The Blair Supremacy*: a very British coup

( – a review of Lewis Minkin’s book)

Lewis Minkin is nothing if not meticulous.

Reading ‘The Blair Supremacy’ is like sitting alongside a skilled forensic scientist as they dissect the multi-layered elements that contributed to the death of the body in front of them. This isn’t quite where Blair left the Labour Party, but it’s not far short.

For all its detail, Minkin still manages to make the book read like a thriller. What makes it captivating is Minkin’s grasp of the scrupulous planning that went into Blair’s managerialist coup that, for a time, took ownership of both the Labour Party and the country.

I once described the Blairite revolution as a transformation that turned Labour from a political party into a Tuppaware party, but I was wrong. The description is far too benign.

No one falls out of love with Tuppaware, at least not in the way the country fell out of love with Blair. Tuppaware is also as useful to the poor as to the rich. And Tuppaware never stripped meaning and values from everything it touched. Blairism did. In doing so, it also ruthlessly exploited (and then dumped) a lot of decent people whose lives had been devoted to the Labour Party.

Even today, many of these – MPs as well as Party loyalists – have difficulty acknowledging how extensively, and cynically, they were taken for such a ride. For them, the book should be made compulsory reading.

If it has a weakness, Mishkin’s analysis falls short only in the absence of a meta-narrative; like explaining the Chilean coup, without any reference to the USA. But I shall return to this later.

Reluctant admiration

At one level you have to admire the coup. The Blairite plan was never just to lead the Labour Party, but to emasculate it. To do so, every part of the Party’s machinery of governance had to be subjugated to the Leader’s whim.

“[BLAIR]…drove party officials to adopt a new managerial identity, followed by the creation of an extended managerial organisation which produced greater powers and protection for the Leader…” (p118)

Minkin takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through this process … and the machinations that lay behind it.

“The new ascendency of the Party Leader and his office over the party organisation, and Blair’s carelessness over protocol and territory, sometimes had the effect of adding to the internal administrative problems of the General Secretary. New figures could simply ’emerge’ in various roles in party headquarters sent by or in the name of the Leader…” (p151)

At times it is surreal to read through something you lived through, but Minkin’s dissection covers the entirety of my parliamentary life (and more). It always puzzled me how, despite all the warnings and bollockings, I never got expelled from the Parliamentary party. Now I know.

It wasn’t that Blair’s ‘Ultras’ lacked a desire for purges, it was just that they screwed up more often than they expected. Their ‘managerialist’ obsessions, which politically House-trained the Party, created a space in which MPs, Whips and others still backed away from pooing on their own carpet. The machine knew that Blair would get the blame – ultimate proof that his ‘control freakery’ had no limits. And since ‘protecting the Leader’ had already displaced ‘promoting the Party’ as the Supremacy’s over-riding duty, the hounds always got called off.

To be fair, some of this was also down to the wiser counsel of Whips like Nick Brown and George Mudie. Both were better people than the Supremacy deserved, and it was good to see how effectively Minkin recognised this in his description of events. I guess that many of the Labour rebels were also saved by divisions between the Blair and Brown camps, in what was to become the running distraction throughout the Labour years in government.

The Blair-Brown distraction

For me, the friction between these two characters – equally damaged, equally obsessive – was often a manipulated divide; spun out to lock the PLP into the smallness of playground politics rather than the bigger canvas of real politics.

As Minkin observed,

“Weak accountability, absence of review, and machine loyalty to the Leader, cemented by the Brown-Blair wars became, in effect, a managed insulation…”(p689).

Loyalty invariably displaced integrity (or clarity) in the debates of the day. Minkin captures this brilliantly in his description of the seminal moments surrounding New Labour’s first internal rebellion – the vote on Lone Parent Benefits.

Notionally, they (Blair and Brown) shared a belief that

“… the left-wing Campaign Group appeared…to be the driving force of a limited opposition”… [and therefore]… “They, the usual suspects, had to be faced down and publicly pulled into line some time or other, so why not over this early issue and now?” (p411)

There is some comfort in believing that both monumentally misjudged their moment.

Minkin describes much of this as a tactical misjudgment on Brown’s part rather than a cynical move on Blair’s. Standing in the middle of it felt slightly different. Many of us saw no real divide between Blair and Brown. Neither showed an ability to step back and accept they may have got something wrong. Both were obsessed with demonstrating their power as leaders. Loyalty and obedience became articles of faith, outside of which Labour’s world would crumble.

