It is perhaps natural that New Labour, a political tendency best associated with obsessive spin and image-management, has garnered a unique degree of media study and fascination. No other government has been the subject of so many column inches, books, and documentaries. Tony Blair alone has been the subject of dozens of biographies and television profiles—some fawning, some condemnatory, and some simply baffled by his ideological and personal complexities.
The BBC’s new five-part series Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution is just the latest offering from this industry of gossip, speculation, and legacy-creation, albeit one with the unique achievement of featuring almost every major figure involved. But beyond the now iconic images of the New Labour years, there are some moments of real insight, and an overarching—if unintended—lesson for the politics of the Left.
What we are offered in this documentary series is in essence a hagiography of New Labour, which, even when critical, seems to portray more a romantic tragedy (particularly in the last years of the Brown government) than a damning account of failure. In establishing the New Labour brand, the documentary’s first episode charts not only Blair and Brown’s personal development as politicians, but also the old familiar territory of Labour history: now often tropes within New Labour’s own account of events.
The story begins in the aftermath of Labour’s 1983 landslide defeat, where the Left was symbolically humiliated, and Blair and Brown first entered Parliament. There is of course the old familiar story of Blair and Brown as office buddies, and then fierce political allies.
Anything at odds with the natural progression and ultimate triumph of their politics is simultaneously dismissed. The 1984-5 miners’ strike is portrayed as an embarrassing nuisance rather than a struggle that enjoyed almost unprecedented levels of sympathy and solidarity in the wider labour movement. The leadership of Neil Kinnock (who led the party to two general election defeats) is praised for laying the foundations for party ‘modernisation’, while John Smith’s brief and tragic tenure is dismissed as hopelessly complacent and out of touch.
To an uninformed viewer, it would be easy to believe that before Blair and Brown Labour didn’t even want to win elections, let alone have the capacity to do it. John Smith’s twenty-two point polling leads by the time of his death are not mentioned.
By episode two, after the Shakespearian ‘Granita Pact’ between Blair and Brown is ploughed over again, the old familiar images of the 1997 election win are quickly deployed, capturing the euphoric high of victory from which that many on the party’s Right have still yet to come down. But at this moment of historic triumph, Blair offers a revealing anecdote. During the celebrations, someone told him that now ‘anything was possible’. Blair replied, ‘Like what?’
The overarching story of New Labour—perhaps not deliberately told in this documentary, but implicit throughout—is of a wasted opportunity. Despite winning the greatest landslide in British history, with an unassailable parliamentary majority, Blair frequently appeared bereft of a clear political mission, or any desire to enact the radical change so many people hoped for. The promise of a new kind of politics after the sleaze of John Major’s government was undermined in just a few years from scandals like Lobbygate, the Ecclestone Affair, and the multiple resignations of Peter Mandelson. Meanwhile, at almost the very moment of triumph, the Blair and Brown partnership which had been so effective in winning power first in the party and then across the country deteriorated into a destructive and frequently tedious psychodrama.
As Richard Wilson (Blair’s cabinet secretary, and by far one of the most insightful of contributors to the programme) argues, even some of New Labour’s greatest, and perhaps most radical legacies were issues Blair cared little about. Devolution to Scotland and Wales, the reform of the House of Lords, the Freedom of Information Act, and the Minimum Wage are barely mentioned. Instead, Blair’s focus was first on an impatient programme of ideologically quixotic public sector reform, and then on the international stage.
For a man who demonstrates throughout an unshakeable, and ever-growing, sense of self-belief, it is perhaps unsurprising that the world stage was where he found his clearest sense of personal, ideological mission. For example, in the third episode we are told a story of the Good Friday Agreement which makes just a passing reference to the work of Mo Mowlam and is seen as solely the result of Blair’s unique leadership and messiah complex. In other areas of foreign affairs, Blair’s self-confidence led to disastrous results.
In painful detail, episode four outlines how the British government marched towards the Iraq War, an event greeted almost immediately by moral outrage and condemnation. Here, New Labour’s gift for (and pride in) the dark art of spin doctoring was most effectively deployed with the so-called ‘dodgy dossier’ of faulty, misrepresented or ‘sexed up’ intelligence. This allowed the British public to believe that Saddam Hussein not only possessed Weapons of Mass Destruction, but could deploy them within forty-five minutes.
As we all know, despite the largest public demonstrations in British history, Britain invaded Iraq, leading to the death of hundreds of thousands. While Blair never fully admits it, it is of no doubt he appears at least personally haunted by the decision. The traumatic calamity and futility of it all is perhaps best demonstrated by his change in tone when publicly discussing the war. Whereas in the past he maintained a sense of moral certainty, the best he can now offer is a plea for others to at least understand his side of the argument.
