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The sickness at the heart of New Labour

Always ill, disowned by their own partners and children, forever moaning about ‘workloads’… the new crop of diaries from Blairite politicians shows that the Blair regime had no idea where it was going or what it believed in.

James Heartfield

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According to Schopenhauer, the first half of your life is like looking at an intricately woven carpet, full of dense and dazzling designs; and the second half of your life is like looking at the same carpet from the other side, seeing the hotchpotch of dangling threads that are there to create the patterns that so enthralled you.

In the case of the Blair administration, the dazzling design wore out pretty quickly, and we could all see the threadbare rag that was not quite holding the thing together. The new crop of Blair-era memoirs, though, are still a surprise – it is hard to believe how close they all were to just giving up. The administration’s critics have railed against the government as if it was a determined conspiracy, out to crush both truth and the people of Iraq. But in the recollections of Blair’s spindoctor-in-chief Alastair Campbell and the RESPECT-defeated Bethnal Green member of parliament Oona King, it is clear that they were stumbling towards Baghdad, not conspiring at all.

Both King and Campbell were hate figures for the left: Campbell because he was the frontman for Blair’s most disreputable acts, like tearing up the party’s constitutional commitment to nationalise industry (‘Clause Four’), destroying scientific adviser David Kelly’s reputation, and getting the BBC director-general Greg Dyke sacked. Oona King was, as she tells us at length, unjustly denounced as the chief apologist of Blair’s war in Iraq, and a secret donor of her MP salary to the state of Israel. They are, on paper at least, both rather likeable characters, if for different reasons.

Certainly, the Socialist Workers’ Party branch at the University of York must have been delighted when it first recruited the young Oona King – a strident, cheerful, pretty champion of all of the underdog causes that the SWP loved. She was the daughter of a radical black American academic who had been forced to flee prosecution by the US draft board and of a liberal Jewish mother. Young Oona was a super-radical volunteer and was on the church steps when the military regime in El Salvador gunned down Archbishop Romero. Any cause would have been pleased to have somebody as driven on board.

Campbell’s charms are a bit different, and probably not that apparent to the radically-minded. That is because they, even more than the Tories, were the target of his comic mockery and intolerance of pretension. But even Campbell was a lot more radical at the outset than where he ended up.

To my mind, though, much more irritating than New Labour’s flagged-up betrayals of principle is its inherent sickliness. They all seem to be sick, all of the time. Overworked, they call it. Oona King’s most important intervention into party political life was an appeal to reduce the working hours of MPs. Alastair Campbell was prey to enduring depression that overwhelmed him in his work, and which he could only fend off with punishing exercise regimes. That much is to his credit. King found it even harder to cope with the stress, getting her aunt – former TV doctor and agony aunt Miriam Stoppard – to prescribe her lithium.

The sickliness was only symptomatic of a more enduring moral failing at the heart of the Blair administration. The truth was that the work was no more, and probably less, than it was in the past. King says that old Labour politicians, like George Brown or Tom Driberg, were personal wrecks and drunks, as they indeed often were. But the reason why King and Campbell always seem to be on the verge of succumbing to ill-health has less to do with workload, and more to do with their attitude towards it. It is because they have no real sense of mission that they ended up fruitlessly dissipating their energies, instead of setting real priorities. ‘Bored, demotivated and depressed’, says Campbell of himself in 2001, ‘not sure I was up for it any more’.

In Campbell’s recollections of Tony Blair’s personal foibles, self-pity is closely associated with egotism and touchiness. Blair was ‘prone to thinking he was always right’, according to Campbell, and also a bit of a celeb-chaser: ‘Why couldn’t they just chill out without always having to see famous people?’ When Cardinal Basil Hume objects to Blair taking communion in a Catholic church, Blair writes back ‘I wonder what Our Lord will make of this’ – as though He did not have better things to worry about. Later Campbell had to persuade Blair not to write an article rebutting a Guardian cartoon. When the Womens’ Institute booed him, Blair looked ‘hurt and worried’, says Campbell, concerned he ‘was no longer even loved or understood’.

It is painfully apparent in King’s description of the demands of constituency life that she is overwhelmed precisely because she is at the mercy of her own unfocused and generalised compassion. Poverty – like overcrowding, common in the Tower Hamlets and Bethnal Green areas of London that King represented – overwhelms her. Not that she does anything useful about it. On hearing that the Chinese build new towns in 18 months, King wonders ‘why can’t we do it here to solve the housing crisis?’; but the barriers seem to her to be insurmountable. King reacts to her constituents’ problems with generosity at first (a generosity that it might have been more genuine not to publish), but very quickly with resentment: ‘When I talk to low-income families, they’re just angry we haven’t given more. I was starting to get exasperated.’ She seems to view her constituents as ungrateful, moaning: ‘My workload is at least five times that of the average MP, and do I get any thanks for it?’

