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The complex legacy of Tony Blair

The rise of Owen Jones as a persuasive and articulate exponent of socialist politics is certainly a very welcome development, and the reach of his articles in the Independent gives him a useful vehicle for propagating left-wing ideals, which he does very well. However, I want to take issue with Owen’s recent article about Tony Blair.

One of biggest intellectual challenges for the left in Britain is to assess the degree to which Blairism, the phenomenon we know as New Labour, has transformed the Labour Party. There are two vital questions to consider. Did Blairism represent a discontinuity with traditional centre-right Labourism (revisionism)? and whether any such discontinuity has fundamentally and irrevocably changed the nature of the Labour Party?

Owen argues:

Unlike Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, Blair failed to establish a new political consensus. He accepted the fundamentals of the Thatcher settlement: low taxes on the wealthy, weak trade unions, the dominance of the market over all. His great departure from Thatcherism was a desperately needed boost to spending on public services. … …. And contrast how the poorest fared with previous Labour governments. Four years before the crash, the income of the bottom third began declining. Under the Labour governments of the 1960s – which Blair delighted in defining himself against – the poorest 10 per cent saw their real incomes surge by 26 per cent, compared with a 16 per cent rise in median incomes.

I just don’t think this will do. The myth that Blairism was simply a continuation of Thatcherism is not entirely without foundation, but it is also highly misleading.

Blair and Brown did admittedly both accept the idea of market efficiency as ideologically neutral; and this does therefore represents continuity with the neo-liberalism of Thatcher in further dismantling the capacity of the state to intervene in the economy, and in degrading the traditional social-democratic institutions that produce a public service ethos and sustain communities of solidarity. Privatisation and PFI reduced the public sector, and macro-economic policy privileged the financial sector in London at the expense of perhaps a million private sector manufacturing jobs in Scotland, Wales, Northern Ireland and the English provinces.

Nevertheless, there were policies directly to benefit trade unions – such as union learning, and rights to recognition; these were the result of the coalitional social nature of the Labour Party.

But Blair did also have a distinct social agenda, which was both ideologically and practically progressive, compared to the Thatcherite governments which preceded it. The value of David Halpern’s 2009 book The Hidden Wealth of Nations, is the way he details the inherently radical nature of Blair’s social policies, though they were not necessarily derived from traditional social democratic influences. In 1997, NHS spending was at around 5% of GDP, and the conditions had been created by the Tories for an expansion of insurance based private sector; instead NHS spending rose to be around 10% of GDP in 2010. Early years intervention, such as SureStart centres for the parents of potentially disadvantaged young children has been a great success; and working tax credit has enormously increased prosperity and independence of parents in work. Labour repealed Clause 28, and introduced civil partnerships. None of these policies could have come from the Tories, and many are under threat from David Cameron.

That is why Owen is over-egging the pudding when he says:

Take the privatisation of the NHS. Under Blair, private sector involvement began to flourish and a commercial directorate was set up in the Department of Health. Gove is now expanding Blair’s Academy schools programme, and free schools are a logical extension of them. The Coalition trebled the tuition fees that Blair introduced. Across public services, Blair expanded the role of the private sector

There is a distinct difference between introducing PFI in the context of using private borrowing to expand and improve public services, with the Tory policy of privatising to disrupt and curtail public services. Indeed, the argument of using private money for capital projects as a mechanism to avoid increasing the PSBR is not indefensible. What is more, much of the social spending committed during the Blair years did deliver real benefits: comparing 2010 with 1997 saw 41000 more teachers and 120000 more teaching assistants, 80000 more nurses and 44000 more doctors, and 4.5 million families received tax credits of an average £65 per week.

Blairism was founded on the idea of creating a fairer, more harmonious society through an empowering partner state that provides conditions for individuals to help themselves. For all its weaknesses, it is a distinctly different agenda from Thatcher’s ideology of regarding the state as inherently problematic, and that individuals needed to be liberated from its influence.

Indeed, far from being Thatcherites, Tony Blair’s supporters in the party have invested considerable effort  to establish ideological continuity between themselves and the more traditional Labour revisionists; for example, Patrick Diamond’s 2004 anthology New Labour’s Old Roots selects extracts of centre-right thinkers in the party from Evan Durbin to Giles Radice, and editorialises them into a specious narrative leading inexorably to Blair.

Superficially, Blair’s emphasis on community and mutuality, divorced from any commitment to social ownership is indeed resonant of traditional Labour revisionism. But in truth, Blairism was distinct from both Thatcherism and traditional right wing social democracy.

If we compare Blair’s record with the most authorative statement of revisionism, Crosland’s The Future of Socialism, we can see that addressing the inequality of power that follows the inequality of wealth is a concept completely central to even centre-right Labourism; whereas in contrast Blairism falls foursquare within the limits of political liberalism, whereby all individuals are regarded as citizens, and the horizons of government are only to remove obstacles to individual liberty and choice; and empowering citizens to benefit from good choices.

This also explains the inherent social authoritarianism of New Labour. Having identified well-being as a form of value within human society, and particularly that bonds of trust are a form of accumulated social capital in developed industrial societies, the government sought to combat anti-social behaviour. This reflecting Tony Blair’s interest in the communitarian ideas of the Scottish philosopher John MacMurray.

However, because neo-liberalism wages war upon and dismantles the communities of solidarity that have been accumulated by the labour movement; Blair’s communitarianism relied not on reinforcing bonds of community support and pride but instead upon authoritarianism; not only lowering the thresholds to introducing young people into the criminal justice system, but also doubling the prison population.

