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Getting Over New Labour

Cover of Getting Over New Labour by Karl Pike

LHRU Book Review

Karl Pike, Getting Over New Labour: The Party after Blair and Brown
(Newcastle upon Tyne: Agenda Publishing, 2024)

Reviewed by Professor Rohan McWilliam

Canvassing in the 2019 general election I was struck by the way that the term ‘Blairite’ remains one of abuse for young Labour activists in their twenties. Given their age, Tony Blair left power when they were children and yet he continued to represent much of what they were against when it came to Labour politics: Jeremy Corbyn represented something more authentic.

It is the contention of Karl Pike’s new book that the character of post-2010 Labour politics can partly be explained by the way in which the party has still not quite gotten over the era of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, even if many want to dismiss their achievements. In the 2020s, Pike argues, it is time to move on although Keir Starmer’s party has not quite decided where to. He offers an argument about the ethos of Labour between 2010 and 2020. The book suggests there was more continuity between Ed Miliband’s party and its successor which contradicts the widely held view that the election of Corbyn in 2015 was a decisive break with the past. Pike does not dwell on this but he had a ringside seat as an advisor to several members of Ed Miliband’s Shadow Cabinet before becoming a Lecturer in Politics at Queen Mary University of London.

It is not entirely surprising that the Labour Party has not gotten over Blair. After all, the Conservative Party has not gotten over Margaret Thatcher. One feature of modern British politics is that it is still shaped by figures formed by the later twentieth century. There is, however, a difference. Labour supporters have a history of turning on the party’s achievements in government after they leave office. This happened in both the 1950s and the 1980s (the Tories do not do this). The animus towards Blair is therefore part of a longer-term syndrome within Labour politics which leads to claims about betrayal by the leadership or, at least, the failure to achieve more. This was accentuated, however, by the reaction to the Iraq War. One continuum between the Miliband and Corbyn regimes was the belief that the Iraq War was wrong. The liberal interventionism promoted by Blair in his Chicago speech of 1999 came to seem indistinguishable from the worldview of neoconservatives in the George W. Bush era.

Pike’s focus in Getting over New Labour is, however, mainly on domestic affairs. He is particularly fascinated by the party’s ethos and mindset. New Labour maintain its Marmite appeal (people love it or hate it) partly because many of its key players remain active in public life. Blair and Brown are roving elder statesmen whilst Alastair Campbell and Ed Balls both host popular podcasts. One reason why Starmer was able to get the leadership in 2020 was because he was not implicated in New Labour (he was elected in 2015) and has maintained an ambivalent attitude to it although he has become more positive recently, pointing out that Blair won all his elections.

The Miliband-Corbyn era was marked by a turn to new kinds of ideas. There was a real determination to produce a form of ideological renewal which would close the book on New Labour. For example, philosopher Michael Sandel addressed the Labour conference on social justice themes in 2012. There was a strong commitment to what Pike calls the ‘inequality paradigm’ following the 2008 Crash in which the top 1% was blamed for an economic situation that wreaked havoc in the lives of the less well off. After 2015, Corbyn pushed for an even stronger ‘Eat the Rich’ message. The expanding gap between rich and poor in neo-liberal societies had to be dealt with. Thus the presiding intellectual figures were Thomas Piketty and the authors of The Spirit Level i.

The other feature of the Miliband-Corbyn years was the belief that Labour had lost touch with ordinary people. The solution was to put the emphasis on community organising (something that the election of Obama in 2008 had popularised). This is the thread that links both Blue Labour under Miliband and Momentum under Corbyn. The progressive future seemed to be based on bottom-up initiatives which could communicate with people to remedy the decline in the Labour vote that took place under Blair. The irony is that the decade ended with many working-class Labour voters in the so-called Red Wall voting Conservative.

Whilst Pike’s thesis about New Labour’s influence is persuasive there is a sense that this is not what the book is about. Pike really wants to assess where Labour is now but Starmerism is proving a moving target. As he says, it is about ‘a leader still making up his mind’ (12).

In Pike’s view, Starmer’s party is moving on from New Labour and a good thing too. The problem, however, is that Starmer has articulated no vision of the good society that he wants to move to. His approach is always technocratic. Starmer, for example, does not seem all that focused on the idea of community organising. Instead, he peppers his speeches with talk of ‘missions’ but this is not the same things as a vision or an ideology. For example, he speaks of growth but what kind of growth does he want to achieve and who will benefit (44)? Pike argues that it is now time for Labour to move on intellectually from the Blair era. He does, however, argue that Starmer will need to get more serious about tax: the crisis in public services will not be dealt with on the cheap.

New Labour placed a lot of emphasis on the healing power of globalisation. Starmer is more sceptical, acknowledging that many working people have not felt the benefits of this (or membership of the European Union). The talk now is more about devolution, localism, securonomics and respect for the dignity of workers. New institutions like GB Energy are designed to build investment in specific locations. If we look at a figure like Morgan McSweeney, who is directing Labour’s 2024 campaign, his approach is a refutation of New Labour, not a return to it.ii Working people need to be listened to and not lectured to when they fail to be aspirational. The market cannot be expected to solve all problems. Purported improvements in GDP are meaningless unless they are materially reflected in the lives of ordinary people.

There is one sense in which the party shows no inclination to get over Blair. The New Labour approach was always to argue that governments have to deal with the world as it is and not as the left would wish it be. As times change, Labour strategy and solutions must change. Parties that fail to see this will not survive. Pike does not say this but Starmer almost certainly would subscribe to Blair’s mantra about politics: what works? Getting over New Labour is very much an interim statement (and may be employed in the future as a guide to how things looked in early 2024). Other accounts will quickly be written when we know what Starmerism looks like in practice.

Rohan McWilliam is Professor of Modern British History at Anglia Ruskin University and co-director of the Labour History Research Unit.

i Thomas Piketty, Capital in the Twenty First Century (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014); Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett, The Spirit Level: Why Equality is Better for Everyone (London: Penguin, 2009)

ii Tom McTague, ‘The McSweeney Project’.