Home Articles About Chartist Subscribe Links Search
This month
Archive of past articles
Labour movement
British politics
International politics
Economy and society
Science and culture

Things can only get similar

David Floyd on a decade of success and disappointment

"We've Done It! The British people have put their trust in us. A new dawn has broken."
Tony Blair, May 2nd 1997

One Friday, just over ten years ago, a youthful Tony Blair boogied the morning away at the Royal Festival Hall before striding into Number 10 Downing Street as Labour's first Prime Minister for 18 years. Despite a campaign that had been deliberately (and possibly necessarily) short on policy detail, voters were enthusiastic about change and thought that Blair was the man to deliver it.

Ten years on, there is common consensus, both in the media and the country at large that the Blair premiership has been a major disappointment, even if, the disastrous war on Iraq aside, there is less consensus on the specific reasons for that disappointment.

While much public dissatisfaction is centred on the gripes about crime and immigration that are bound to catch up with a Government that's been in power for ten years, few on the left have anything positive to say about the Government's political progression.

Writing his 'ten years on' piece on The Guardian website in mid-April, Neal Lawson, chair of the centre-left pressure group, Compass, bemoaned the fact that after John Smith's death:

'New Labour was born, and the nation would be forced to accept the hegemony of the market, individualism and the US. Arch-Blairite Alan Milburn said we cannot allow the Tories to own the Me Generation. New Labour's strategy would be to do it first.'

Like many of those now strongly opposed to Blair and what's left of the New Labour project Lawson is not a conventional old Labour critic of Blair modernization. When Blair first became leader in 1994, Lawson was an enthusiastic supporter.

Although others on what had been the critical 'soft left' of the Labour Party were less enthusiastic, many - including several members of the then Chartist Editorial Board - joined Lawson in at least allowing themselves to hope that Blair offered a way forward.

Given both the policies and ideological positions advanced by leading Blairite modernizers at the time of the 1997 election, it seems hard with hindsight to understand what Blair sympathizers on the critical left actually believed was likely to happen.

Blair stated clearly in his election night speech that: "We have been elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour." Even in those days of optimism, in was no secret that governing as New Labour meant sticking to Tory spending plans for the first two years in government and the enthusiastic pursuit of market solutions to the problems of the public services, such as the Private Finance Initiative.

Lawson believes that 'Instead of relentless obeisance to the market, Labour could have taken the first tentative steps towards our own version of Swedish-style equality and enterprise.'

Of course, this is true, but there's a major sense in which criticizing Tony Blair for not using his premiership to turn Britain into a haven for Swedish-style social democracy is to miss the point entirely. It's a bit like criticizing Jackson Pollock for failing to produce an accurate depiction of a bowl of fruit.

Leaving aside the complicated debate about how directly applicable the Scandinavian social democrat model could be to the UK, the stark reality is that Blair never promised us Sweden. He never gave any indication that he wanted to be a conventional social democrat.

Lawson concludes that: 'A decade on, all are left frustrated. Blair was trapped governing from within Labour and would always been constrained by it. On every issue he wished he could have gone further.'

In his final speech as leader to Labour Party conference, Blair rounded on critics who accused him of rejecting the Party's traditions with: "There was only one tradition I ever hated: losing."

The well scripted riposte both reveals the Prime Minister's enduring capacity for political theatre and points towards the core of his political strategy. Blairism was about winning elections and that was probably the only bit of his 'project' that the majority of Labour supporters ever really liked.

It's common for critics on the left to point to results such as the 2000 London Mayoral debacle and some European Parliament elections with a 10% turnout to suggest that Blairism didn't even succeed on an electoral basis.

This is, of course, complete nonsense. No other Labour Prime Minister has won three working majorities in a row and very few modern Prime Minister of any party have been able to govern for 10 years with so little prospect of removal by the opposition or the electorate.

The question is whether, particularly for the leader of a party of the left, getting elected three times is, in itself, a meaningful achievement.

