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The death of New Labour’s populism Starmer is aligned to an incapable technocratic state

The revolution stops here (Leon Neal/Getty Images)

The revolution stops here (Leon Neal/Getty Images)


October 10, 2023   6 mins

It was around 2014 that I started to notice tracts warning about the dangers of populism from organisations with a close affiliation to New Labour. Over the decade since, little has changed: injected with the rocket fuel that was Brexit and Trump, it remains uncanny how many of those denouncing “populism” here in the UK have close links to Tony Blair. As for Blair himself, his new Institute for Global Change has a whole work-stream dedicated to confronting Populism, with one of its papers reflecting on “Populism in Power, 1990 to 2020”. Yet among its examples of populism of the period, there is a glaring omission: that led by Blair himself.

In 1993, the political consultant Philip Gould wrote a paper for internal Labour Party consumption advocating a “new populism”, based on the time he had just had working on the successful Democratic Party campaign for Bill Clinton. In his later book, The Unfinished Revolution (a bible for New Labourites), Gould said his memo went down “like a lead balloon” with the party machine. However, it proved influential with the young modernisers rising through the ranks, including Blair, Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson. Gould went on to work on Blair’s leadership campaign the following year and then served as a pollster and trusted communications adviser in opposition and government. He died of cancer in 2011.

The day after Blair was selected as leader, Gould wrote another of his lengthy memos, its message eerily prescient as Starmer sets out his pitch to the Labour Party faithful today:

“I argued that the real political agenda was a combination of Right and Left. It was Right-wing on crime, welfare, immigration, discipline, tax and individualism, but Left-wing on the NHS, investment, social integration, opposition to privatisation and unemployment. People wanted change, but they didn’t yet want Labour
 There is still a lurking fear about unions and the loony Left; there is potential concern about Labour because of its liberal social positions; there is anxiety about tax; there is almost no idea what Labour stands for.”

In 1999, after Blair’s first landslide, Gould wrote once more of this “new populism always seeking to hear the voices of those not often heard”. Crucially for him, this did not mean the unions and minorities, who Labour already paid a lot of attention to, but “working-class achievers and the middle class under pressure”. These were the people he had grown up around; he saw them as natural Labour voters who the party had repeatedly betrayed. “I came from the land that Labour forgot,” he wrote.

To get to these people, reassure them and to make them vote for you requires a lot of work: part of what Clinton referred to as the “head game” of politics. In his foreword to the revised edition of Gould’s book, Blair himself acknowledged this: “Politics is far more intellectual exercise than people ever think
 You will always end up with a strategic definition of your overall political position. The question is therefore: do you impose it on yourself or do your opponents do it for you?”

What this revealed is that, for all its faults, New Labour understood how politics works — how people in the public eye are positioning themselves all the time, whether they realise it or not. And they decided it was better to do this deliberately. In this sense, theirs was not the intellectuality of the distanced, objective observer, who is committed to truth, but that of the participant who is in a fight and trying to win it.

This desire to understand where they stood with the public accorded a central role to Gould’s polling and focus groups, to the intense annoyance of many Labour MPs. Gould himself, perhaps somewhat naively, saw this market research “as an important part of the democratic process — part of a necessary dialogue between politicians and people, part of a new approach to politics”. He saw opinion polls and focus groups as a way for ordinary people to get their voices heard in the Labour Party and in government: a form of democratic idealism that contrasts starkly with New Labour’s reputation for cynicism and technocracy while in government, as well as with the distinctly anti-democratic tendencies of its supporters in more recent times.

In reality, however, this focus on responding to the public’s concerns was easily exploited in power, by giving one impression while doing the opposite: notably on immigration. This was particularly pertinent on immigration, where they made a lot of noise about restrictions while quietly opening up new avenues: something that subsequent Conservative governments have emulated. This feeds into a more general, jarring conflict between being attentive to moderate public opinion and New Labour’s sometimes maniacal focus on change and modernisation, on defeating the “forces of conservatism”, as Blair outlined in his conference speech of 1999. Given the stale Tory governments, stale Labour Party and stale country of the Nineties, the stars were aligned for the embrace of change. In fact, it seemed to fit so well that they effectively made it into a universal ideology: thereby departing in spirit from the natural conservatism that they had recognised in most people.

This tension in New Labour between respect for the electorate and the desire to overturn much of what the electorate holds dear appears in Gould’s book as a conflict between the ideas of the conservative philosopher Michael Oakeshott, whom he studied under at the London School of Economics, and the German idealist G.W.F. Hegel. Gould notes his debt to Oakeshott, but says that ultimately it was Hegel who prevailed in his mind for being “more satisfying, although more mystifying”.

