The power junkies
Watching The Project I was reminded of an episode in George Orwell’s Animal Farm. Napoleon-Stalin takes away a gang of young pups to raise and train them privately for his own purposes.
The pups grow into brute beasts, ignorant of all that the animals’ revolution had stood for. To consummate his coup, Napoleon unleashes them on those who oppose him. The savage dogs rip their throats out.
There is one scene in The Project in which Maggie, the conscience-bothered Blairite MP, is grabbed by a burly man, bundled through a door out of public sight, and pinned brutally to the wall. His face so close that he must be spraying spittle as well as angry words in her face, the thug threatens her with dire consequences if she does not remove her name from a motion criticising the government. He is a New Labour parliamentary whip.
The makers of The Project say that though the story and the characters are fictitious, all the incidents actually happened...
The overall picture which The Project conveys is of a major political party in the grip of a gang demoniacally driven by the lust for power, power for power’s sake. The people who staff the New Labour machine at every level are experts, high-grade technicians, political engineers, able to calculate and calibrate soundbite, image, impression and impact. Just like those who proverbially know the price of everything and the value of nothing, they know all the tricks of the political trade and nothing at all of why the labour movement created the Labour Party and went into politics in the first place.
They were “anti-Tories” who, starting under the leadership of Neil Kinnock, progressively gave up every element of a positive alternative to the Tories and let technique and smart-arse tricks take its place. To defeat the Tories, they became so like them that by the time they reached office after the 1997 general election they were politically indistinguishable from the worst of Tories.
The politics of the power-hungry Kinnockite-Blairite gang who hijacked the Labour Party in the 1980s and 90s were passively absorbed from the conventional political world around them - the world Margaret Thatcher had shaped after 1979, and especially after 1985. The least inhibited power-at-any-cost, soundbite-is-all rightists took over from the once soft-left Kinnockites who had paved the way for them.
Tony Blair is no accidental figure. An out-and-out Tory who thinks a little bit of constitutional fiddling here and there makes him a radical, he is the logical product of the process, New Labour's natural and proper leader.
It can’t be an accident, either, that quite a few of the people who have helped Blair, from Peter Mandelson to the present Party chair John Reid, are one-time Stalinists. There is a strong smell of Stalinism about the New Labour machine and the Blairite willingness to say and do more or less anything that they think will serve their “project”. These are “Stalinists” in the service of British capitalism.
The Project was an expose of New Labour’s vicious betrayal of even the timid and vague hopes of some of its own Blair-friendly supporters. Parading such incidents as New Labour’s cuts in benefits for single mothers and its reneging on the promise of a Freedom of Information Act, it did this effectively, in a low-key. You wound up with the impression that Martians had landed and taken over the Labour Party.
The false note is in telling the story through the experiences of Maggie the MP and her friends. Nobody in politics is as naive and ignorant as these people are portrayed to be initially. The meanness of, for example, the cuts in single mothers’ benefits — it was done to give political signals, more than for the saving — was perhaps surprising and therefore shocking. But by 1997 nobody paying attention could not have known what the Blairites were.
Maggie and her mates are a dramatic device rather than real characters possessed of average intelligence. Yet, at the end, the ring of truth is there.
After a little mild political indigestion, Maggie decides she has “too much invested” to break with the Blairites. She puts her “career” first. That is what they have all done, one-time leftists and soul-free careerists alike. They are members, or parliamentary lobby-fodder, for the worst “Tory” government since Margaret Thatcher's in the 1980s.
The lesson for serious socialists is that negative “anti-Toryism” — or negative “anti-imperialism”, or “anti-Blairism” — is a snare and a trap. We must know, and keep firmly in mind, what we are for, positively.
The logic of negative, depoliticised anti-Toryism, as it developed in the Labour Party and the trade unions in the 1980s and 90s, is, of course, only part of the explanation for the New Labour phenomenon. But it is a very big part of the explanation for the transformation of so many former socialists into the wretched creatures who go all the way with the Blair “project”.
Reviewer: Annie O’Keefe