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New Left Review 3, May-June 2000

Are there more tensions in New Labour’s constitutional reforms than Peter Mair’s model of a ‘partyless democracy’ allows? Anthony Barnett argues that the style of Blair’s government is actually closer to that of a large media corporation—bound to come to grief on the variegated realities of modern Ukania.



Any scientist or scholar, especially one attempting to decipher the forces at work in contemporary politics, will be familiar with the strange moments when a dubious, even mistaken line of thought leads to an original and, in an important way, true conclusion. It seems to me that this is what has happened with Peter Mair’s examination of Britain’s New Labour government. I am confident that his analysis of what its leadership intends is flawed. He quotes the unelected, and unelectable, Lord Chancellor, Lord Irvine (in a footnote but without irony) stating, ‘We have set out to be a Government which returns power to the people’. He cites Blair’s overblown Party Conference peroration in September 1999 that the ‘cause’ is to ‘set our people free’. To take such statements seriously is to mistake rhetoric for purpose. As Ralph Dahrendorf has pointed out, the Prime Minister never spontaneously talks about liberty. [1] New Statesman 6 September 1999. In this case he clearly told his speech writers to steal a Tory slogan. Mair is absolutely right to take the New Labour leaders seriously. But there is a difference between taking them seriously and taking them literally.

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Anthony Barnett, ‘Corporate Populism and Partyless Democracy’, NLR 3: £3

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