New Labour and the Roots of Labour’s Crisis, Part 1

HARRY BARNES begins a two-part examination of the state of the Labour Party, looking at the historical roots of Jeremy Corbyn’s rise and the Party’s current turmoil. He begins with New Labour’s emergence after the death of John Smith.

I start by referring to a period during my own time as an MP when there seemed to be genuine hope of creating a unity of purpose between Labour’s members and its MPs, when the party might have delivered a form of traditional, unifying Labourism, if not full-blooded socialism.

Labour on Brink HarryB

This period followed the shock defeat of Neil Kinnock at the 1992 general election when Labour voted overwhelmingly for John Smith to take over as leader with Margaret Beckett as deputy.

This was before the days of one member one vote (OMOV) and Smith got 91% of the votes to Bryan Gould’s 9%. In those days 40% of the electorate were affiliated bodies, 30% Constituency Labour Parties (CLPs) and 30% came from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Smith won nearly three-quarters of the votes of his parliamentary colleagues. Imagine if Jeremy Corbyn could command that degree of support from Labour MPs today.

Beckett (a highly effective front bencher) also triumphed in each section of the ballot over John Prescott and (again) Gould. She won almost twice the number of PLP votes of both her opponents combined.

Yet she had been a member of the Socialist Campaign Group (SCG) until 1988 when she disagreed with Tony Benn’s decision to run for the Labour leadership against Kinnock. I shared her view, but remained in the group, despite refusing to nominate Benn for leader. Benn’s campaign was counter-productive – he got only 11.4% of the votes and the party then raised the threshold required for MPs to nominate a leadership contender from 5% to 10%. It is now 15% although members of the European Parliament (MEPs) are also involved. This was one of the key barriers Corbyn had to tackle.

While Smith was no left-wing socialist many of us felt he opened a door that allowed us to press for a socialist case. For example, during the leadership contest Smith and Beckett provided written answers to five questions I’d sent them, and their responses were left-wing enough for me to publish them in the Morning Star.

Later I proposed a Private Members’ Bill to improve electoral registration (which had been hit by the poll tax) and they both did their best to encourage Labour MPs to follow them into the lobbies on an un-whipped Friday, as did the shadow home secretary, a chap called Tony Blair. In my experience this was a unique degree of front-bench support for a rather obscure Labour MP’s Bill.

I found the Smith-Beckett era to be a far happier environment for left-wing Labour MPs than the earlier Kinnock-Hattersley years, which I had experienced from 1987 to 1992, although by Smith’s time Militant’s disruptive input was no longer such an influence, the tendency having been excluded from the Party.

Blair’s opportunity

Unfortunately, Smith died in 1994 and Beckett lost the next leadership contest to Blair. The day after he was elected, the Independent carried a photo of Blair in front of the conference crowd at the announcement of the result. All are stood up in celebration, but my wife is in the middle of the photo looking as miserable as sin. I felt the same.

Along with the SCG we had supported Beckett who finished third in the OMOV ballot. Prescott became deputy leader and was a great disappointment to the left.

In 1995 Blair did what Hugh Gaitskell had failed to do back in 1960 and persuaded a special conference to amend Sidney Webb’s famous clause 4 of the party constitution, which had pledged:

“To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”

Before this conference, I wrote an article for Tribune entitled ‘One month to save the Labour Party’ which they judicially placed in their ‘Points of View’ column. The bit I particularly disliked (and still do) about the new clause is its commitment to “a dynamic economy” as this puts placating world market forces at the heart of New Labourism. I would still like to see the term removed.

By this stage the Conservatives were in turmoil and heading for electoral defeat. They had presided over high inflation rates and responded with high interest rates. Then, following Black Wednesday in September 1992, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Norman Lamont, was obliged to withdraw us for the EU’s Exchange Rate Mechanism.

Just three months earlier, despite having a majority of only 22, the Conservatives had split over the Maastricht Treaty’s proposals for greater EU economic integration. Smith put forward an amendment to the government Bill, refusing endorsement of the measure until it incorporated the Social Chapter. He all-but won by attracting tactical Tory rebels. In fact, initially the vote was tied until it was discovered that a government whip had miscounted by one.

Plus, the unpopularity of Thatcher’s poll tax continued to tarnish the Conservatives even though the Major government had replaced it with a less than perfect council tax.

In 1995 Major was even obliged to call a leadership election to try to re-assert his authority. He defeated John Redwood by 218 to 89, just 17 days after Blair’s triumph over clause 4. Major was clearly on his way out and all Blair needed was a veneer of competence.

New Labour’s popularity and influence

In terms of parliamentary seats and time-served in Downing Street, Blair delivered more than any other leader in the history of the Labour Party. He was PM for 10 years while Harold Wilson held the post for eight and Attlee for six.

Blair helped to deliver record numbers of Labour seats, for which many Labour MPs were grateful: he won 418 in 1997 and 412 in 2001 – in both years more than Attlee’s 393 in 1945. Even in 2005 he helped deliver 355 seats, Labour’s fifth highest tally in 19 post-second world war contests.

His initial electoral triumph also ended an 18-year spell in opposition. Given that Labour participated in Churchill’s war-time coalition, it had never served such a long spell in opposition since it had changed its name in 1906 from the Labour Representation Committee.

