26 January 2016

Labour is in even more of a mess than Manchester United


Few Prime Ministers have been as obscure as Henry Pelham. Yet he was the eighth longest serving PM, just ahead of Tony Blair. Like Mr Blair, he was continuously in office, and his innings was only terminated by his death. There is an obvious point. Longevity in high office may impress the statisticians. It is not the same as achievement.

Although Tony Blair will never decline into obscurity, he may find it very hard to escape obloquy. He set about reforming the British constitution, without the least idea of his eventual goal. Hence the current crisis in Scotland and the unsatisfactory state of the House of Lords. He embarked upon a dramatic innovation, which ought to be remembered, to ensure that it will never be repeated. Should you have a large enough majority, you can act first and postpone the thinking until later – if ever. So the constitution felt the brute force of his Parliamentary majority, while his successors are still trying to clear up the mess.

Margaret Thatcher would probably have joined in the Iraq War (if she had refused, it would probably not have happened). But she believed in hard thinking and in scrutinising the detail. The price of her support would have been a much more rigorous plan for the post-war phase. That would have given the venture some chance of success. As it was, Britain has never gone to war with such inadequate planning for everything except the actual fighting: the easy bit.

What else did Mr Blair accomplish? There was a huge increase in public spending, without any adequate attempt to secure value for money. Everyone in Whitehall was under pressure to ‘deliver’ – but what, and by when? The only visible form of delivery was headlines, and the Blairites’ attempts to turn the entire civil service into a glorified press office led to widespread demoralisation.

There did seem to be one achievement which would endure. Since its inception, the Labour party had been divided between socialists – many of them Marxists – and social reformers. By the late Eighties, that era seemed to be over. All the Left’s isms had become wasms. Some of the credit was due to Margaret Thatcher who had set out to throw socialism into an electoral skip. But her victory could not be complete unless there was an unconditional surrender by the Labour leadership. That was Tony Blair’s role: presiding over a post-Thatcher Labour party. This did seem irreversible.

Not so. Like a Japanese soldier who had spent decades hiding in the Borneo jungle, waiting for the Imperial Japanese army to return, Jeremy Corbyn emerged blinking into the cameras. He had been hiding in the backbench jungle since the Bennites were defeated in the early eighties. The Japanese survivors were given cups of tea, clean clothes and nurses to help on the journey home. Mr Corbyn was given cups of tea, white tie to wear to the Palace, and the Labour leadership. The nurses were otherwise engaged, treating sensible Labourites for shock. Bennery was resurrected: Blairism, dead. Labour’s most successful election winner had become political toxic waste. Unwelcome in Britain – and above all at Labour party events – he spends his time socialising with international white trash or in a fatuous peace mission to the Middle East. That might help to make him feel that he is still important. It has no purchase on events. These days, he looks drawn, even haunted. Forget the ‘Bambi’ nickname. Now, it is more a matter of ‘after such knowledge, what forgiveness’. Moreover, the Chilcot Report is still to come. Not a scintilla has leaked, but I would be astonished if Mr Blair’s reputation does not receive a further battering.

It is entirely appropriate that Mr Blair’s most important comrade in arms should have been a press officer, Alastair Campbell. Last Wednesday, Mr Campbell wrote an essay in the Guardian, which is well worth reading if you wish to make sense of Blairism. For a start, it is far more revealing than author intended. Its theme is a comparison between Tony Blair and Alex Ferguson. Sir Alex was one of the most successful football managers – of all time, the experts say: the Tony Blair of the football pitch. But as soon as he retired, Manchester United started to decline, just like New Labour. The comparison should not be pushed too far. To the suffering fans, Sir Alex is not an accursed Tony Blair. He is a revered Margaret Thatcher.

Alastair Campbell conveys the glamour of the relationship: directors’ boxes, tickets for special occasions, the Cabinet Secretary helping to expedite Alex Ferguson’s knighthood. But where is the politics? Sir Alex is a Labour supporter, apparently, because his mother died of lung cancer and he blames the Tories. It does not seem to have occurred to him that lung cancer is a merciless illness, no matter who is in power. It would also be interesting to hear his views on the relationship between his socialism and his management techniques, not to mention the salary scales at Manchester United. But those questions would only work if there were some capacity for self-knowledge, not to mention self-criticism. That is wholly absent from the Campbell piece – and, one suspects, from the Campbell/Blair/Ferguson relationship.

Football clearly fascinates Messrs Campbell and Blair. Even Peter Mandelson felt it necessary to attend a football match. The crowd greeted him with derision and obscenities: served him right. The game was one of New Labour’s principal tribal emblems; its tartan, as it were. But this has a deeper significance. In football, all that matters is winning: who is at Wembley, who is top of the league, who is winning in Europe. That was equally true of New Labour. All that matters is winning power, staying in power. What do you do with power? That is easy. Use it to win the next election.

One might have thought that anyone with a feeling for Labourite traditions might be unhappy about the way in which football has come a long way from its original tribal roots in working-class areas, with teams drawn from the area and living in it: their wages not that much higher than a manual worker’s; their loyalties bound up with the Club and its community – their community. Now, football has been swept up by international finance capitalism. Footballers arrive from every continent, as do oligarchic owners. The team sheets would be unrecognisable to the supporters of old. The game which the new Labourites extolled has become a plaything of what old-fashioned socialists would have described as the cash nexus, and they would not have intended that as a compliment.

There is an irony. New Labour had no problem with the way that football was changing. Denis Thatcher did. He never approved of football, or soccer as he would have called it. Influencing his wife in her suspicions of football, he drew the contrast with rugger. It was run by proper people: chaps in tweed coats and barbours and flat caps, who gave up their time for love of the game. The other code was controlled by flashy characters in astrakhan coats and gold jewellery who gave up their time for ego and spivvery.

None of that was true of Alex Ferguson. His origins were in old-fashioned communitarian football. So were Alastair Campbell’s. He supports some obscure Northern side which is unlikely to find itself playing Real Madrid. His Labour roots were equally old-fashioned. But today, he cannot understand what has happened. Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters want to take back their club. They are not interested in winning at all costs. They want to win for a purpose and they are not interested in sucking up to spivs. Alastair Campbell cannot understand any of that. If one was to summarise his argument, it would be as follows: ‘Why can’t we return to the socialism of the directors’ box?’

Bruce Anderson is a political commentator.