Media Review: The Transformation of Labour
Taylor, Gary, Contemporary Review
In the opinion of almost all politicians and political commentators, Britain will almost certainly have a General Election sometime this year, most likely within the next few months. Since 1997 British politics has been dominated by Tony Blair. In the late 1980s during Margaret Thatcher's long premiership most observers saw little prospect of Labour ever returning to power. Now many of those very observers pronounce the same verdict on the Conservatives.
In the following articles two British academics discuss the effects of Tony Blair and New Labour on British politics. Gary Taylor shows how the media portrayed the transformation of the traditional Labour Party into Tony Blair's New Labour. The worst crisis suffered by the Blair government, the fuel protests of last autumn, is the only time the Tory opposition surpassed Labour in the opinion polls. Fred Nash sees an additional perspective to that crisis: the declining role of Parliament in British politics.
WHEN Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party in 1994, he took charge of a party in the process of transforming itself. The Labour Party had been out of office since 1979, and did not regain political power until 1997. Mrs. Thatcher transformed the political landscape of Britain, and made it unfashionable to hold onto overtly socialist ideas. Like the Conservative government of 1992-1997, the Labour Party suffered from extreme internal divisions. These were aired in public and contributed to a sense of despair amongst Labour supporters, and a general feeling that the Labour Party could not be trusted with national political power. This transformation of the Labour Party has been covered by the broadcast media in Blair's Thousand Days (BBC2, 2000), Denis Healey: The Man Who Did the Dirty Work (UK Horizons, 1999), Confessions of a Spindoctor (Channel 4, 1999), The Real Peter Mandelson (Channel 4, 1999), If John Smith Had Lived (Channel 4, 1999), A Night to Remember (Channel 4, 1998), Bye. Bye Blues (Channel 4, 1997), Labour's Old Romantic: A Film Portrait of Michael Foot (BBC2,1997), and The Wilderness Years (BBC2, 1995). These documentaries capture at least some of the frustration and heartache of those who were called upon to abandon some of their cherished beliefs in the interests of making the party electable once more.
The Labour Party was in tatters following the 1979 election. The Labour government of 1974-1979 fell after a series of economic problems and industrial disputes which culminated in the so-called 'winter of discontent' when public sector workers went on strike against the government's pay award. The veteran Labour MP Peter Shore claimed that rival explanations of the 1979 election defeat shattered the unity of the Labour Party. On the right, people like the former Chancellor of the Exchequer Denis Healey claimed that the working class had turned against the unions and voted for Mrs Thatcher because they were disgusted with what the unions had done during the 'winter of discontent'. On the left, Tony Benn argued that the unions had felt let down by the Labour government. The Labour leadership was accused of betraying the workers, and of abandoning socialism. This gave rise to a virtual civil war in the party.
The left was determined to revolutionise the party and regain a sense of purpose that had appeared lacking since the time of Clement Attlee's Labour government of 1945-1951. Benn believed that the Labour leadership had become too elitist and that it should be forced to abide by the decisions of the party conference. He was disillusioned with the Labour leadership and had told Prime Minister James Callaghan prior to the General Election that he wanted to return to the back benches rather than take a place in the Cabinet/Shadow Cabinet. He believed that the campaign to reform the Labour Party was a popular uprising with its roots in the tradition of working class struggle. He fought for the right of individual members to select their candidates, to determine policy and to sack ineffective party leaders.
Tony Benn alienated many members of the Labour right. Denis Healey, one of his most outspoken adversaries, described Benn as a 'feudal socialist'; an upper class critic of bourgeois society and persuasive speaker who would always be ineffective in politics because he failed to understand that the world was changing. Joe Ashton, a Labour MP with far more definite working class roots, claimed that Benn was guilty of side-tracking the Labour Party from real issues. It was far more important to tackle such things as unemployment than to waste time arguing about who should pick the leader of the party. Many on the right argued that Benn's reforms would do nothing to democratise the party, and warned that it would make the party less representative of ordinary members. Gerald Kaufman claimed that the Bennites wanted to turn the Labour Party into a Stalinist party; controlled, not by 'the people', but by inner-party organisations. It is clear that many on the right feared Labour's grass roots. Denis Healey warned t hat constituency activists were by no means representative of 'ordinary' members of the party. David Owen, the former Foreign Secretary, added to this barrage of criticism. He objected to the Bennites for wanting to turn MPs into delegates under the control of their constituency parties. According to Owen, this was 'outrageous' as it would increase the power of a minority of left wing activists in the constituencies.