New Labour could not have survived the 13 years of the Blair/Brown era unless it had delivered some things of value, such as:

  1. the minimum wage and 24 days paid holiday for full-time workers
  2. Sure Start centres, child tax credits and better child benefits
  3. free services for older people, with off-peak local bus travel, free eye tests, winter fuel payments and free TV licenses for the over 75s
  4. debts written off for poorer nations and the overseas aid budget doubled
  5. liberal measures such as civil partnerships, the ban on fox hunting and one the issue and the ILP committed a great deal of time and effort to – a Northern Ireland peace settlement.

But there was another unacceptable side of the New Labour coin, which some of us feared from the start. Labour moved away from seeking to defend its industrial and manufacturing base, which had always delivered it solid traditional working class support, towards meeting the needs of finance capital that served other sectors of society. This produced a different form of economic stability that lasted until Gordon Brown’s administration was hit by the world-wide financial crisis of 2008.

Brown acted quickly (within his norms) to save the banking system and prevent even worse havoc. But he had always acted within the boundaries of the needs of international finance, and so his credibility as PM was crushed.

High hopes

At Labour Party conference shortly after Blair’s clause 4 victory, I sat in a section containing other Labour MPs when he took the platform to speak. They all rose to applaud him. I compromised – I jumped up but did not clap. I did not want my opposition to be picked up by a TV camera. A voice behind me said, “Harry, what are you up to?” It was Jeremy Corbyn, who remained seated and wasn’t clapping. Perhaps this illustrates the difference in our approaches.

Blair Labour

Yet at the 1997 election, traditional Labour supporters had high hopes. Although the turnout was 6% down on the previous general election, whenever I met a ‘don’t know’ they always turned out to be an ex-Tory voter, numbers of whom then abstained.

On the morning of Blair’s initial electoral triumph, I visited the polling station that served the solid working class community of Danesmoor in Clay Cross, which 25 years earlier had been at the centre of the famous Clay Cross rent rebellion. I found there the biggest queue outside a polling station I have ever seen in this country, a bit like the first post-apartheid elections in South Africa. Many were women with push chairs who had just seen their older children off to school. Hopes were very high for Labour and even my own majority increased three-fold to 18,000.

Yet only three years later the French-based firm Saint Gobain bought out the viable pipe-manufacturing plant of Bi-waters at Clay Cross, which employed 700 people, nearly all of whom lived within five miles of the plant, including in the Danesmoor area. Saint Gobain moved immediately to close down the plant as it was an international competitor. If the matter had been referred by the Blair government to the Competition Commission, the chances are the plant would have been saved. But Stephen Byers, the Minister for Trade and Industry, and Blair himself refused to do this or to take alternative action to protect the local community.

A sacked worker from Biwaters approached me at the following year’s general election, saying, “Harry, tell me how can I vote for you without voting for Tony Blair?” There was no answer to that, even if I had pointed to my record of rebellion. I felt his discontent.

The general decline in jobs and prospects among wider working class communities needed action; resources needed to be placed into the affected  areas – yet little was ever done.

This pattern of accepting the dominance of international capitalist norms, while seeking some trickle-down social provisions, still has a considerable pull among MPs in the current PLP, especially when the alternative on offer, Corbyn’s agenda, is seen as such a dramatic shift.

The first major parliamentary rebellion against Blair came in early 1998 when 47 Labour MPs voted against cuts in single-parent benefits and 57 abstained. Further rebellions by many of us meant we were later dismissed as ‘the usual suspects’.

Yet others on the left (including many from the Tribune Group) accepted front bench positions and gave loyalist support to Blair, rationalising their moves as giving them influence in their specific areas of responsibility. Even Michael Meacher was kept rather quiet when he was Minister for the Environment for six years. He even voted for the Iraq War.

Splits and rebellions

In the 2001 and 2005 elections Blair almost repeated his earlier victory, but the turnout slumped from 71.3% in 1997 to 59.4% and then 61.4%. Low turnouts and under-registration was heavily concentrated in traditional Labour areas and among the young, but this not did not lead to a dramatic loss of Labour seats.

In 2003 Labour MPs split over the invasion of Iraq with 245 voting for and 139 against. In 2004, Blair had his narrowest Commons victory when 71 Labour MPs voted against university top-up fees and 19 abstained. By this stage he was in serious danger of mislaying his large majority.

In Blair’s last full government (2001-05), Corbyn was the leading rebel on 148 occasions, with John McDonnell next on 135. I was still standing-but-not-clapping on 81.

The low-level survival of Labour governments rested in part on Conservative ineptitude – under William Hague, Ian Duncan Smith and then Michael Howard. Even the first victory of David Cameron required a Tory coalition with the Lib Dems.

After Labour’s 2010 electoral defeat, the party turned (or half-turned) to Ed Miliband who defeated his brother David by winning in the CLP and affiliated bodies section of the leadership vote, and despite losing 56% to 44% among MPs.

Ed then helped to usher in changes which were later of great significance for Corbyn. He changed the voting structure for future leaders to an individual ballot among party members, affiliated supporters and registered supporters, with MPs and MEPs retaining nominating rights. The PLP’s right to vote for the 20 shadow cabinet posts (including that of chief whip) was also ended.

As it turned out, both moves presented Corbyn with a heaven-sent opportunity. I think Miliband saw something of this possibility but things went much more rapidly to the left than he had ever anticipated.


Harry Barnes is the former Labour MP for North East Derbyshire. He blogs at ‘Three Score Years and Ten’.

This is part one of a two-part article. It is a longer version of the presentation made by Harry to an ILP conference on Labour’s crisis held in Leeds on 15 October 2016.

The second part of Harry’s piece is here.

See also: ‘Labour on the Brink: A Statement on the Leadership Crisis’.