As the Labour Party enters its ninth year in opposition, comparisons are being drawn to the 1980s and how it took them, and the Democrats, over a decade to win elections again. As Richard Carr argues in his timely book, it was the special relationship between the moderates on both sides of the Atlantic that underpinned their fightback.
Richard Carr’s March of the Moderates: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the Rebirth of Progressive Politics is out now and is published by I.B.Tauris.
Nine Years and Counting
By the year 1988 – which until now is the last time Labour reached nine years in opposition – the party was in the first flushes of a Policy Review which would set them up for a decade of electoral domination. In May 1988, the Times heralded the birth of Neil Kinnock’s ‘New Labour’ after he unveiled a ‘moderate course’ which broke ‘from the unpopular policies which had dogged the party’s performance in the last three elections’. Out went EU withdrawal, nationalisation and unilateral nuclear disarmament. In came the acceptance of ‘markets’ and lower taxes.
To the left-wing of the party, it was an unnecessary betrayal. Tony Benn encapsulated the belief that ‘as more and more people experience market forces in practice….socialism reappears’. Nine years in opposition and three election defeats had blunted Benn’s arguments about the inevitability of Thatcher’s fall from office. It was in 1988 that Benn finally gave up on his hopes of leading the party, crushed in a ‘futile’ leadership contest that few in the Labour Party had wanted. His challenge, organised by Jeremy Corbyn, proved to be the last roll of the dice for the Bennites for the next two decades. In the same year, two future Labour Prime Ministers entered the Shadow Cabinet. It proved to be a seismic turning point in the March of the Moderates.
The Land the Moderates Lost
A central tenant of Richard Carr’s exploration of the relationship between Labour and the Democrats is the ‘trauma’ of the consecutive electoral defeats they both suffered in the 1980s. As the book outlines, both initially struggled to come to terms with the uncomfortable truth that some of their traditional supporters had left them. One strategist who did recognise the shift was Stan Greenberg, the US pollster, who identified the ‘blue-collar workers who traditionally voted democrat’ but had turned to Reagan. He sought to hear their uncomfortable conversations in the ‘bars, sports stadia and workplaces’ of Reagan’s America. He observed a middle class squeezed by tax dodgers at the top and those at the bottom who paid no tax at all. In Britain, Phillip Gould and the Shadow Communications Agency were conducting similar discussions on Labour’s ‘cloth-cap’ image and the limited nature of its electoral appeal.
Carr’s book makes original use of the Kinnock archives to outline the importance of the relationship between Labour and the Democrats in this period. Trips to the US were seen by Kinnock as a chance to ‘increase the leader’s standing as a world statesman’. Long before Rory Stewart popularised ‘the walk around’, Kinnock used his 1984 trip to the US to walk around the Bronx in New York to ‘share observations and philosophies’ with the public. The walkabout gained traction in the New York Times where Kinnock was reported to have been shocked to find poverty ‘on this scale…maybe in London I can show you one street that’s bad, but here, it’s a whole region.’
Such visits were of high risk for a Labour leader who was still viewed as anti-American in his outlook. Just a few months before his visit to the Bronx, Kinnock had been a vocal opponent of the arrival of cruise missiles arrived at Greenham Common. Kinnock led the protests in Parliament against a US President who ‘has shown contempt for the views of the British Government’ making the country a target for ‘saturation nuclear attack’.
Where Kinnock made the greatest impact was in cultivating relationships with Democrat leaders. One of those was Joe Biden, who is once again running for the party’s nomination this Autumn. Famously, Biden’s Presidential bid collapsed under allegations over plagiarism after he utilised Kinnock’s ‘thousand generations’ speech for his 1988 campaign. What is revealed in the book is how Biden later requested a meeting with the Labour leader to present him, tongue in cheek, with ‘a small collection of his own speeches on foreign policy’. Kinnock read the speeches and highlighted that it was Biden’s ‘tough-minded internationalist foreign policy’ that Labour should follow.
Neither Biden nor Kinnock would fulfil their ambitions to lead their country into the 1990s. Successive defeats led to a consensus, as articulated by the Times, that Labour and the Democrats were still ‘searching for an identity that will attract voters back’. However, Carr has identified a largely forgotten campaign, again from 1988, which was a ‘useful staging post in shifting attitudes on the left’. Dick Gephardt’s tilt at the Democratic nomination provided a framework for future New Democrat/New Labour campaigns. He pitched the party as one of ‘strong defence’ and open to global trade, rather than one of ‘soft-headedness and faint-heartedness’. Gephardt withdrew having won only three mid-western states and the Republicans fought the 1988 election on the three F’s; ‘freedom, family and future’. In a post-election analysis, the Democrats were said to be ‘out of touch on economics, out of touch on foreign policy and out of touch on values’.
Four years after Gephardt’s attempt, Bill Clinton was expected to struggle to break the Republican hold over America. In June 1992, The Times praised Clinton for developing a platform that was ‘free of the obsessions with minority rights and redistributive economics’ but expected him to be found out over time. In the end, Clinton secured a ‘truly a national victory’ gaining three million extra votes for the party.