While it is perhaps unwise to dwell too much on the personal character of New Labour’s key figures, it is clear that Blair’s sense of personal ability was a driving force throughout, and beyond the moral outrage of Iraq, this had a corrosive effect elsewhere. As his belief in his own ability grew, Blair became increasingly out of touch with his own party, and eventually the country as a whole.
Blair once he possessed an impressive skill in presenting his adaptation to neoliberal orthodoxy as a socialist cause, but by the end of his tenure, his speeches to the party were reduced to hectoring. Eventually, he seemed to relish his unpopularity just as much as his early, record-breaking popularity, taking it as a demonstration of his strong leadership or his visionary, forward-thinking modernism.
Given that Blair infamously appeared frequently at odds with Labour’s traditions, procedures and values, Gordon Brown is presented as a more identifiably ‘labourist’ politician. The son of a Scottish minister, he had been steeped in Labour politics from a young age, and was first motivated into action upon witnessing the horrors of poverty in his hometown of Kirkcaldy. Throughout this documentary, there is a clear sense that Brown maintained a commitment to social justice, but one achieved through the flawed mechanism of neoliberal capitalism.
Where commendable increases in public spending were made, they came after years of unnecessary fiscal prudence, designed to placate the fiscal conservatism of the British public, who, in reality, simply wanted better funded public services. Any increases in welfare spending came at the cost of sacrificing age-old values of universalism, and the arrival of flawed, cruel, and discriminatory systems of means testing.
For all the accounts of New Labour as the most redistributionist post-war government, such commendable achievements are undermined by its consistent failure to promote these positive developments out of fear of public opinion, leaving popular consensus on public spending unmoved, and neoliberalism’s hegemony untouched. We are left to wonder why Blair and Brown, men who appear to have possessed unique abilities to persuade their party to enter uncharted political territory, never attempted the same persuasion on the British public.
As such, New Labour, demonstrated an endemic inability to see beyond the short term, and was constantly subject to crises of its own making. Control freakery in party management alienated party members, the invasion of Iraq permanently damaged Labour’s image in the eyes of younger voters, and Blair’s own impatient campaign for a lasting legacy after 2005 even alienated enough loyalist support to force his early departure. And, as bitterly shown by episode five, the ‘Faustian pact’ Labour struck with the City of London, which allowed light-touch regulation in return for higher welfare spending and tax credits, was destroyed by the 2008 financial crisis.
Blair and Brown’s pessimistic hostility to challenging public attitudes on government spending left the government, and Brown in particular, vulnerable to Conservative attack by 2010, and legitimised the culture of austerity that has savaged the country’s social fabric ever since. The final emotional scenes of the series, with Brown departing No.10 in gracious defeat, risks portraying him as a martyr to unchallengeable political forces, rather than a victim of his own short-termist policy decisions.
Beyond the soundbites and psychodrama, the real story of New Labour is therefore of a government which came into office on an almost unprecedented wave of public goodwill, hope, and expectation, and following a brief period of real and commendable reform, embarked in a political direction of ever increasing neoliberalisation and foreign adventurism.
This, alongside a culture that made a virtue of spin, deception, and manipulation, eroded support both within the party and across the country. Perhaps most fundamentally, the culture of political deception, beginning first with the Bernie Ecclestone affair and ending with Iraq, shook the nation’s faith in the integrity of politicians and the political process. This vacuum of public confidence in establishment politics was subsequently filled by the populist right.
The brief progressive alternative (in the form of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party) was defeated in just five years, not helped least by New Labour’s leaders and most loyal acolytes. It is not clear when a new manifestation of radical politics will re-emerge in any real strength.
Yet, despite the legacy of bitter disappointment and disillusionment, New Labour maintains an ability to hog the media limelight, as the very existence of this series shows. The monthly public interventions of Tony Blair and the remarkable public rehabilitation of Alistair Campbell are obvious examples, but so too is Gordon Brown’s more recent re-invention as a radical campaigner on issues like Covid, climate change, and devolution.
Much of this comes from a place of deep nostalgia, as the obsession with 1997 best captures: not the actual, real legacies of New Labour’s policies, but the feeling it created. As Keir Starmer surrounds himself once again with the key personnel of New Labour, and even the very language of its now decades-old soundbites, it’s clear this nostalgia has a firm grip on the party’s very leadership. The uncomfortable fact remains that New Labour is not the solution to the crises currently facing Labour or the country, but a key cause of them.