Martin Bright says that the party labels its enemies as ‘mad’ for Freudian reasons: ‘projecting’ its own collective and individual mental disorders upon foes and rebels alike
What is it with New Labour and accusations of psychological weakness? No sooner had Hazel Blears announced her resignation from the Cabinet but dark murmurings bubbled up from Downing Street that the Salford MP ‘couldn’t handle it’. She had clearly cracked under the pressure following revelations about her expenses, it was suggested. Peter Mandelson appeared to be supportive when he told Sky News that Hazel Blears had a right to be angry that her career had ended in humiliation after doing such a ‘superb job’. But he couldn’t help adding that her decision to go had been prompted by the stress of discovering the media camped on her doorstep. In the end she has just ‘found it too much’, he said.
The alternative possibility, that Blears had made the entirely rational decision to walk before she was pushed, would never have been considered by the party high command. In the New Labour universe, any dissent can only be the result of a diseased mind, because to disagree would be, quite literally, insane.
It is three years since I first wrote about Labour’s obsession with the fragility of the human mind. David Blunkett had just published his memoirs. Here, for the first time, he admitted to suffering from depression during the crisis that forced him from the Home Office in 2004. Dealing with the fallout from his affair with Kimberley Quinn and the intense scrutiny of his inquiries about a passport for her nanny had been like going over the top in the first world war, he said. (Further evidence of Blunkett’s delusional tendencies, some might suggest.)
It has since emerged that John Prescott was diagnosed with the psychological eating disorder bulimia. Some of Labour’s scariest big beasts have suffered the effects of mental illness, so it might seem strange that accusations of insanity have become the party’s stock in trade. Should they not be more sensitive to the weakness of others when there is so much experience of the toll mental illness can take on the human mind within New Labour’s aristocracy?
Sigmund Freud would not be surprised at all. Since Freud, the psychologists have called this process ‘projection’, and it is central to understanding the group psychology of the Labour party. In essence, this is an entirely human response: finding a trait disgusting or troublesome in ourselves, we then ‘project’ it onto others to deflect our own feelings of inadequacy or self-loathing.
A key figure here is Alastair Campbell, one of the three or four great architects of New Labour, but as far as I know the only one ever to have been officially diagnosed insane. The centrality of the fear of madness within the Labour party derives, at least in part, from Campbell’s own brush with the black dog of depression. The former spinner has been admirably open about his own drink-induced nervous breakdown, which he suffered in 1983 while working as a journalist at the Daily Mirror. He has always praised Tony Blair for taking him on as press secretary despite knowing about his history of mental illness. He has also spoken candidly about the times the depression revisited him while he was working for the government. He told the Independent in 2006 that he once missed a press briefing because he ‘couldn’t face it’, and voiced his fears that he would crack up again during the Hutton inquiry into the death of the government scientist David Kelly.
Campbell should be saluted for his tireless campaigning to publicise the issue and was rightly named Mind’s mental health champion of the year last month. But he has repeatedly emphasised himself that once you have suffered from mental illness, the problem is never entirely resolved. As one brilliant letter to the Guardian put it after the publication of Campbell’s own memoir, The Blair Years: ‘I do not know what the term is for a narcissist with sociopath tendencies who has acute problems with their masculinity, but I know one when I see one.’
The Blair Years contains a telling episode from 17 September 1996, when Campbell catches the Labour leader writing a response to the Guardian about a Martin Rowson cartoon. ‘I said you’re doing what?’ writes Campbell. ‘Have you gone mad?… Tony, I said, please don’t write an article in response to a cartoon. People will think you’re bonkers.’ For Campbell this was always the ultimate fear. And it also has a political dimension. The tabloid term ‘loony left’ still had huge resonance during the emergence of the New Labour project. Much of Labour’s tentativeness over policy can be traced to this terror of being seen to be ‘bonkers’.
Under Gordon Brown, the slur of mental weakness has remained the Labour party’s insult of choice. It emerged again during the Damian McBride affair, when the disgraced spin doctor discussed spreading rumours that a Tory wife was suffering some sort of breakdown. Once more, there may have been some serious projection going on here.
Authoritarian governments will always describe opponents as insane, and totalitarian regimes go so far as to lock dissidents away in lunatic asylums. Gordon Brown is no dictator, but he is not a natural democrat. He and his allies simply cannot understand how anyone could not think the way they do. This is known as ‘denial’ in the parlance, a psychological defence mechanism even more basic and primitive than projection. Since the Cabinet failed to respond to James Purnell’s resignation last week, we now have a whole government in denial.
For more than a decade the spectre of psychological collapse has hovered over the Labour party. Usually this has been attached to individuals: Ron Davies’s ‘moment of madness’ on Clapham Common, Gordon Brown’s ‘psychological flaws’, Peter Mandelson’s unhinged ‘I’m a fighter not a quitter’ speech after retaining his Hartlepool seat in 2001.
But as we enter the summer, this has taken on a far more serious aspect. There are many ways of describing the collapse of the human mind, and the New Labour high command has used most of them against its internal and external opponents. Bipolar, delusional, paranoid: all could be used of the present regime. For once the hyperbole is warranted. The Labour party has entered a period where all its worst fears have been realised. From the Cabinet through its backbenchers and on to the constituency activists, the movement is undergoing a collective nervous breakdown. It is, as Alastair Campbell might say, ‘bonkers’.
Martin Bright writes a blog for the Spectator (new.spectator.co.uk/martinbright).