Despite these criticisms, the left was beginning to gain in confidence. If the conference could dictate party policy, then many Labour MPs would have to shift their ideological position. The existing leadership of the party were chilled by this prospect. James Callaghan, who had been Prime Minister between 1976-1979, responded to the rise of the left by resigning from his position as party leader. The timing of his resignation was crucial for it meant that a new leader would be elected according to the old rules. Only Labour MPs could vote for the new leader. The Bennites argued that this would be an illegitimate election because it failed to involve the party conference. Benn therefore refused to stand for Callaghan's position. Callaghan wanted Healey as his successor, but Healey's abrasive style offended too many people. Healey recalled that he had made far too many enemies during his time as Chancellor of the Exchequer because he had been forced to cut public expenditure. Michael Foot therefore agreed to stand to prevent a permanent split in the Labour Party.
Foot was a reluctant candidate. He had been an influential spokesman of the left since the 1950s, but his reputation suffered greatly in the run-up to the winter of discontent. In 1974, he became Secretary of State for Employment in the Callaghan government. His job was to implement a prices and incomes policy in an attempt to curb inflation. Foot gained the temporary support of the unions, but this support began to wane when the Labour government pushed for ever tighter limits on wage demands. He recalled that he considered his inability to maintain union support the worst mistake of his political career. By 1980, Foot was jaded by his experiences in the Callaghan government. He was reluctant to stand in the leadership election, but had more support from constituency activists and trade unionists than his nearest rivals. Healey claimed that Foot belonged to the tradition of aristocratic radicals of the nineteenth century. He was described as a 'romantic', who lacked touch with reality. But Foot was seen as a conciliator, who would heal divisions in the party. When he became leader, he acknowledged the importance of the right wing in the party by making Denis Healey his deputy.
At the 1980 conference, the Labour left won a decisive victory. Benn's plans for extending democratic participation and accountability in the party gained the support of conference. The leader was to be chosen by an electoral college comprising MPs and trade unions, and the compulsory re-selection of MPs was introduced. The right were devastated. Already disgusted by the party's demands for the withdrawal of Britain from the European Community, the right argued that the Labour Party was being taken over by Trotskyites. Denis Healey was convinced that if he had been leader of the Labour Party, he could have maintained the support of the right. The right, however, began a series of private meetings in the flat of Shirley Williams, which prepared the ground for them pulling out of the Labour Party. In January 1981, they announced the formation of the Social Democratic Party (SDP). The left responded by accusing the SDP of attempting to destroy the Labour Party.
The left and right were unable to find common ground. Jack Straw claims that in the period between 1981-1983, the Labour Party suffered from a collective nervous breakdown. In April 1981, Tony Bean challenged Denis Healey for the deputy leadership of the party. He claimed that he was motivated by policy issues. In particular, he wanted to use the position to push forward his plans for full employment, and as a platform to attack Britain's involvement in the European Community and Britain's willingness to host American military bases. He announced his decision without consulting his supporters in the Tribune group. Michael Foot was outraged. He thought that it would further undermine the unity of the party.
Benn and Healey approached the campaign in very different ways. Benn addressed public meetings on the People's March for Jobs, and fringe meetings at trade union conferences. Healey wooed the union leadership, and aimed at securing union block votes. He was heckled at the People's March for Jobs by Bean's supporters. Healey claimed that he fought a lot harder for the deputy leadership than he did for the leadership because he felt that Tony Bean would have destroyed the Labour Party and contributed to a mass defection to the SDP. Neil Kinnock, a member of the left wing Tribune group, believed that Bean's challenge for the deputy leadership was disastrous for party unity. He attacked Bean in the Tribune and stated that he would not vote for Bean. This alienated the hard left but soothed the right and centre of the party. Kinnock was accused of being a 'Judas'.