Even policies, such as welfare reform, (where there is a strong evidence base that incentivising claimants back into the world of work would increase their individual self-esteem and happiness), were compromised by New Labour’s obsession with spin and the private sector. The policies were distorted by the desire to sell them to Tory swing voters as a crack down on cheats, which of course undermined the faith of claimants; furthermore credulity about the value of private sector experts led to the distrusted Freud policy review; and inbuilt conflicts of interest are inherently created by relying upon the profit motive to inspire decisions of who is entitled to benefit.

New Labour’s inherent liberalism further limited the practical impacts of its own ambition; so for example, while the Blairites recognised that high house prices caused inter-generational wealth inequality, lack of social mobility, and a housing crisis for younger people of lower income; suggested solutions would be framed as extremely complicated changes to planning law and inheritance : the very simple idea of expanding social housing under municipal and state ownership is simply outside their mental horizons.

Owen makes a good point when he says:

[Blair’s] great departure from Thatcherism was a desperately needed boost to spending on public services. Nothing remains of this as a principle in British politics. It is left to arch-critics of Blair like myself to defend a big chunk of his government’s economic record from his own supporters.

But I think that Owen is confusing the two characteristic attributes of Blairism; which was only partly a distinct social agenda of boosting social capital while embracing the private sector; because it was also  an electoral strategy predicated upon triangulating around the concerns of swing voters in marginal constituencies. This resulted in an inherent conservatism that militated against the radical solutions necessary to address the concerns of working class voters.

It is important to understand that these two aspects of Blairism could work against each other; and therefore that the current seeming abandonment of the policy agenda of Blairism by the right wing in the party is itself an attribute of the electoral strategy of Blairism, which is calibrated to exploiting minor differences with the Tories, and cannot cope with the paradigm shift created by the financial crisis, and the consequent need for a root and branch opposition to austerity; built on the foundation of a credible economic plan for growth and jobs. Blairism is no longer fit for purpose, even in its own terms.

Owen argues that Blair’s strategy was not responsible for the 1997 election victory.

His defenders argue that Labour could not have won without him. It is a myth. Black Wednesday in 1992 finished off the Tories, and Labour enjoyed subsequent massive poll leads under John Smith.

But this underestimates the degree to which the party had already substantially shifted to the right before Blair took the helm. During the 1990s, the party was gripped by two simultaneous political crises. The crisis of the revisionist right was that their radical agenda for combating inequality required economic growth and stability, conditions that no longer prevailed, and which were predicated upon a Keynesianism that had proved unworkable; and the even more acute crisis of the left was that their transformative economic and social agenda was revealed to be connected to too narrow a social base to win elections. It is important to note that both the left and the right were within the envelope of Labourism: the paradoxical expression of trade unionism in the political field, which expresses opposition to manifestations of capitalism, and seeks to transform it without transcending it.

The key transitional figures of Neil Kinnock and John Smith represented complementary shifts: firstly of the Kinnockite left recognising that a General Election could not be won on the basis of the politics of the Labour left alone, and that a more coalitional approach was required; and secondly of Smith, perhaps the most heavyweight traditional revisionist in the party, and who was backed to become leader by some of the left, moving in the direction of Thatcherite economic policy.

Blairism won over the centre ground and the reluctant support of the unions because it did indeed present a credible election winning strategy built upon these pre-existing shifts in the party. It may not have been the only election winning strategy possible, but it was the only credible strategy being argued at the time. The left and centre left failed to articulate an alternative strategy that was sufficiently convincing to the centre-right and the trade unions, and this allowed Blairism to triumph.

But whereas the Blairites could credibly argue that the left in the 1990s were stuck in the past seeking to refight the 1974 election, although times had changed; today it is the Blairites seeking to fight and fight again the 1997 election, without acknowledging that the acceptance of neo-liberal economics is deeply compromised.

Today there is institutional inertia around these ideas, through the well funded and organised “Progress” organisation, which acts as a party within a party, and the “Labour First” clique. Ed Miliband is therefore under constant pressure from the right, who are overrepresented in both the PLP and the Shadow Cabinet. Tragically there is a consensus about the acceptable parameters of political debate between Progress, the Orange Book Lib-Dems and the Cameron, which is reflected in the media, which excludes alternative views.

Appreciating the past strengths as well as the limitations of Blairism is necessary in order to counteract this argument that the right of the party occupies the ground of pragmatic, election winning common sense. The world has changed since the Blairite dinosaurs ruled the planet, and an election winning coalition now needs to be built around a different common sense; a common sense based upon social-solidarity, and the belief that government does have a responsibity to underwrite the prosperity, economic security and well-being of its citizens. It is precisely because the Blairites have failed to irrevocably change the Labour Party that we have an opportunity to win this battle, with the centre-left in the party working in alliance with the affiliated unions.

This article first appeared at Socialist Unity.

3 Comments

  1. Chris says:

    It’s still controversial to say this (I hope it won’t be in the future), but it might have been better if Labour had lost in 1997. Then perhaps people would have seen Blairism for what it was and we could have started again from a pre-Blairite position.

    I won’t deny some worthwhile things happened under Blair’s government, but were they enough to make up for his burying of socialism? No, not even slightly. I’d take another five years of Major over that, maybe another twenty years.

  2. Ryan says:

    Chris,

    The first term of the Blair government was, by all accounts, the most radical (using the term quite loosely) and certainly the most left-of-centre. It was after 2001 that things went astray, and it is quite clear that Blair’s rightward trajectory (still ongoing) accelerated rapidly after that point.

    I am of the opinion that the very worst Labour government is infinitely better than the very best Tory one.

  3. John P Reid says:

    chris or another 500 years

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