Certainly, Hegel has much greater scope and ambition with his theory of dialectical progress and world-historical change. Because of this he has a much greater claim to authority, something we might see embodied in one of Blair’s favourite themes: “the world of change”, of inevitable and ever-increasing social complexity, technology and globalisation. This perspective is now standard in the upper reaches of public life, no doubt partly down to how it implies handing power to an expert class with a superior understanding of social change: a progressive elite. It confers a sheen of novelty and optimism onto the actions of power: of technocracy, quangofication and the ongoing project of using progressive identity politics to organise the state. It also serves as a neat means to exclude non-conformers from high society: for if you do not accept that certain changes are inevitable and cannot be reversed, then you count as someone without the requisite knowledge, as out-of-date and to be treated as a regressive outsider by the organs of power.

Here, the conflict within New Labour — and within Gould’s own mind — resolved itself in a way that would end up shutting out the people he had sought to represent. Hegel’s own promotion of the Prussian state as the apotheosis of the historical process finds itself replicated in the way New Labour followers tend to treat their own consensus as an endpoint: a culmination of social progress. In effect, they therefore reject Hegelianism as a continuing process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis. Instead, they treat the conflict of ideas as over and the game already won, notably on such things as mass immigration (which is to continue indefinitely). Any counter-currents can therefore be safely quarantined as “populism” and dealt with as threats to be managed rather than interesting challenges.

This transition among Blair and his followers from populism to anti-populism reflects the transition from being outsiders to insiders. Formerly, they saw themselves as an insurgent force. But now they are comfortable and indeed broadly set the tone for public life both in state institutions and the mainstream media.

And Keir Starmer’s Labour Party appears to follow cautiously in their wake. It is, for instance, notably wary of getting on the wrong side of public opinion on subjects such as crime and immigration, just as New Labour was. But it is also solidly committed to the consensus established in the New Labour years, of relying on arms-length, extra-governmental bodies staffed by fellow travellers to help push through policy choices under the guise of independent expertise. Rachel Reeves’s proposal to give the Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) legal oversight over any major tax and spending decisions is a classic example. You are only going to do that if you know the body in question shares your instincts. Mark Carney’s very public endorsement for Reeves yesterday shows that the old guard of technocrats are pleased with Labour at the moment.

Today’s Labour Party, then, does not present itself as a populist insurgency against a tired Establishment as Blair and Brown did in the Nineties. Rather, it appears almost purely in a defensive role, its task being to reconsecrate the hegemony that New Labour initially established, restoring the equilibrium of the state and of Britain’s relations to the outside world. On the latter, Starmer’s Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy, one of the most vociferous opponents of Brexit, has promised a “Britain Reconnected” — effectively a restoration in foreign relations.

Where does this leave New Labour’s populist spirit? Gould wrote about the importance of “a new long-term radicalism, to ensure that progressive instincts become rooted in the institutions of the nation, just as conservative instincts were in the past”. And in this respect, his new populism clearly succeeded. However, in doing so it turned against its own democratic spirit, bypassing the people it was meant to serve. Rather than seeking to do what people want, centrists of the New Labour stripe generally seek to manage them away, imposing their own preferences and presenting them as the only sensible, reasonable approach.

In 1994, Gould advised Blair that “populism… means Labour becoming once again the instrument through which ordinary people believe they can achieve their aspirations”. It is inconceivable that Keir Starmer would embrace such an equation. Rather, his role is that of a safe pair of hands. Like many Tory leaders of yesteryear, he is trying to convey the impression that Labour will not disturb you under his rule.

But this looks unlikely. For, as Labour leader, Starmer is almost necessarily aligned to a failing, incapable technocratic state which orders itself using the same, broadly unpopular, progressive identity politics that Labour does. This all promises trouble ahead. Starmer himself is certainly not leading a populist uprising — but I think we can expect one to develop against his incoming government in pretty short order.


Ben Cobley writes the blog A Free Left Blog and is author of The Tribe: the Liberal-Left and the System of Diversity. He is a journalist by trade and a former Labour Party activist.

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Andrew R
Andrew R
9 months ago

“…the consensus established in the New Labour years, of relying on arms-length, extra-governmental bodies staffed by fellow travellers to help push through policy choices under the guise of independent expertise”.

They love to give the veneer of democracy through “Have your say” and “evidence” through opinion polls. They have nothing but absolute contempt for the electorate.

Saul D
Saul D
9 months ago

The focus groups and polling was, at one point, based on the idea of listening to people’s needs and concerns so politics could fix things and make the world better.
Unfortunately it developed into a process of testing how to sell and package backroom policies that were already decided. Find the best nudges, talking points and persuading methods (eg labelling or name-calling). Ignore what people actually want or were worried about.

