The End of the Party
Andrew Rawnsley, Viking £25
Peter Watt, Biteback £16.99
Two new books chart the long decay of the Labour government.
Andrew Rawnsley’s The End of the Party has gathered quite a few headlines in recent weeks. Former Labour Party general secretary Peter Watt’s has received rather fewer.
Watt’s offering is an odious book by an odious man about odious people. Rawnsley’s book on the other hand is an attempt at the first draft of history.
Thanks to Rawnsley we now know that Gordon Brown was fond of throwing mobile phones across rooms.
The back seat of Brown’s Daimler is covered in pen marks inflicted in anger. And he grabbed an aide by the lapels and shouted, “They are out to get me!”
The narrative of the book is that Tony Blair gave too much power to Brown and was unable to control him, while Blair’s own self-defined “charismatic” leadership edged into fantasy.
In both accounts the Blairs’ fascination with money comes across as a reflection of New Labour’s obsession with encouraging the rich.
Rawnsley argues that Blair wasn’t lying in the run up to the Iraq war. He was a “true believer” in his own spin, fully committed to war.
Blair also read the Koran – this was leaked at the time. What was not known is that Blair read three different versions, in a bid to find quotes that linked Islam to terrorism.
Then there is Blair’s smug response to the two million people who marched against the war: “Even I’m a bit worried about this one.”
In an odd way, neither book is about politics. These are the tales of Tony, Gordon and the others – arrogant men who spend a lot of time swearing and shouting into mobile phones.
They are uninterrupted by any policy. Politics is reinvented as showbusiness and gossip.
The cynicism seeps through. On 9/11, Alistair Campbell rang Sky News to jokingly complain that they have set a building on fire in New York to take headlines away from Blair’s speech to the TUC.
In Rawnsley, Brown is spiteful and ambitious but intelligent. In Watt, Brown is simply incapable of taking a decision.
One reason why there was not a general election in autumn 2007 is because Brown had no idea what he would put in the manifesto.
“Everyone around him thought that there was some big plan sitting in a bottom drawer somewhere, just ready to be pulled out when the moment came,” writes Watt. “In fact, there was nothing.”
The other reason was that the Labour Party had a million letters in the post, but they were trapped in a mail centre because of the post workers’ strike.
It the strike hadn’t happened then they would have been delivered – and the election would have been on regardless of whether Brown changed his mind.
As the government stumbled from crisis to crisis, the degeneration of Brown and Blair was real.
Brown believed Blair deliberately taunted him over the death of his baby daughter by leaving his own baby son’s pram on display in Downing Street.
Brown told a colleague, “Tony and Cherie are so cruel to me.” After one encounter in 2006, Blair allegedly told his friends that Brown “kept shouting at me that I’d ruined his life”.
Watt, meanwhile, was Labour’s general secretary at the time of what he calls “one of the greatest political scandals” of the decade. He was a frequent recipient of David Abrahams’s hospitality during the “dodgy donors” affair.
Watt claims he was badly treated by every senior Labour politician he met – with the bizarre exception of Hazel Blears. He praises the tax avoiding Blears for her supposed financial restraint.
There is much malevolent self-pity in Watt, as there is in the Labour Party in general.
Rawnsley claims former Labour fundraiser Lord “cashpoint” Levy revealed Blair had ordered him to start soliciting secret loans from wealthy businessmen in the run-up to the 2005 election.
Blair was apparently panicking that the Tories had more money.
Blair is also said to have blamed Gordon Brown for pushing the “cash-for-peerages” scandal that followed by egging on Unite official Jack Dromey, then Labour Party treasurer, to say he had known nothing about the loans.
This is backed up in Watt’s book, which is highly critical of Dromey for allegedly saying one thing in private and another in public.
Overall, Rawnsley’s book is really about his disillusion with Blair and Brown.
Meanwhile Watt is bitter because he isn’t in charge – and doesn’t understand why walking around with billionaires’ dodgy cheques in his pocket caused a scandal.
But what both accounts miss is why it all happened in the first place.
The reality is that Blair and Brown carried big business into the public sector in ways the Thatcherites never dreamed of. And they have led more destructive imperialist wars.
That is what underlies the chaos at the heart of government. As the New Labour project unravelled, so did the centre of the party.
There is little comfort to be taken from the chaos inside the Labour Party that these books give a glimpse into. Hope, and indeed real politics, lies outside.
The End of the Party and Inside Out are available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to » www.bookmarksbookshop.co.uk