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No govt for old men

world Updated: Jul 20, 2010 00:42 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar
Dipankar De Sarkar
Hindustan Times
Highlight Story

A slew of books by ousted New Labour-wallas appears to make one thing clear: this youthful political project could have done with some experienced hands.

We're not speaking here of hoary-headed MPs who would flinch and faint at the sight of their young prime minister cranking up the volume knob on a Fender Telecaster guitar. Nor of ideologues in a rush to change the world after nearly two decades wasted in the wilderness.

But perhaps some kindly old mentors, who would hold the hands of the wide-eyed men and women of New Labour in the pinkish dawn of their glory, guided, as it were, from behind the scenes — not from the shadows, as the dark spin-doctor Peter Mandelson was inclined to do.

The three architects of New Labour were all young when the party took power in May 1997: guitar-loving Tony Blair was 44, while Gordon Brown and Mandelson were a year older.

The trio had watched with growing unease as their party faltered in election after election under the leadership of antediluvian men wedded to political philosophies that looked as frayed as their corduroy trousers.

So when their time came, the three men reshaped the party and nudged it to the centre-ground of politics, where votes lay.

But was the youth of the project its undoing as well? When the Tories assumed charge in 1979, the average age of cabinet ministers was nearly 52; it peaked in 1987 at close to 54. In 2007 when Gordon Brown became prime minister, it had dropped to 49.

Reading through some of the recent books chronicling the rise and fall of New Labour — the latest is Mandelson's The Third Man — one gets the feeling that the intense, bitter and ultimately self-destructive Blair-Brown rivalry that was at heart of the three New Labour governments could have done with some of that cool counsel that comes with experience.

A thread of inexperience ran through the 13 years of New Labour. It showed up in Brown's economic mismanagement, in Blair's refusal to take notice of moderate voices on Iraq, and in Mandelson's allegedly unquestioning faith in packaging and process (rather than content). Above all, it showed up in the narcissism of the project.

Has New Labour set a counter-intuitive trend in this ageing society? In 2008, Brown thundered, "This is no time for a novice." But no one cared: in May this year, David Cameron, 43, became the youngest British prime minister in nearly 200 years. And the Labour leadership, by all accounts, is set to fall on the shoulders of David Miliband, who turned 45 last week.