The Labour Party was not ready for the General Election of 1983. When the election was called in May 1983, the Labour Party lacked a manifesto. A shadow cabinet meeting was convened, and a manifesto drafted which reflected many of the key aims of the left. The manifesto supported unilateral disarmament, the abolition of the House of Lords, withdrawal from the European Community, compulsory planning and the introduction of a command economy. Michael Foot believed that such a manifesto would give a Labour government the necessary power to deal with economic problems. Although the manifesto reflected the ideas of the left, it was supported by many on the right. They supported the manifesto, not out of conviction, but in the belief that Labour was about to lose the election because of Mrs. Thatcher's popularity following the Falklands War. It made perfect sense, therefore, to use this opportunity to discredit left wing ideas and thus re-capture the party for the right.
Michael Foot ran a disappointing campaign, which consisted of a speaking tour of Britain. His emphasis upon increasing taxation, withdrawing from Europe, and nuclear disarmament did much to consolidate the support of the left, but failed to swing the political centre towards the Labour Party. Robert Worcester, of the MORI poll, claimed that Foot's preoccupation with unilateral disarmament was particularly damaging to the Labour Party, and that every time Foot spoke Labour went down in the polls. Foot told his colleagues that this was his opportunity to get across his views on nuclear arms. According to Worcester, Foot was more interested in this issue than in being Prime Minister.
Many believed that Foot was an electoral liability because of the clumsy way he dealt with the media. He is often associated with turning up to a Remembrance Day parade in a 'donkey jacket', though Foot denies that he intended any disrespect and claims that the media created a fake sensation. Denis Healey believes that Foot failed to come across as a good party leader on television. He gave the impression of being a romantic rebel rather than a person of prime ministerial stature. The Sun was rather more cutting. It asked: 'Do you seriously want this old man to run Britain?'. Foot was aware that he lacked the skills necessary to gain the support of the broadcast media. He claimed that he had a problem with television and that it was '...a general disability I had as a leader'.
Whereas Foot concentrated upon mass rallies and active campaigning, the Conservatives employed the advertising firm of Saatchi and Saatchi to run an American-style presidential campaign. Sir Tim Bell, chairman of Saatchi and Saatchi, claimed that the Labour Party was out of touch with the nature of modern politics and mistrusted modern presentation techniques, believing that they were simply ways of misleading the public.
The election of June 1983 decimated the Labour Party. Labour attracted its lowest share of the vote since 1935, and the Conservatives attained a majority of 144. Even veterans like Tony Benn lost their seats. Although the campaign for deputy leadership had created personal animosity between Healey and Benn, when Benn lost his Bristol seat Healey supported Benn's candidature at the Chesterfield by-election. The left and right remained evident in the party, though it was clear that the Labour Party was ready for a new leader. Although Michael Foot's personal integrity was beyond doubt, he lacked support in the media and seemed out of touch with the rapidly changing political climate. He tendered his resignation as party leader, though he remained on the back benches until 1992.
In October 1983, Neil Kinnock was elected leader of the Labour Party. He was known as an amiable and fun loving man, though the press crucified him for lacking a 'statesman' image. He was accused, moreover, of being an 'intellectual lightweight'. Peter Shore argued that Kinnock had adopted left wing views in a doctrinaire fashion, rather than because they were ideas he had worked out for himself. Bryan Gould, a sympathetic observer, claimed that Kinnock should have been allowed to develop his own ideas and play to his own strengths. Instead, he was forced to change.
