Doing the best things

So, Blair’s responded to the May 5th result by announcing his intention to move yet further Right, and backed it up with new Cabinet appointments. Which is disappointing in itself, as well as representing two fingers to all those of us who chose left-wing alternatives to Labour. Given the scale of the left-alternative diaspora and the insignificance of the swing from Labour to the Conservatives, this response also makes very little sense in terms of political rationality (as I wrote here). That said, it does have a certain ghastly predictability within the Blairoverse. Poach Tory votes and drag the Labour vote along behind: that’s how the New Labour clique work. Unfortunately for us, May 5 didn’t see them leaving quite enough of the Labour vote behind to slow down the march into Tory territory.

What’s interesting – and, I think, revealing – is how New Labour are moving right. What, after all, does the Left/Right split mean? There are a number of different ways of looking at it. Firstly and most obviously, you can map Right onto the interests of capital and Left onto those of labour. Along similar lines, unfettered capitalism and paid-for services (Right) are opposed to state intervention and tax-funded provision (Left).

Secondly, you can associate the Right with tradition: upholding inherited institutions and belief systems, rather than trusting individual judgment and taking the risk of changing things. The belief in progress, on this reckoning, is fundamentally of the Left; so are rationalism and free thinking. The opposition between nationalism (Right) and internationalism (Left) is related to this: for the Right, the fundamental nature of nationality, as an element of individual identity, outweighs its basic meaninglessness.

Thirdly, the Right can be associated with order, discipline and social control; the Left, in this perspective, stands for an all-inclusive and all-forgiving community, which avoids the pain of excluding anyone at the cost of tolerating people who breach its own values. Along similar lines, hierarchy (Right) contrasts with democracy (Left): democracy, on this view, is a solvent of necessary constraints and a gateway drug for anarchy.

New Labour’s position on the Right in the first of these three senses was well established before the election; there wasn’t anything new or surprising about Blair’s promises to cut the dole, marketise the health service and introduce compulsory private pensions (slight paraphrase). What was new was more interesting. There’s a weaselly little nod to the tradition-and-nationhood Right:

the British people are a tolerant and decent people, they did not want immigration made a divisive issue in the course of the election campaign, but they do believe there are real problems in our immigration and asylum system and they expect us to sort them out, and we will do so.

Note the slippage here: the government will sort out the problems which the British people believe to exist. The problems may be fictitious, but the belief is real – and that’s good enough to act on.

More significantly, there’s a positive lurch to the order-and-discipline Right:

though they like the fact we have got over the deference of the past, there is a disrespect that people don’t like. And whether it’s in the classroom, or on the street in town centres on a Friday or Saturday night, I want to focus on this issue. We’ve done a lot so far with anti-social orders and additional numbers of police. But I want to make this a particular priority for this government, how we bring back a proper sense of respect in our schools, in our communities, in our towns and our villages.

It’s true, New Labour have done a fair bit in this area, what with all those police (and Community Support Officers) and those “anti-social orders” (not to mention Penalty Notices for Disorder, juvenile reprimands, conditional cautions and ABCs). But in the first two terms the relevant legislation tended to arrive piecemeal and without much fanfare. For a Labour Prime Minister to announce, as a “particular priority”, a project to “bring back a proper sense of respect” in society seems… well, it seems downright weird, apart from anything else. But it certainly seems like an open and emphatic move to the Right.

Blair’s new Cabinet reflects his new priorities. In particular, the campaign for a proper sense of respect has a voice in Cabinet, in the shape of David Miliband (“Minister for Communities and Local Government”). But thereby hangs a tale:

Gaby Hinsliff, 8 May:

Nor did Blair get everything his own way. The job created for Miliband – Minister for Communities and Local Government, with a remit ranging from council tax reform to anti-social behaviour and crackdowns on yobs – was originally earmarked for Blunkett. That avenue was closed after both Prescott and Clarke put their feet down: the more tactful Miliband was an eventual compromise.

Private Eye 1132:

John Prescott pronounced himself “particularly delighted to welcome David Miliband” as a second cabinet minister in the office of the deputy prime minister (ODPM) – as well he might be, having fought off the prime minister’s initial intention to plonk Alan Milburn or David Blunkett in the middle of his empire, which would have diluted his power still further.

Michael White, May 11:

This week the usual problems were compounded by leaks of what are now said to have been no more than “internal musings”. Thus David Blunkett had let it be known he wanted the kind of local government and communities job which David Miliband got. That was never a runner with Mr Blair.

Perhaps not. It’s worth noting, however, that Miliband’s new brief encroaches on the turf of Prescott’s ODPM as well as Clarke’s Home Office, making its award a clear sign of Prime Ministerial favour. Moreover, it represents a continuation – and, presumably, intensification – of some of the initiatives most closely associated with David Blunkett’s time as Home Secretary. It also brings with it responsibility for local government, a topic on which Blunkett can (and probably does) claim to be the Cabinet’s resident expert.