While on the one hand, it seems a mistake to sit in judgment on Blair's success as a political leader without judging him in terms of what he set out to achieve but, on the other hand, it's almost unavoidable at it has never really been clear what any of his specific political goals actually were, beyond electoral success.

As Lawson points out: "Blair described his politics as 'compassion and aspiration reconciled', as if inequalities of power and class interest could be just triangulated away."

It's not just the case in politics but also in life in general that where people have conflicting interests, it is often necessary to take the side of one person or group against another.

People with economic power exploit people with less economic power. Thatcherism didn't change that reality at all, it just removed the assumption that government could and should intervene on the side of people with less economic power.

Without being able to get inside Blair's head, it's impossible to know whether he genuinely does labour under the delusion that it's usually possible to reconcile the aspirations of bosses, workers, rich and poor compassionately, in the national interest.

Whatever his motivations, Blair's political outlook meant he was destined to spend the majority of his premiership in conflict with large sections of the Labour movement. Academic Ross McKibbin, in his comprehensive 'ten years of Blair' piece in the London Review of Books says of Blair that: 'His political leadership has also been paradoxical. He has given the Labour Party those unprecedented victories but done more to destroy it institutionally than anybody.'

Certainly membership of the Party has more than halved, from a high point of over 400,000 in the mid-1990s. In her foreword to the newly-published Report of the LabOUR Commission*, Angela Eagle, Vice-Chair of the Parliamentary Labour Party states that: "People join the Labour Party to change the world and make our society a better place for us all to live."

Blair, in terms of his domestic policies, didn't want to change the world and certainly didn't want Labour members to try to help him. The Commission conducted a series of focus groups with Labour Party members and ex-members from different areas of the country during 2006, discovered widespread dissatisfaction and disappointment - both with the government's policies but also with the way that members felt they had been treated by the Party hierarchy, since Blair came to power.

Eagle believes that: 'A crucial lesson from our research is that Labour in government has not trusted Party members enough' and that: 'Labour Party members are pragmatic and they want Labour to be in Government. They understand how important it is to win. In return, they expect to be trusted to help shape policies to win support from the communities Labour seeks to serve.' She concludes: 'I know we have it within our power to reinvigorate Labour and remake our Party structures with members at the centre and accountability re-established.'

While 'Active Citizenship' has become one of New Labour's ubiquitous buzz-phrases and is used to promote everything from volunteering for charities to standing for election to the boards of NHS Foundation hospitals, New Labour has been desperate to avoid the active involvement of party members in policy-making.

In its recommendations, the LabOUR Commission report calls for Party members to be given their voice back, for the establishment of a Charter of Labour Party Members' Rights, safeguarded by a Party Ombudsman. It also calls for the abolition of the position of appointed Party Chair.

It is difficult to say what percentage of disgruntled Labour Party members genuinely want robust democratic processes within the Party and what percentage would be happy to let the leadership get on with policy-making, if only the policies they made connected with their own values.

While Blair believed that: "The 21st Century will not be about the battle between capitalism and socialism but between the forces of progress and the forces of conservatism", few Labour members ever to came to share his enthusiasm for 'progress', in the absence of a principled and specified direction.

Blair's desire to define himself against his Party is clearly a major factor in the tendency for many of the left to view the last ten years as a decade of unmitigated disaster. This is a mistake.

In a positive finish to an otherwise fairly mournful ''ten years on' essay in The Observer's ''The Blair Years', New Labour-leaning commentator Andrew Rawnsley says of Blair that: "His personal appeal has withered, but there is no sense that his governing idea has been rejected. Both Gordon Brown and David Cameron are subscribers to Blairology of economic efficiency with social justice and reformed public services."

You don't have to accept that this political strategy is either viable or meaningful in order to agree that both Blair's successor and the leader's of both main opposition parties are currently attempting to pursue it. More contentious is the idea that, despite their misguided ideology, some things that the Blair government has done have actually been quite good and that, to use Rawnsley's words: "He had moved the centre of gravity of British politics and it has shifted to a more progressive place."