On a larger scale, the dynamic of New Labour’s relationship to the public can be seen in Campbell’s recollections of the focus-group reports put together by pollster Philip Gould. Gould’s focus groups were strategically important in the struggle between ‘old’ and ‘new’ Labour in the mid-Nineties. Then, Gould’s focus groups were regularly cited as evidence that Labour was out of touch. More than a few Labour activists came to resent the way that these unelected, arbitrarily-chosen, guided and issue-fed focus groups had somehow got a bigger say in Labour policy than party members or even MPs. Still the leadership faced down its critics with the focus-group reports in hand. It should not be a surprise to hear, though, that the focus groups were continued once Labour was in office, and that the results were not so readily bandied about. In Campbell’s memoirs, Gould’s name is generally associated with groaning frustration at the electorate’s lamentable inability to get with the programme. Faced with hostile focus groups, Blair insists that ‘the problems were perception, not real’. In Dumfries, he is harried by women with home-made placards saying ‘Blair, you are a cunt’. ‘In the end there are big people and little people’, Blair explains. ‘The big people do big things and the little people do little things.’

What Oona King does not really explain is that she got to be an MP in east London because the Labour Party hierarchy set out to dismantle the power base that local Bengali politicians had made for themselves in the constituency. In particular, it was assumed that the job would have been a shoo-in for Jalal Uddin, who had put together the local machine with the mosques (this machine itself a replacement for the old, and somewhat whiter trade union and council tenant links that once sustained the Bethnal Green and Stepney constituency of Peter Shore). However, Uddin was wrong-footed when the party imposed a women-only shortlist in the selection process – a decision that was later overturned, but which seems to have helped signal that the leadership wanted someone less beholden to the local scene. The local Labour Party makes no appearance in King’s diary except to pass irritating anti-war resolutions; only the local office features, with its over-stretched staff, failing to keep the needy public from demanding a piece of their MP. A more dynamic local party – the kind that was wound down to make way for King – would have dealt with a lot of the calls upon her.

For Blair, the Labour Party is always a drag. Even before he was elected, Blair moaned about the Shadow Cabinet. ‘What am I going to do with these people?’, he said, and ‘These are not serious people at all’. ‘I’ll have to tell them that if they cannot be trusted to have serious discussions in the Shadow Cabinet, we won’t have them’, Blair declared. Later, on hearing that the Parliamentary Labour Party might not be keen on war, Blair asks: ‘Are they mad?’

Nor, when they are in trouble, do these New Labour politicians get a lot of support from their nearest and dearest. Uncharitably, you might think, King lets us hear her husband’s charmless moaning about the time she spends at the Houses of Parliament or in the constituency office. Not only did Alastair Campbell’s partner Fiona Millar constantly attack him for selling out socialism, she resigned from her job as Labour adviser over the Iraq war (‘the last straw’ is how she described it) which Campbell was charged with promoting. King suffers, too, as her best friend Quincy and her father both fall out with her over her support for the war. Campbell’s son Calum watches the news and ‘asks why we are killing Iraqi children’. In fact, it is hard to understand why the Labour Party did support the war, given the hostility to it in the party’s most intimate corners.

The dynamic towards international conflict can be discerned in these memoirs, but not in the way it is generally understood (as, say, a ‘war for oil’ or some other Grand Strategy explanation). What stands out is just how much time these politicians spend overseas.

One can understand it in the prime minister, though his polling analyst Philip Gould ‘asked him direct whether he enjoyed dealing more with foreign policy than domestic, because that was what he felt’, Campbell records. Pointedly, Blair does not take the point, insisting that there is not the same separation between domestic and international politics post-9/11. Later, Blair begins to feel frustration ‘going on about parking Iraq, and then getting a proper focus on Home Office and asylum’. ‘This was real Groundhog Day’, moans Campbell. During the conflict in Kosovo in 1999, Blair worries that ‘we are losing our drive and crunch on domestic issues’.

King, on the other hand, who was only MP for Bethnal Green and Bow, has fewer reasons to spend time overseas. Okay, the trips to Bangladesh make some sense (given her constituency’s links with the region) but, for someone who complains about her workload, King seems to have chosen to spend a lot of time in Rwanda and lots of other places. Her wide-angle compassion is placed entirely at the disposal of the Rwandan government, which has endless atrocity exhibitions left over from the slaughter in 1994 to pin her down. That there might be a problem with the minority Tutsi-dominated government of Paul Kagame, and its involvement in persecuting Hutus, does not feature in King’s diaries. At one point she explains that her involvement in Ann Clwyd’s development work has led her on a four-day hike to meet some Pygmies, except that, to the Pygmies’ utter disappointment, Clwyd and King have only left five minutes to hear their grievances. The point of the anecdote is that their concern was constrained by a Western-style time-driven schedule. More to the point is what did they think they could do there in the first place? But then, that is the point. The reason that King, like Blair, is so fixated on abroad is not straightforward. This is a displacement activity, to supplement their uncertainty about how to engage the voters at home.

