair and Brown: The New Labour Revolution. It still sounds about right. It’s been three decades since the New Labour “project” got going in earnest, and 10 years since it lost its faltering grip on power. It is only just emerging from an era, perhaps an aberrant one, in which everyone and everything associated with New Labour was denounced in the Corbynite socialist counter-revolution.
Now that revolutionary movement, too, is part of history. Like a retrospective exhibition of paintings by an artist once popular, then despised, and now ripe for rehabilitation, this excellently researched documentary series comes at a pivotal moment. As before, Labour still cannot seem to get the execution right. Some are also doubting whether the party really does have the “right idea” after all.
For anyone born around the time of Labour’s 1997 victory under the leadership of Blair and Gordon Brown – a world in which John Major’s Conservatives were so badly mashed that many assumed they’d be out of office for a generation – to think of it now must seem fantastical. For those old enough to have lived through it, and even joined the New Labour “revolution”, it still takes effort to recall a time when politics wasn’t plagued by party infighting.
Back then, Britain’s political struggles took place between the leading architects of success. Yet this retrospective is so brilliantly constructed that it brings those long-lost realities vividly back to life. Did we really think the Tories would be finished for decades, and that Britain was about to embark upon “the progressive century”? Yes, we did. How naive that seems now.
The programme-makers have been blessed with their interviewees, who don’t hold back. They have all the backroom boys and girls – the backing vocalists if you will – not least Peter Mandelson at his subtle best; but the stars are Blair and Brown: the Lennon and McCartney of British social democracy. The intercutting of well-chosen archive material (credit to Rebecca Hickie) reminds us about how much they have physically changed – all washed-out hair and furrowed frown lines – but also how set their personalities were, even as fresh-faced MPs.
As a student politician, Brown was already exhibiting his now-famous facial tic (a momentary jaw-drop before he starts belting out some argument). Blair, then as now, had the easy charm and personal lightness of touch. However, where Blair’s knackered visage still lights up when he grins, Brown looks as though every muscle in his head is straining itself to lift his jowly features into a simulacrum of a smile.
Of the two, and contrary to stereotype, it is Blair who seems the more open and honest about success and failure. He agrees that he and Gordon were “as close as two people in politics can be”. He is rightly generous about how much he – uninterested in politics until well into his twenties – learnt from the precocious and intense Brown. Not least how to make an inspirational speech, but also about the fact that, to put it bluntly, Brown didn’t have the ruthlessness demanded by the task at hand.
Blair did, and consequently proved himself to be the more able and popular figure when the moment came to take on that task, after the death of John Smith in 1994. Brown, on the other hand, still seems to believe that he would have won the Labour leadership, as he claims: “It could have been me.” He’s even chippy as he recalls the visit to President Clinton’s White House, somewhat unnecessarily pointing out that he’d “met Bill Clinton before”. With Edward Heath and Theresa May, Brown was one of the strangest and paradoxically unsuitable personalities to make it into No 10. Even now, he just can’t help himself from proving it.
The next few episodes will tell us a good deal more about the inside story of New Labour’s glory years, and how it all went wrong. It will also, no doubt, offer lessons to politicians of every persuasion on the price you pay for hubris. “A new dawn, is it not?” Tony Blair asked on that May morning in 1997. Perhaps, but it was also a false one, and oh so long ago.
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