Psychologically, Clinton proved that the right could be beaten. Carr quotes Ed Balls, who admits that for him, and his generation, Clinton’s victory showed ‘that it was possible to win from the centre-left rather than the centre-right’ platform, having never experienced it in his adult life. Inevitably, the British press sought comparisons with the Labour Party. Anthony Howard observed how Clinton and running mate Al Gore had refused to talk about ‘rainbow coalitions’ and ‘representing the underdogs’. Instead, it had pitched itself to middle-class America, something that Kinnock had failed to do.
In January 1993 Blair and Brown appeared on American TV together ( C-Span – which is a fascinating insight into the dynamic of their relationship at that point) where they outlined their ambitions for the Labour Party and a desire to learn from Clinton’s campaign. Indeed, Blair and Brown were singled out by The Times as the modernisers who recognised that ‘Labour has been too obsessed with means rather than ends’ and that ‘nationalisation will not achieve a fairer society’.
The synchronicity of the Blair/Brown relationship was, as Carr identifies in the book, due to the pair sharing economic portfolios that ensured they ‘ended up at the same meetings, talking to the same people’ in those fruitful early years. The fact-finding trips to America would be defining ones in the development of New Labour. It was in a Madison Avenue Café in 1992 that Gordon Brown gave Tony Blair the line that would help elevate him to the top of British politics; ‘tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime’.
The British Clinton
When Tony Blair became Labour leader in 1994 it was Clinton’s approach that influenced his strategic thinking. Carr points to the similarities in Blair’s ‘symbolic’ removal of Clause IV and Clinton’s ‘Sister Souljah’ moment. In 1992 Clinton had defined himself against the left, and the unpopular Jesse Jackson, by attacking the comments of rap artist Sister Souljah (who had caused controversy when she asked ‘if black people kill black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?’) To the left, Souljah was bringing attention to the treatment of black Americans in the era of the Rodney King riots.
Clinton was criticised for singling out ‘a young African woman’ within his party. However, the move was a symbolic step on the road to winning back middle-class America. Blair’s removal of Clause IV was as equally symbolic, to signal that the Labour Party had a modern constitution that ‘says what we are in terms the public cannot misunderstand and the Tories cannot misrepresent’. Blair won admirers in the U.S for ‘the utter ruthlessness of it’. In the U.K The Times declared him ‘Blair the Bold’ in the wake of the change.
Symbolism was important to New Labour as they approached the 1997 election. Historically, Labour leaders have sought an audience with the U.S President to convey authority and gravitas in their leader. In 1987, Kinnock was famously humiliated by Ronald Reagan and skewered over his defence plans. Whilst the actual events of the meeting are still disputed, the negative fall-out from the visit was etched into Labour’s ethos. However, by the time Blair flew to Washington in 1996 for a meeting with President Clinton, Labour was clearly in the ascendency.
The Times, who had dubbed Kinnock’s meeting ‘the fiasco of Washington’, were now reporting of ‘the business and media elite’ interest in Blair. As Carr highlights in the book, the visit was an Alastair Campbell tour de force; with strategic articles placed in the New York Times and Wall Street Journal to project Blair as a future Prime Minister. In the 1997 General Election Labour used the video of Clinton and Blair meeting to justify their claim that Blair was ‘the most talked-about politician of his generation’.
The influence of the Democrats was to be seen in New Labour’s election strategy in 1997. Labour pioneered the ‘War Room’, the ‘Rapid Rebuttal Unit’, the ‘soundbite’ and the ‘pledge card’. The latter was inspired by Margaret McDonagh’s experience in the U.S, giving Labour a simple set of policies that could be taken to every doorstep in every constituency. The influence even extended to the choice of campaign songs. Bill Clinton urged America ‘Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow’ while Blair signalled that ‘things can only get better’. Both were the most effective campaigns songs of their era.
Labour’s eventual landslide was greeted with delight in Clinton’s White House. He told the American public that ‘it proved people do not want political parties and political leadership tied to the past’. Blair was equally as inspired by Clinton. When the Labour Cabinet met for the first time after eighteen years in opposition, it was not Attlee or Wilson who Blair looked to for inspiration, but Clinton. He told Ministers that we ‘must always be setting the agenda’ and they should ‘never lose sight of the importance of communicating with the public’. He told them that it was Bill Clinton who had taught him that.
Over twenty years have passed since then, and it is clear that both Blair and Clinton have lost their natural connection with the public. However, Carr’s book provides an insightful guide to the benefits of the centre-left working together on both sides of the Atlantic. Today, it is the right of America and Britain that are seeking to replicate the close relationship the moderates forged in the mid-1990s. In his address to the Oxford Union, Steve Bannon cited the Brexit referendum as the motivation for Trump in 2016, as evidence that ‘it could happen here’, just as Clinton had done for a depressed Labour Party in 1992. It remains to be seen whether the moderates can combat it and begin their will march back to power again.
Richard Carr’s new book March of the Moderates: Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and the Rebirth of Progressive Politics is out now. and is published by I.B.Tauris.