In the same way the Mafia just asks you to destroy something precious to demonstrate loyalty to the cause, Labour MPs were asked to give a kicking to some of the most vulnerable in society. This was a difficult step for many to take.

Most of the women MPs had posed, proudly, around posters proclaiming ‘Labour Women Make the Difference’. I remember the looks of shock when they turned up to lobbies organised by the Labour Women’s Action Committee (LWAC), only to see the final word had been changed to ‘…Indifference’. This was not the politics they thought they had stood for.

For ‘the machine’, however, it was the first big test of their ability to ‘squeeze’; and there were members of both the Blair and Brown camps who loved it. MPs could be leaned on, cajoled, abused or bullied, all in the name of loyalty. Many had their Constituency officials phoned and told to kick their MP a into line. Some had their families phoned and told not to get too comfortable with an MPs life because they would be thrown out before the next election. All were told it was New Labour (ie Blair) that they owed allegiance to. Conscience was a liability not an asset.

Both Blair and Brown may have wished to run with their ‘Ultras’ demands for a purge of the 47 rebels who ignored these entreaties, but the impact on the PLP a was different. Most were reluctant to expel those who went into a Division Lobby that their hearts told them they should have been in too. It established an Achilles Heel that was (fortunately) to remain throughout the Supremacy.

Lies, damn lies and New Labour

One of the great strengths of Minkin’s book is its description of how all the groundwork of this managerial coup had taken place long before the 1997 election. The Machine may have been surprised by the scale of the Labour victory but it already knew that it would rule by manipulation and disinformation, rather than through a new era of democratic engagement.

“It remained a crucial feature of the rolling coup that the reality was never subject to a formal party authorisation. In great measure it was covered by secrecy and lack of accountability.” (p156)

“The prized techniques of spinning became integral to a common view of managerial professionalism…” (p168-9)

When Blair talked of “an unbroken line of accountability” (p688) he meant everyone, and everything, being accountable to him.

Blair’s (initial) personal popularity was played out in talk of ‘direct democracy’ – a Leader connecting directly to the people. It was a great way of sidelining every structure of accountability that the Party had ever created. Minkin describes this with painful accuracy and unsparing honesty.

At the heart of what Minkin calls ‘the rolling coup’ (p118) was Blair himself – vulnerable, charismatic, insecure and obsessive – the centrepiece of a giant political Ponzi scheme. Truth was always a moveable feast. Statistics, or supportive polling data, would always be found to justify tha latest move to ‘marketise’ and individualise everything advanced by New Labour. It wasn’t just Clause 4 that Blair wanted shut of, it was the whole notion of collectivism. Business, particularly big business, wanted none of it.

So it was that, under the guise of new social partnerships, huge tranches of the social fabric of Britain were transferred into the hands (pockets) of the private sector. My only quibble is that this was as much Brown’s agenda as Blair’s. The debacle of PFI and PPP debts that remain tied round the neck of public services is their common legacy to the country, not just a Blairite one.

The shadow of Nuremberg

It is only fitting, however, that Blair’s greatest lie should also be the source of his ultimate undoing.

Without doubt Blair was a consummate performer, with an unparalleled ability to lie for any cause. On most issues, he simply moved on and the machine behind him swept contradictory evidence under the nearest carpet. But war doesn’t work like that … not, at least, when it is a war of choice.

As the Chair of Labour Against the War, I knew how far we had gone to bring real ‘evidence’ within the reach of Members of Parliament. Weapons Inspectors had come in, assuring us they had no evidence of any remaining ‘weapons of mass destruction’ (WNDs). International diplomats had arrived urging more time, and more diplomacy. We even circulated our own detailed pamphlet to all Labour MPs, on the eve of the Commons debate, dismantling the claims made in Blair’s ‘Dodgy Dossier’. But most of us knew that Blair had already promised Bush the war he was looking for. Nothing was going to deflect Blair from his own jihadist inclinations.

Minkin is right in depicting the debate as one Blair’s most outstanding parliamentary moments.

