Sunday National, 12th June 2022.
In 1995, the BBC ran a four-part documentary series called “Labour: The Wilderness Years.” It charted the party’s (mis)fortunes from the collapse of the Callaghan government in 1979 to the election of Tony Blair after the untimely death of John Smith in 1994 – and everything in between.
There was Michael Foot’s difficult stint as a left-wing leader of the opposition to Thatcher, the struggles between the Labour right and left, Tony Benn’s leadership challenges, Neil Kinnock’s installation as leader in 1983 – and the long decade he spent trying and failing to win public support. It is from this period that the bannermen of New Labour emerged – Peter Mandelson, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Alastair Campbell.
This being the Labour Party, the documentary also told a story of internal conflict, factionalism, double-dealing, back-stabbing, fixers, failures and false dawns. People fell out on the basis of personalities, people fell out on the basis of policies – and all the while, the Tories consolidated and extended their control over the British state.
When the show went out, its producers didn’t know what we know in hindsight – that a Labour landslide was coming in 1997 – or that the failure of the New Labour project would usher in a new and even longer period of fruitless opposition for the party. After the election of Margaret Thatcher, it took the party a stonking 18 years and four general elections to get back into power.
If these were Labour’s wilderness years – then the modern period has been an electoral wasteland. It is now 12 years since Gordon Brown walked out of Downing Street for the last time. Labour are four general elections down already and are facing down a Tory government with the largest majority in years.
I stress this – because this inconvenient fact almost never features in stories about Labour’s electoral predicaments. A more recent documentary – “Blair & Brown: The New Labour Revolution” which was broadcast on the BBC last year – is emblematic of the tendency to write the failures of the New Labour project out of the story.
In contrast with the more nuanced treatment of the tensions in the party in 1994, Blair got to polish off all the old lines about the mistakes of the 1980s – that the party was too red, too unprofessional, too unfriendly to the oligarchs of the press – and reflected not at all on what the wages of war, spin, and a devotion to political triangulation have been on Labour’s fortunes.
For the cargo cult Blairites – several of whom are alive and well in the party leadership – Labour’s long struggle for relevance is because successive leaders have fallen away from the winning New Labour formula. The idea the two decades of defeat are a result of the project itself hardly features. There are powerful ironies here – the party’s so-called “modernisers” are now the ones with their eyes firmly fixed on the past.
I mention all this, because I was reminded last week of something Chris Mullin said in the Wilderness Years about Neil Kinnock’s hunger for friendly headlines from Britain’s famously unfriendly media. Mullin observed that “Labour leaders at Labour Party conferences – and I think it is still the case today – have never understood that if you even devote a single paragraph of your hour-long speech to shooting at your own side, it is that which will dominate the news in the evening.”
But here’s the kicker: “they confused editorial slapping in the Sun – slapping Neil on the back for bashing a few Trotskyites in Liverpool over the head – with genuine popularity. And of course, the Sun was nowhere to be seen, come the general election.”
If this sounds familiar – then it should. It is the essence of the Starmer doctrine for media management, three decades on. Like all the Labour triangulators before him, Starmer is devoted to sense-testing political lines for how they’ll go down with Fleet Street. He seems to think that a friendly editorial in the Times or muted coverage in the Daily Mail is just what will power the party back into office.
Like his predecessors, he is mistaking the transient approval of people who basically hate you for genuine popularity. And like Kinnock, come election time, he will learn the feral Tory press always reverts to type. If he honestly believes the Tory broadsheets and red tops are going to go with – “Sir Keir is an honourable man with whom we have some minor ideological differences” – then he needs his head examined.
Recall a few of their greatest kits, ably assisted by leading Conservative politicians. The Daily Mail was content to tell their readers that Ed Miliband’s dad was “the man who hated Britain” who left “an evil legacy” of Marxist ideology to his tepidly centrist son. Others dubbed him “deeply unpatriotic.”
Theresa May suggested Jeremy Corbyn “doesn’t understand – or like – our country” – a claim that was relentlessly promoted in op-eds across the media, many of them written by Labour MPs. David Cameron suggested that Corbyn wanted to “inflict” his “Britain-hating ideology on the country we love,” and in another House of Commons exchange, suggested the Labour leader “put on a proper suit, do up your tie and sing the national anthem.”
While the British press got particularly into the groove during Corbyn’s leadership, this kind of ugly slur is intrinsic to how the Tory party does business with the opposition. To paraphrase Alan Bennett, successive Conservative PMs have sought to “stitch themselves into the flag,” “pass themselves off as the spirit of the nation and the Tories as the collective virtue of England.” And their friends in the media are only too happy to oblige.
The extent to which Labour have internalised the suggestion they’re somehow unpatriotic was reflected in another piece of media management last week. In a standout silly headline in a jubilee weekend crammed full of silly headlines, the Observer ran with “Labour says it is now the true party of patriotism and British values.” The source for this claim was Lucy Powell, Starmer’s Shadow Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport.
More or less conceding Tory attack lines against the party are true, Powell suggests that “being patriotic isn’t something that Labour has always looked comfortable with,” but the Labour now offers the nation a new model of jingoism, based on the idea that “our country has always led the way as a measured and decent example to the world, but our government has called this into question.” As political analysis goes, this is extraordinary hokum – but it is perfectly in keeping with the idea Labour can queen and flag their way back into the hearts of middle England.
Just over a year ago, Labour strategy slides leaked, suggesting that “communicating Labour’s respect and commitment for the country can represent a change in the party’s body language.” And what should this body language be, I hear you ask? “The use of the flag, veterans, dressing smartly at the war memorial etc give voters a sense of authentic values alignment.” Because what sounds more sincere than “authentic values alignment”, right?
Starmer would do well to learn Mullin’s lesson. Pander away, flounder away, hedge, dodge and equivocate on everything from asylum policy to crime – the British media will find an excuse to tell their readers that you are an elitist human rights lawyer who hates Britain, loves illegal immigrants, and wants to tax your granny into outer space.