Anne Torr
Anne Torr
9 months ago
Reply to  Saul D

A bit like these ‘citizens’ assemblies’ arranged to include just the right people to give the ‘right’ results

AC Harper
AC Harper
9 months ago

A fine analysis. The progressive consensus

…confers a sheen of novelty and optimism onto the actions of power: of technocracy, quangofication and the ongoing project of using progressive identity politics to organise the state. 

… and the risk with populism is that it that people might democratically prefer something else, something the political elite might not be comfortable about.
Which is why ‘populism’ is being spun as low brow and objectionable. By both major parties. Which is why Brexit, Boris Johnson and Liz Trust (and Trump, Meloni, and so on elsewhere) had the Establishment stacked against them. Populism by its very nature is anti-Establishment.

Andrew R
Andrew R
9 months ago

“in doing so it turned against its own democratic spirit, bypassing the people it was meant to serve. Rather than seeking to do what people want, centrists of the New Labour stripe generally seek to manage them away, imposing their own preferences and presenting them as the only sensible, reasonable approach”.

Brilliant analysis, we see this process currently with Welsh Labour. They’re securing their hold on the Senedd with increasing the number of members to strangle the independents, who they fear more than anyone else.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
9 months ago
Reply to  Andrew R

There is no opposition in Wales. The Tories don’t stand for anything and Plaid Cymru has only one policy.

Jonathan Nash
Jonathan Nash
9 months ago

Please understand this: Blair is the dominant figure in Starmer Labour now. Starmer had no real political programme, and as the terrifying prospect of actually being in charge has become real he has bought in a ready-baked programme from outside. Vote Starmer get Blair.

Alex Carnegie
Alex Carnegie
9 months ago

Correct. At present, it looks like Labour will win the next election with a big majority. It will be a restoration of New Labour without the elan; a technocratic administration living in a bubble and probably unable to respond to the popular – populist? – currents in society. Ironically, the ruthless centralised disciplined campaigning model that is enabling Starmer to win power risks being his downfall once in government. If one wants parallels, think of the SNP government in Scotland but without the sense of mission or Obama without the ability to inspire.

In particular, I see no sign that Labour have a thought through solution to the corrosive effects of real wage stagnation or decline for a large chunk of the electorate. If this challenge is not responded to then U.K. politics may follow the US pattern. We will get Starmer next but perhaps the British version of Trump populism in the following election – after Labour technocratic rule singularly fails to inspire.

MGBGA in 2030?

Last edited 9 months ago by Alex Carnegie
Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
9 months ago

This analysis is correct. Labour is now the servant of the more powerful ruling anti democratic permanent Technocracy established by Blair and the EU. A victory simply restores their full power and sees of the first great peoples revolt against their failure (Brexit). And there will be another rumble and revolt. Why? Because the underlying progressive ideologies of this New Order are ALL creating economic chaos – mass migration and population growth, suffocating taxes, an aggressive and broken NHS monster, heavy legal Vetocracies crippling housing markets and employment and the total insanity of Net Zero which will end the era of cheap power and usher in permanent recessionary degrowth. The Tories bowed to this System so return in full it will. So our fate is sealed.

Caradog Wiliams
Caradog Wiliams
9 months ago

Moral of the story:
Populism is good if the right person is popular.

Tyler Durden
Tyler Durden
9 months ago

New Labour was an exception because the key debate was not about the euro with Britain having been flung out of the ERM earlier in the 90s.
Instead, this deceitful group of people maximised the number of labour migrants who arrived from the former Eastern Bloc. Then Brown refused to hold the promised referendum on the new EU Lisbon Treaty.
Cameron followed suit until he was held up by the real British populist in the 2010s.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Tyler Durden

Cameron called himself “the heir to Blair” and referred to Blair as “the master”.

Dougie Undersub
Dougie Undersub
9 months ago

An excellent article. At their conference this week Labour seems to have nothing to say about the existential issues facing the West, while concentrating on its traditional tinkering with private schools, borrowing “to invest” and refighting Brexit.

Hugh Bryant
Hugh Bryant
9 months ago

Starmer gave the game away when he let slip that he prefers the company of the Davos elite to that of elected Parliamentarians. After that, none of his attempts to appeal to popular feeling over topics such as immigration can be taken at all seriously.

UnHerd Reader
UnHerd Reader
9 months ago
Reply to  Hugh Bryant

This year Starmer pretended to be a new boy at Davos, but he had been a member of the Trilateral Commission for several years.
https://labourheartlands.com/sir-keir-starmer-the-establishment-candidate-the-labour-leadership-race-and-the-trilateral-commission/

Lewis Eliot
Lewis Eliot
9 months ago

“In effect, they therefore reject Hegelianism as a continuing process of thesis, antithesis and synthesis.
So … the self declared identification as End of History and the Last Man. Marvellous. We all know what happened to the Last Man, too.