Can Labour Kick the Winning Habit?

By Marquand, David | New Statesman (1996), October 23, 1998 | Go to article overview

Can Labour Kick the Winning Habit?

Marquand, David, New Statesman (1996)

David Marquand on the deep paradoxes at the heart of Blair's government

Even now, it is hard to grasp the scale of the electoral earthquake that struck British politics on 1 May 1997. The geography of the result was as portentous as the arithmetic. As Anthony King puts it, some of the seats that fell to Labour "bear names so redolent of Tory England that . . . it was almost impossible to imagine their ever being won by a Labour candidate: names that conjure up images of shady oaks, mock-Tudor villas, well-watered lawns and a Jaguar (or at least one of the larger Fords) in every drive". For the moment, at least, Labour Britain embraces Crosby as well as Caerphilly, Edgbaston as well as Easington, West Harrow as well as East Hull, Hove as well as Hemsworth, St Albans as well as Sedgefield.

Tony Blair's achievement was to assemble a new electoral coalition. It extends right across the social spectrum, from the dispossessed of the inner cities to the corporate elite, from Diane Abbott to David Sainsbury. Its leaders have stood Margaret Thatcher's achievement on its head. In 1987 the Conservatives were the largest working-class party in the south of England. In 1997 Labour won more votes than the Conservatives from the middle class and from home owners for the first time in its history.

But it is one thing to assemble a winning coalition, another to ensure that it survives. Blair's coalition is comparable to three others in the past 120 years. Each of them was precipitated by crisis. The Unionist coalition assembled by Lord Salisbury and Joseph Chamberlain - which dominated for 20 years and then metamorphosed into the Conservative Party of the interwar period - followed the Liberal split over Irish home rule. The old Labour coalition - between the radical intelligentsia, the progressive middle class and the Labour interest - followed the Liberal collapse during and after the first world war. The Thatcher coalition - between aspirant Essex Man and Woman, a fierce new intelligentsia of the radical right and the pre-existing Conservative Party - followed the crisis of revisionist social democracy that split Callaghan's Labour Party.

In each case, daring, skilful and creative political leadership seized the opportunity. In each case, the new coalition was subsequently cemented by a mixture of ideology and myth that created a common identity - a myth of nation, empire and property for the Salisbury-Chamberlain coalition; a myth of modernity, justice and solidarity for old Labour; a myth of national renewal, market freedom and individual opportunity for Thatcher's. In each case, the ideology and myth had great emotional and moral force. They summoned their adherents to historic tasks.

In Blair's case, it is not difficult to identify a precipitating crisis, or rather crises. The most obvious was Europe, which drove a wedge through the Conservative Party and destroyed its reputation for competence. It also made large sections of it appear eccentric, obsessional and, from the point of view of internationally oriented big business, potentially dangerous. In doing so, it helped to engender a strange new class of what might be called "Blair capitalists" - new Labour fellow travellers or converts from the corporate sector, whose very existence gave their new allies a priceless aura of vicarious economic rectitude.

The European crisis was exacerbated by a deeper crisis of identity and purpose. Thatcherism was, above all, an anti-socialist crusade. But in the 1980s and early 1990s, socialism, in any sense which earlier socialists would have recognised, disobligingly lay down and died. The Thatcherites found themselves in the undignified position of a contestant in a tug-of-war whose rival suddenly lets go of the rope. They fell flat on their backs.

More disconcertingly still, the terms of politico-economic debate changed. The historic contest between socialism and capitalism was over. More subtle questions arrived on the agenda: "what kind of capitalism? …

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