King complains that George Galloway, who led the RESPECT Coalition that unseated her in the 2005 General Election, spent no time in Bethnal Green, preferring to give a speaking tour in the US. But she is oblivious to the fact that she herself is the model of a politician who is always flying out of the constituency. In the next breath she repeats Rwandan Prime Minister Kagame’s disappointment that they have lost the MP for Bow.

The overseas ventures have the appeal that they are big dramatic struggles where, it seems, the lines of right and wrong are clearly drawn, and the enemies are all delineated in black and white. And this is just what jaded politicos who have forgotten why they got involved in politics in the first place really need. In April 1999, EU representative Javier de Solana suggested that Europeans were in danger of losing the propaganda war against Milosevic over Kosovo, after NATO blew up a convoy of refugees. They needed to make their own contribution to the war in Kosovo against Milosevic, suggesting to Blair ‘send me your man Campbell’. Jack Straw explains that what NATO needs is spin: ‘Some good old-fashioned Millbank discipline instilled in them.’ Pretty quickly, Campbell gets into the swing of things, arguing that Milosevic’s ‘media machine was a legitimate target’; on these instructions, Belgrade TV was bombed, and recalcitrant journos killed. Pointedly, Campbell needs outright humiliation to make the intervention worthwhile and spends his time sabotaging potential peace deals (‘some dreadful deal’; ‘a messy deal’). The attractions were clear enough, as Campbell ‘got together some refugee families’. ‘What was moving was their clear gratitude’ – so unlike the voters back home.

While the wars seemed straightforward, the domestic political machinery seems to be difficult and unyielding. Struggling to ‘stay focused on the domestic and public services’, Blair worried that ‘departments were slowing and slacking a bit’ while ‘so much media focus was on the international’. Blair, predictably, felt a strong desire to short-circuit the complicated business of political management: ‘TB wanted a more centralised system, or at least one where Number 10 could pull levers more effectively in departments.’ ‘He was really fed up with it all, in a rage at departments who he felt took their feet off the accelerators once we were preoccupied with something else’, says Campbell. But Blair was just railing at the problem he had created by refocusing the government’s attention on to the international sphere.

It is surprising to read that Blair was thinking of resigning before 11 September 2001, telling Campbell on 4 July that it was ‘not impossible that I will be gone in a couple of years’. Oona King planned to resign in January of the same year. Indeed, it was the al-Qaeda attack on the Twin Towers in New York that reinvigorated Blair’s premiership. At last he had a mission, ‘a diplomatic strategy to support the US’. To the critics it has often seemed that Blair was craven to President Bush – and no doubt he was on the detail – but that is to misunderstand the basic motives of the Blair position on Iraq. It was not that it was the US that was under attack. It was that this was the opportunity for Britain, and for Blair in particular, to make a mark. ‘If leadership was important’, writes Campbell, ‘here was a real opportunity to show it’.

It was the need for a cause that drove Blair, Oona King, Alastair Campbell and the rest of the Labour Party to support the Iraq war. Campbell makes it clear that Blair set out to try to steer the US ‘in a sensible path’, and in particular, after 9/11, to differentiate the response to the Taliban in Afghanistan and Saddam in Iraq. ‘We had to separate these two missions’, records Campbell on 13 September 2001. Later, it was Blair’s commitment to international action that led him to insist that it is all one war against terror.

Humanitarian intervention gave the Blair government the purpose that it otherwise lacked. But in time, the disconnect between the voters and the politicians would focus on exactly this issue. Generalised public discontent with the Blair administration came to a head in the opposition to the war in Iraq. This was the point that marooned Oona King, making her heavily Muslim constituency the target for her old comrades in the SWP, now allied with George Galloway in the RESPECT Coalition.

In Blair’s case, the disengagement is made clear not by outright depression, like his lieutenant’s, but by a nonchalant announcement that he would resign. The discussion began in Downing Street as early as 11 June 2002, and by the next month Blair was referring coyly to ‘La Grande Stratégie’, though his advisers tried to talk him out of it on the grounds that ministers would naturally gravitate towards Gordon Brown. The real meaning of the pre-announced resignation was that Blair and his administration, like their supporters, had lost belief in themselves. It is clear in Oona King’s irritable reflection on her position as a ‘pro-war’ MP, too. After spending months being harried by Galloway’s RESPECT (what did she think they would do, you wonder?) King makes a show of saying that she is personally grateful that he beat her, and that she can walk away from the job any time she wants. This is the same attitude that informs Blair’s affected insouciance. On the eve of the big London protests against the war, he tells his staff that ‘we just had to hold the line and defend ourselves from a moral point of view’ – in other words, the contest for public opinion has already been lost, and it was only they themselves that needed assuring they had done the right thing.

James Heartfield is a writer based in London. Visit his website here.

The Blair Years: Extracts from the Alastair Campbell Diaries by Alastair Campbell is published by Hutchinson. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

The Oona King Diaries: House Music by Oona King is published by Bloomsbury. (Buy this book from Amazon(UK).)

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