The Blair Supremacy. By Lewis Minkin, Manchester University Press, £30. Review published in the Camden New Journal series, 3rd September 2015.
JUST when you think it’s all over, it’s only begun. Willy Nelson wasn’t singing about Tony Blair’s grip on the Labour Party. But within days of the current leadership contest, the fake-tanned messiah was back. It was time for Labour to return to the centre ground, he said. We can only assume committing to Tory austerity and producing mugs promising “Controls on Immigration” amounted to a lurch to the left.
Then, of course, came Jeremy Corbyn – who responded to further interventions from the former PM by suggesting he could stand trial for war crimes.
Yet to one side of the Iraq war and foundation hospitals, there is another Blair legacy, not sexy enough to grace the memoirs of embittered ex-ministers. This sorry bunch would have you think the biggest conflict of these years was between Blair and Gordon Brown. The Blair Supremacy, a dry but crucial academic tome, nails this myth.
Lewis Minkin examines how Blair pushed through an essentially neo-liberal agenda while at the helm of a party still made up of social democrats.
As Minkin makes clear, “party management” is nothing new. Historically, Labour’s leadership had been supported by both officials and loyal trade unions in keeping the more radical party membership in check. Though in the 1960s and 70s the party experimented with a more tolerant attitude, a small-c conservatism was always party HQ’s preferred option.
Under Blair there was a key change. The party rules were no longer sacrosanct – first officials had them changed, then they decided it was acceptable to break them if the ends were worthy enough. They referred to this, nauseatingly, as “serious politics”.
The implications of each new departure are explored with great originality. He is right to note the sheer boredom that would greet any member who attempted to engage in the flashy new policy processes. Most interestingly, he demonstrates that in the age of spin, it didn’t matter if you lost the vote at party conference – so long as nobody noticed.
Sometimes Minkin, who advised successive Labour leaders during reviews of the party structures, lacks the distance to grasp quite how fake the project seemed from the off.
Under the “Partnership in Power”, Labour’s policy process became so jumbled it was hard for dissenters to navigate the system at all. Minkin describes a later revolt from those who had originally seen the process as an “extension of democracy”. Presumably these fools would have also believed Harriet Harman at the party’s national policy forum this year – when she said how great it was to be in Milton Keynes.
This mammoth book is sadly full of repetitions and over-analysed irrelevancies. Minkin can occasionally be imaginative: Blair not only favoured permanent revolution but a “rolling coup”.
But successive unresolved cliffhangers assume we’ve done as much research as the writer. Sections on Blair’s control of MPs and his relations with the Trades Union Congress are noticeably weaker.
The Blair Supremacy regains momentum when discussing the dear leader’s downfall. How was it that a man who so successfully massaged the party to his advantage was forced into an unprecedented timetable for departure?
Complacency, says Minkin. The manipulation of party rules on leadership challenges had given an illusion of safety. Earlier on, Minkin accuses the “modernisers” of “perpetually mistaking the sound of their own voice for the voice of the party – an old ultra-left vanguardist trait”.
Minkin must be applauded for his unfashionable focus on process over policy. Yet that’s no reason to strip the text of all humanity. A little grounding within a wider assessment of Labour’s cultural revolution, and the sheer demoralising effect on those within, would go a long way. Not too long ago, you could join Labour with a serious chance of affecting policy. Under “serious politics”, the processes for doing so became a sick joke.