Although Kinnock began on the left, he took the Labour Party into the political centre. Tony Benn complained that Kinnock chose to deal with the left by moving the party to the right. The Labour right also doubted his sincerity. The right were said to believe that Kinnock did not deserve to lead the party. He was thought to be too populist and far too ambitious. He encountered a number of serious challenges during the early years of his leadership. During the miners' strike of 1984, Kinnock found himself in a difficult position. Unable to criticise trade union action, he was unwilling to condone the action of the miners as the strike had taken place without a ballot. His reluctance to support the miners stirred up hatred and bitterness towards Kinnock amongst some sections of the labour movement. Kinnock responded by turning on the left.
In 1985, Liverpool city council was controlled by members of the Militant Tendency who were accused of corruption and giving jobs to their political supporters. Kinnock was determined to undermine the Militant's position in the Labour Party. The Militant Tendency's association with the Labour Party was viewed as an electoral liability. Kinnock sent members of his team to investigate Militant activity in Liverpool, and at the party conference in September 1985 he launched a frontal attack on the Tendency. Liverpool city council had sent out redundancy notices to avoid central government limits being placed upon local rates. According to Kinnock, this was 'playing politics' with people's jobs and services. The left interpreted this accusation as a sign of 'treachery', but it did a great deal to gain the support of the Labour right. Kinnock followed up with a series of 'hearings' into the Militant. These resulted in the expulsion of key members of the Militant Tendency from the Labour Party. This gained the sup port of influential left wingers in the party. David Blunkett, for example, claimed that the expulsions of Militant members was necessary to save the legitimate left in the party.
Once again, the Labour Party was seen in disarray. The party became desperate to change its image, and in November 1985 Peter Mandelson became Director of Communications for the Labour Party. Mandelson had experience of and contacts in the media. He had been one of the producers on London Weekend Television's Weekend World, and had some insight into the existing attitudes of the electorate. Mandelson pledged to let no slanted reporting of the Labour Party go unchallenged. He was convinced, from very early on, that the Labour Party should abandon many of its left wing ideas and policies. The changes that took place, however, were more to do with presentation than policy. For example, the red rose replaced the red flag as the party's symbol. This was viewed by some as the triumph of style over substance. The public, moreover, did not warm to these cosmetic changes to the party. The party issued conflicting messages over foreign policy and taxation, and it was argued that the public did not like Kinnock's image and that the Labour Party's talk of unemployment and poverty was unpopular given the relative prosperity of British society in the mid-1980s. The Conservatives were thus returned to office in 1987 with a majority of 102 seats.
Following its third successive electoral defeat, the Labour Party turned to transforming its policy platform. Labour MPs and activists toured the country in the hope of gaining some understanding of popular views. The 'Labour listens' campaign was inaugurated to get the views of 'ordinary people'. The Labour left argued that it was designed to dilute and abandon the socialist heritage of the party. Benn pointed out that the campaign made no serious attempt to get left wing opinions across. Instead, it polled views that essentially mirrored the conservative media. Gerald Kaufman, on the right of the party, claimed that the votes of the poor, the deprived and the ethnic minorities were not enough for the Labour Party to win elections. He said that these votes have to be supplemented by getting the support of more affluent sections of the community. The left and right differed in the way that they viewed the function of the party. For the left, the party should inform public opinion. For the right, it should co ntent itself with reflecting what the people want.
The Labour listens campaign fed into the reformulation of party policy at the end of the decade. The Labour Party Policy Review jettisoned many of the distinctive features of the party's programme; including its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament, public ownership and union rights. The left were critical of the review. Tony Benn argued that it was inspired by the main features of Conservative policy, and that it aimed to convince the electorate that Labour was better able to administer the economy than Mrs.Thatcher. Support for the review came mainly from the right. Roy Hattersley, for example, argued that the Review was made necessary by changing conditions. Britain could not afford to re-nationalise, there had been dramatic changes in the international political system, and a new middle class had risen making fresh demands in the field of housing and pensions. He argued that the Labour Party had not been forced to adopt the policies of Thatcher's Conservative government. Rather, the party had cha nged because it recognised that for democratic socialism to survive, it had to be applied in a different way. Kinnock was adamant that the changes were necessary and beneficial. He felt that it was right to change, that Britain had become a more affluent place, and that the risk of being accused of changing policies were much less than the price for not changing.