“…the impression was heavily conveyed that this was a man who understood, better than anyone in the House or the country, precisely and accurately what was being faced …”(p548)

“So magisterial and committed was this speech that it made personal the unstated choice being offered. It was Blair or Saddam;” (p548)

This was where Blair pushed “Trust me” and “If you only knew what I know” to its limits. It was some achievement, to get decent people to vote in ways that Nurenberg would have judged an inadmissible defence.

But the War, it’s consequences and the absence of weapons of mass destruction turned out to be Blair’s unforgivable sin; the lie that will dog him to the end of his days. Hubris had given the public, and the Party, something to hate him for.

The meta-narrative

The only thing Lewis Minkin’s fabulous book lacks is a wrap-around. For all we come to understand about the ‘how’ of Blair’s ‘rolling coup’, there is nothing that addresses the ‘why’. It isn’t enough to put it all down to ‘control freakery’. To learn anything from this, we have to put it in a context.

Psychologically, Blair was always drawn towards wealth and celebrity, and has draped himself in more of it than can ever buy forgiveness. His favoured acolytes all went the same way; becoming payroll beneficiaries in everything Blair privatised. But the brains are to be found elsewhere.

My take was that Blair had long been groomed by the neoliberalism that was running away with American politics. The agenda was not to make Labour ‘business friendly’ but Big Business compliant. The global agenda of the time was about turning public services into corporate profit streams.

Deregulation of financial markets, the WTO, TRIPS and a series of US adventurist wars were all part of a bigger project. Capitalism had tired of nation states, an obligation to pay taxes and to support social cohesion. It was the begining of the era of corporate feudalism we are now knee-deep in. The creation of new global creatures – corporate citizens – required the creation of new cultural norms they could flourish within. ‘Rights’ were to be transferred from citizens to corporations. ‘Duties’ went the other way. Somewhere along this trajectory from citizens to surfs is where we are now.

Blair was not the architect of this. His shallowness, vanity and venal interests just made him a willing partner. The real ‘supremacy’ lay elsewhere.

Accolades to the invisible

Some, in parliament, understood this. And it is in a tribute to them that I want to end this review. The Campaign Group of Labour MPs barely figure in Minkin’s book, but they were the only bolt-hole of real political thought that I found throughout my parliamentary years. Some of their leading voices get no mention at all. Yet they were the MPs you would always find on picket lines, at trade union and social movement rallies, on anti-war marches and at the forefront of campaigns to restore (rather than exploit) the planet.

In Chapter 12, Minkin details the systematic ways in which ‘the Blair coup’ set out to turn the parliamentary Left into ‘a sealed tomb’; one that would not be reopened by new, dissenting, Labour MPs entering parliament. Under the guise of ‘improving the quality of candidates’, Blair’s machine filleted the panel of candidates approved for selection by

“…eliminating candidates who ‘appeared not to have a pragmatic line on policy disagreements’..” (p378).

This left Campaign Group MPs as amongst the few voices of ‘real’ Labour left in parliament. These were the MPs who ventured out into more radical political campaigning around the country. This was not just about ‘keeping the faith’ but about an engagement with the real world that exists beyond the limits of parliamentary intrigue. Sadly, life beyond the machine is an important part of the story that Minkin misses out.

Epitomised by Tony Benn, these were the Labour MPs – socialists – who set out to explain that we always had bigger/better choices open to us than the ones the Supremacy would have us to believe.

Of course it is sad that neither the trade union movement nor the Party had the courage to wrap itself around those holding out this bigger vision. But if Labour is to salvage anything from the superficiality of ‘the Blair experience’ it will be the knowledge that we cannot ‘manage’ our way out of the current crisis, any more than we can ‘shop’ our way out.

The world is locked into a series crises that corporate feudalism has no answer to; crises not susceptible to individualised solutions. Tomorrows ‘security’ will only be found if we grasp just how interdependent we really are. Solutions will have to be on the scale of a new post-1945 settlement; a settlement with the planet as much as ourselves.

Tony Blair never was never going to be relevant to this. But for those who feel there are still scores to settle, here is an intriguing possibility.

What if common interests and common ownership/stewardship turn out to be the only viable shape of tomorrow’s politics? Think about it; the return of Clause 4 – in local, national and global terms.

Now that would be something for Lewis Minkin to write about! And wherever he was holed up, it would be guaranteed to really cheese-off Blair. Love it.

Alan Simpson

(* ‘The Blair Supremacy’- Lewis Minkin, Manchester University Press, 2014)

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