In short, the simplest explanation of Miliband’s new post is that it was designed as Minister For Being David Blunkett – and redesigned hastily in the face of resistance from Blunkett’s once and future colleagues. This also helps explain the current confusion within the Cabinet as to who is actually the Minister with Responsibility for Yobs and ASBOs. Clarke, who dealt with this stuff after Blunkett left, appears to feel that it is still a Home Office matter, and has given the job to Hazel Blears. Blears hit the ground running: she has already proposed uniforms for teenagers doing community service, as well as delivering the obligatory denunciation of hoodies (“Mrs Blears denied that the Government was straying into ‘dangerous territory’ by saying what people should and should not wear.”). Prescott has also weighed in, presumably on the basis that he is Deputy Prime Minister, and so if there’s anything to be handled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who better to speak about it than, and let me just say, setting aside all the cheap jibes, I think we can all agree, quite clearly and simply, and that’s where we are at present.

What all this adds up to is that David Blunkett’s fingerprints are all over three ministries instead of one. It begins to appear as if one of the new government’s main policy initiatives – an initiative which makes emphatically public the government’s break with one of the key traditions of the Left – was designed around a disgraced ex-Minister. We knew, of course, that Blair wanted Blunkett back in government, but we may not have appreciated how much Blunkett’s return mattered to him.

Assuming for the moment that this analysis is accurate, I think it tells us a couple of interesting things about the state of New Labour. One is that Blair’s ministers are becoming the ideological driving force of the government. The point here is not just that Blair is running out of ideas. The Blunkett/Blair relationship reminds me of nothing so much as something a minor Nazi official wrote in 1934:

everyone has best worked in his place in the new Germany if, so to speak, he works towards the Fuehrer. Very often, and in many places, it has been the case that individuals, already in previous years, have waited for commands and orders. […] Rather, however, it is the duty of every single person to attempt, in the spirit of the Fuehrer, to work towards him. Anyone making mistakes will come to notice it soon enough. But the one who works correctly towards the Fuehrer […] will, in future as previously, have the finest reward of one day suddenly attaining the legal confirmation of his work.

The Nazi belief in the ‘leader principle’ at all levels, coupled with Hitler’s notorious idleness, made “working towards the Fuehrer” one of the driving forces of the regime. The “Fuehrer’s Will” was supreme, but it could not be known, only guessed; the golden rule was “What Would Hitler Do?”. Ironically, what Hitler did – other than delivering endless unfocussed rants against his enemies – often amounted to little more than endorsing or condemning the initiatives taken by his subordinates. (Not that this diminishes his responsibility as leader – if anything, the reverse is true.)

As one junior Nazi was favoured over another, as one version of National Socialism was endorsed and another rejected, Hitler’s followers formed new impressions of what the Fuehrer wanted. They “worked towards” the “Fuehrer’s Will” as they understood it – and the process continued. Leading Nazis were bitterly divided among themselves, and often pursued radically different policies within their own fiefdoms. What united them and drove them on – and, arguably, radicalised them still further – was the lure of the Fuehrer’s approval. Hitler himself rejoiced in not having a detailed programme. He didn’t need one; all that mattered was that he knew what he wanted – that is, he knew it when he saw it. And he knew that the Nazi regime would provide it: that was what it was there for.

While Blair and Blunkett are many things, they’re certainly not Nazis. But perhaps part of Blunkett’s boundless assurance derives from the confidence that, as he moves further to the Right, he is working towards the Prime Minister. And perhaps Blair welcomes this approach. He’s never been a deep thinker; he probably wouldn’t have come up with anything as coherent as Blunkett’s order-and-discipline agenda unaided. But that doesn’t matter; what matters is that Blair knows what he wants, and knows what New Labour is. That is, he knows it when he sees it – and he knows that ministers like Blunkett will provide it.

The second interesting element of the story is the suggestion that Blair’s proposals were met, not with a bit of a tug-of-war between his people and Brown’s people, but with an out-and-out turf battle (“internal musings”, indeed). This suggests that Blair’s ministers are becoming the political driving force of the government – and they’re not necessarily driving it Blair’s way. Blair’s authority has been significantly weakened by the election result, in Cabinet as well as in Parliament and the country. We already know that back-bench rebels will have a major part to play in this parliament; the anti-New Labour roll of honour may yet be joined by the likes of Prescott and Clarke.

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2 Comments

  1. Pete
    Posted 12 May 2005 at 19:05 | Permalink | Reply

    “and so if there’s anything to be handled by the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister who better to speak about it than, and let me just say, setting aside all the cheap jibes, I think we can all agree, quite clearly and simply, and that’s where we are at present”.

    You are John Prescott and I claim my £5.

  2. Dave Heasman
    Posted 18 May 2005 at 14:49 | Permalink | Reply

    But does his father pull the maid?

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