Alongside this policy shift, image makers set to work on Kinnock. When he changed his policy of defence, the media cast doubt upon his credibility and sincerity. It was argued that Kinnock could not be trusted as he had shown that he was willing to sacrifice his most cherished beliefs. This prompted the Labour media machine to change Kinnock's image. His amiable nature and passions had to be contained, and his image became far more conservative. He was expected to wear black suits, white shirts and regimental ties. This makeover backfired however when the Tories replaced the extremely formal Mrs. Thatcher with the modest John Major in 1990.
The changes that Kinnock inaugurated relied upon him having considerable control over his shadow cabinet. According to Bryan Gould, Kinnock became obsessed with winning, and impatient and scornful of his critics. Kinnock became increasingly isolated in Westminster. Many of his colleagues believed that he was a light weight, and no match for Thatcher. The Labour right, in particular, favoured the shadow chancellor John Smith over Kinnock. This created problems between Kinnock and Smith, who had fundamentally different approaches to the election campaign of 1992. They disagreed, in particular, over whether tax plans should be made public and open to debate. Kinnock was in favour of an open approach, whilst Smith wanted to keep them secret until the last minute. Kinnock relied increasingly on a small group of advisors. Peter Mandelson was particularly important in presenting the policies in the best possible light.
According to Clare Short, Kinnock used the media to attack his critics in the Labour hierarchy. Michael Meacher, Bryan Gould and John Prescott were slated by Kinnock's media team. A slur campaign was inaugurated against John Prescott when he stood for deputy leader. It was suspected that this campaign had been spearheaded by Peter Mandelson and Patricia Hewitt. The 'spindoctors' were also thought to have given anonymous briefings to the press against the shadow employment secretary Michael Meacher, after he had suggested in a TV interview that Labour might restore the right to secondary picket. This had infuriated Kinnock, who eventually replaced Meacher with the safer and more moderate Tony Blair.
Despite these changes, the Labour Party continued to have problems communicating its message. The Labour Party election campaign of 1992 was polished in the extreme. It was found, however, that a number of Labour's broadcasts failed to deliver a clear message, and Kinnock's over-enthusiastic speech at the Sheffield Rally on the eve of the election did nothing but alienate the voters. The Conservative campaign, by contrast, was a simple and modest affair. John Major travelled the country giving speeches in the open air, and the Conservative poster campaign had a simple message: 'You can't trust Labour'. The Conservatives were returned to office once more, but with a considerably smaller majority.
The Labour Party was forced to reassess its position again. Kinnock stepped down as party leader and was replaced by the shadow chancellor John Smith, who pushed for reform in the structure of Labour Party relations with the unions. In his campaign to get rid of the block vote for unions at Labour conference, Smith had the support of the trade unionist John Prescott. Smith let it be known that he would resign as Labour leader unless he got the support of conference for his motion. Although Smith was respected in Parliament, he did not have much luck with the media. The political columnist Andrew Marr claimed that Smith was far from 'trendy' and therefore gained relatively little support from the tabloids. When compared with Blair, it is clear that Smith was less adept at dealing with the media and had far less use for spin doctors. Mandelson and his associates were therefore marginalised during his brief leadership of the party. Smith's sudden and tragic death from a heart attack in 1994 made way for a new s tyle of leader.
John Smith had wanted Tony Blair to succeed him as Labour leader. Blair won his seat for the Sedgefield constituency at the 1983 general election. He stood on a broad left wing platform which gave support to CND, favoured high taxation and was critical of the European Community. The heavy defeat for Labour, however, convinced Blair that the Labour Party had to change. He told his constituency party that Britain was increasingly a country of owner-occupiers, and that Labour had to adapt to the decline in manufacturing. His constituency party disagreed. Despite resistance at grass roots level, Blair rose within the Labour Party and by the end of the 1980s he was viewed as a future leader of the party. Blair claims that he derives from Christianity the belief that politics should be about values, and that he aims to de-couple the timeless values of socialism from its dogmatic features. He claims that socialism is not about nationalisation and state control, but about establishing a moral purpose in life. It is enshrined within simple truths concerning our equal worth and our responsibility for each other.
