It was bad luck for Gordon Brown that an open-microphone gave the public an opportunity to hear what he actually thought of a voter. He isn’t the first politician to make this error, and he won’t be last, although the most famous example is fictional Tory Peter Mannion from In the Thick It who says:
“Peter Mannion: This is the trouble with the public, they’re fucking horrible!
Emma Messinger: Peter, you can’t say the public are fucking horrible.
Peter Mannion: Yes I can, I’ve met them.”
In one sense this story is a 48 hour wonder.
In another more serious sense it’s a painful insight into psychology of New Labour and why their time has gone.
New Labour in one sense is just the SDP just over a decade late. The political platforms of the SDP and New Labour were not very different and many of New Labour’s more successful policies were taken wholesale from the Liberal Democrats of the 1990s. Socialism as a credible political philosophy died in Britain the 1970s after successive decades of government waste and state control of industry proved unequal to the challenges of the oil crisis and global competition, ending in an IMF bail-out. It took Labour 20 years and four election defeats to accept defeat. It’s taking some European socialist parties a little longer.
In another sense New Labour was a political attitude, one born in shame of losing again in 1992. The election where Neil Kinnock “snatched defeat from the jaws of victory”. Labour campaigners I have spoken to about 1992 describe it as “the moment we realised the public were stupid”, “from then we knew we’d have to lie to win”, “we’d need to talk right to act left”.
What followed 1992, and the untimely death of John Smith in 1994, went beyond the militant-tendency purges of the late 1980s. It was a wholesale realignment of the party around a platform sold as economically liberal, but in substance corporatist, and one that reverted quickly to old-style socialist spending on the national credit card part-funded by stealth taxes. It was combined with some genuine socially liberal reform, undermined equally rapidly by an ever-expanding raft of authoritarian control measures designed to appeal to exactly the kind of voter Gordon Brown just called a “some kind of bigot”.
New Labour in that regard is a rag-bag of contradictions. Economically it is genuinely left-wing. Tax and spending has risen massively after 13 years of Brown. It was sold as “prudent” and “conservative” so well, that many disgruntled socialists genuinely believe they were sold out, whilst David Cameron circa-2006 felt he had no choice but to commit to Labour’s spending plans in order to restore his own party’s economic credibility. Gordon Brown’s confidence tricks should have Respect and their fellow travellers in the Green party cheering him to the rafters – he has even undermined the credibility of the City of London.
Socially it is an authoritarian agenda delivered by people who used to run Liberty, campaigned against apartheid, and hate the Daily Mail. It is a party that has opened the door to unprecedented levels of immigration whilst speaking the language of the BNP. It is a party elected to clean up politics that will be leaving office mired in a swamp of sleaze exposed by their own reforms. It is the party based on a philosophy that values equality over liberty, that has delivered reductions in both.
The Janus-faces of New Labour were bearable to a significant minority of the electorate when masked by Tony Blair, a man who could believe six impossible things before breakfast, sell four to the Chinese, and go to war on the other two. With the Incredible Sulk in charge however the polish fell off. Suddenly it wasn’t New Labour anymore; just Labour, and you always had the feeling that; support them or not, they didn’t like you very much.
Now Gordon Brown, in one off-hand remark, has confirmed it.
His reactions were awful at every level. He appeared fake when meeting Mrs. Duffy. His response to her uncomfortable immigration analysis was to blame his aides. When exposed on radio he didn’t fess up straight-away but make a conditional apology “if I’d said that”. He even said it again after he’d heard his own voice on tape. His announcement that his apology had been accepted, after half an hour of face time, is unconfirmed, and premised on an unconvincing analysis that he didn’t mean what he said and had misunderstood her.
It was like watching an unstoppable lie collide with an immovable truth.
That is why, today, there is every possibility that a century of Labour’s membership of the political premiership is about to come to an end.
This is a party that believes in something but can’t talk about it for fear of causing offence. A party that wants human progress, but doesn’t believe humans are progressed enough to choose progressive opportunities for themselves. A party that has caused an economic meltdown and is led by a man whose leadership was only tolerated on the basis of his apparent economic genius. A party with no answers to any major question facing the electorate beyond their fear of change.
This is New Labour, and this is why the Party is over.