As someone who has never supported Blair's leadership at any point and hoped he would resign in 1995, I now find myself in the disconcerting position of being more enthusiastic about aspects of Blair's domestic legacy than those such as Neal Lawson who used to be strong supporters of ''the project'.

The introduction of and subsequent increases in the minimum wage, the modest improvements in trade union rights and the huge increases in benefits for the working poor, and the massive increases in spending on education and the NHS.

Maybe it's because Government ministers so often resort to reeling off these achievements in interminable lists when talking to a fractious Labour movement, that some of us have become de-sensitized to the positive reality.

It's possible that the fact that none of these measures are now actively opposed by David Cameron's Conservatives - although regular minimum wage increases and tax credit levels would certainly be under threat if they came to power - also helps to distract us from recognizing their impact. But Blair really has moved Britain a bit to the left. While Labour came to power terrified of proposing tax increases to fund public services, it has done so and now the Tories are equally terrified to propose tax cuts.

The government has also introduced a raft of sensible progressive social reforms: abolishing Section 28, equalizing the age of consent and introducing civil partnerships. Some of us even think that woolly liberal David Blunkett's move to downgrade cannabis to a Class C drug may eventually be recognized as a good move.

Iraq aside, it is currently unclear the extent to which Blair is now enduringly unpopular with the public at large. At a recent Newsnight focus group conducted by the pollster Frank Luntz, a group of formerly New Labour supporting voters in Birmingham struggled to list any achievements of the Blair government beyond delivering a chance for peace in Northern Ireland. Most of them believed he'd lied over Iraq and many expressed generalized disappointment about the state of public services but when asked to compare Blair to his predecessor John Major, the vast majority agreed that Blair had been the better Prime Minister.

If that's as good as it gets, that clearly 'better than John Major' isn't really much to show for a political career but it's unlikely that history will judge the domestic aspect as Blair's legacy as harshly as the current opinion polls. That said, it depends slightly on what the Crown Prosecution Service decide to do with Yates of the Yard's file on cash for honours.

It is almost inevitable that Gordon Brown will be the next Prime Minister. Given that he's spent most of his life wanting the job and the last ten years believing that he should already have it, it is reasonable to assume that Chancellor might have some clear ideas about what he wants to do.

While this assumption is reasonable, it is probably overly-optimistic. Despite Brown's habit of going missing - sometimes literally - at the most controversial points in the Blair premiership, it seems unlikely that once in government he will miraculously abandon 13 years of New Labour and begin an active pursuit of greater equality, coupled with a full frontal assault on the excesses of capitalism and an internationalist social democratic foreign policy.

Neal Lawson's outlook for Labour after Blair is highly pessimistic: 'The party is again on its knees, only this time the Tories don't look ready to implode. The nation no longer listens to Labour.'

He adds that: 'The Blairites, still stuck in the pessimism of 1992, call for more of the same medicine and try to line up a candidate to ensure it. Gordon Brown holds a leadership blank cheque. Either way, the danger is that we end up with Blairism, only now without Blair.'

This is not only a danger. In the short term in is an inevitability as Brown fills his leadership campaign with Blairite ministers and looks to deflect Conservative attacks on his economic record.

For democratic socialists, who may or may not be members of the Labour Party, the question is less whether the nation is listening to Labour and more whether there's any immediate prospect of Labour having anything to say to the nation.

One question along from that is the debate over whether, if Labour is no longer a vehicle within which democratic socialists can actively campaign for a more equal society then what, if anything, can replace it.

Gordon Brown is not going to deliver anything like Swedish social democracy, let alone anything like the democratic socialist society that many of us would like to see. But it's possible he might do something a bit better than what has gone before. Inside and outside the Labour Party, the battle for positive change continues.

*Renewal - a two-way process for the 21st century, Report of the LabOUR Commission 2007