Blair and Gordon Brown had been groomed as future leaders by Kinnock and Smith, though it was agreed that they would not stand against each other. The nearest contender was Gordon Brown, and Blair was hesitant about standing for the leadership because he did not want to hurt Brown. The party machine, however, decided otherwise. Blair clearly had the support of influential sections of the media, and he benefited from the active campaigning skills of Peter Mandelson. It is said that on the day of John Smith's death, Peter Mandelson was already briefing the press that Blair would be the next leader of the Labour Party. Although Gordon Brown was interested in running for the leadership, he decided to stand down so as to allow Blair easy access to the leadership. His motives are still unclear.
Blair seemed to personify the modem agenda of what became known as 'New Labour'. His critics are quick to point out, however, that his success owes at least something to his use and reformulation of conservative ideas. Douglas Hurd claims that by the summer of 1994, Blair was '... boarding our boat and hoisting his colours from our mast head'. In his view, the Conservatives should have protected their policies from 'New Labour'. Even the most ardent of Conservatives seemed to be swayed by the Blair programme. By the middle of the 1990s, the press were turning against the Conservative government. Even Rupert Murdoch's Sun supported Blair. John Major arranged for Murdoch to have dinner with Margaret Thatcher with the intention of securing his support for the Conservative Party. At this dinner, however, it was evident that even Mrs. Thatcher was willing to support Blair's agenda.
Tony Blair denies that he and his party hijacked conservative policies, and claims that the Labour modernisers had '... reinvented the Labour Party as a party of aspiration and ambition as well as compassion and obligation to others less fortunate than ourselves'. For many socialists, the extent of these reforms cut at the very foundations of the Labour Party. Veteran Labour MPs have been particularly critical. Peter Shore warned that if Labour played it too safe and abandoned its idealism, it would deny its own heritage. Tony Benn likewise believes that the Labour Party is turning into a non-socialist, Americanised democratic party, and that this makes it difficult for socialists to remain part of the Labour Party.
The Labour Party reformed itself into power, and made itself palatable to the Conservative media and middle England. The Labour Party could always rely upon its traditional working class support, but structural changes in the economy have reduced the prevalence and political importance of the manual working class vote. Labour found itself unelectable during the 1980s and for much of the 1990s. The party has been forced to find new supporters. This has influenced both its policies and the way it presents itself in the media. The broadcast media explain the fall of the Labour Party in terms of the electorate turning away from socialism, mistrusting the trade union movement, and lacking confidence in the Labour leadership. They argue that no matter what the Labour Party did to reform its policies, the image of 'Old Labour' continued to haunt them. The relatively recent renaissance of the Labour Party is attributed to the virtual abandonment of socialism, to reducing the importance of its links with the trade un ions, and to the charisma and leadership abilities of Tony Blair. The broadcast media are apt to believe that the Labour Party will only succeed for as long as it takes into account the importance of media presentation. It is clear that many in the media see themselves as participants in the political process rather than mere observers.
Dr. Gary Taylor is lecturer in Social Policy at Sheffield Hallam University, and tutor in Politics at University of Sheffield. He has written a number of books on politics and on the media, and is co-editor of Issues in Social Policy for Sheffield Hallam University Press.
Note: On 24 January Peter Mandelson resigned from the Cabinet after be admitted lying about bringing pressure on a fellow minister regarding a naturalization application by an Indian billionaire who had made a large donation to Mandelson's pet project, the Dome. This was the second occasion in this Parliament that Mandelson had been forced to resign from the Cabinet. The first time had also been caused by his lying, in that case about his personal finances.…
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Publication information: Article title: Media Review: The Transformation of Labour. Contributors: Taylor, Gary - Author. Magazine title: Contemporary Review. Volume: 278. Issue: 1621 Publication date: February 2001. Page number: 65. © 1999 Contemporary Review Company Ltd. COPYRIGHT 2001 Gale Group.
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