In this contribution, I want to explore the legacy of the New Labour project. From a North East perspective, it was always particularly galling that New Labour’s leading lights like Tony Blair, David Miliband and Peter Mandelson displayed such open contempt both for the traditions of the Labour Party and its core supporters whilst occupying local safe seats. Wouldn’t it have been much better if they had put their ideas to the test and stood in those marginal ‘middle England’ constituencies that they were so keen to court? I also found it really tragic that Sunderland’s Chris Mullin, who once protested so eloquently and bravely about the injustices perpetrated against the UK’s Irish community in the 1970s, ended up supporting Blair’s attack on civil liberties in the name of ‘anti-terrorism’, including the legislation which resulted in suspects being held indefinitely without trial in Belmarsh prison. For me, it typified what being a loyal Blairite could reduce someone to.
It could take several posts to fully discuss all of New Labour’s more appalling aspects, from its illegal and anti-democratic foreign policy to its boasts about the restrictions placed on British trade unions. However, as has been mentioned a lot recently, Thatcher famously once described New Labour as her ‘greatest achievement’ and it is this claim that I want to consider.
First of all, I think it would be inaccurate to characterise New Labour and the Tories as simply the same thing. It is inconceivable that a Thatcherite Tory government would have introduced a national minimum wage or pursued progressive social policies on gay rights. But what they failed to do in 13 years in power was to challenge, never mind reverse, the fundamental economic policies and values of ‘Thatcherism.’
I thought I’d start by providing a bit of context to explain the significance of the Thatcher government. From my understanding, what is often referred as the ‘post-war consensus’ was essentially the realisation that the only way to seriously deal with mass unemployment and ensure that there was some kind of equality of opportunity was for government to play an active role. So, vital services such as health care and education were free to access, funded by tax revenues. Transport and utilities such as gas, electricity etc. were taken into public ownership and full employment was a stated aim.
These fundamentals were accepted as mainstream or ‘centre ground’ politics until the victory of Thatcher. She created a new consensus which declared that the private sector was ‘dynamic’, ‘efficient’, provided better services while by contrast the state was wasteful, costly and incapable of delivering high-quality services. Under these pretences huge swathes of public services were sold off on the cheap to private businesses. It was not that the state would keep out of the economy. Instead, it would play an active role in transferring wealth to the top of society by cutting public spending, cutting taxes for the wealthy and continuing to subsidise these newly privatised enterprises. According to this vision greed was good and society was non-existent.
This was not just accepted but accelerated by New Labour. Utilities and transport remained in private hands and with the creation of academies, the extension of PFI schemes and handing contracts to firms like the now notorious Atos, private companies were able to profiteer in an unprecedented way from education and health and welfare provision.
Shamefully, under New Labour the principle of universal access to higher education was discarded. In 1998, tuition fees began at £1,000 per year before spiraling to £9,000 a year in 2012. For students under the current system, the average debt is projected to hit around £53k. True to Thatcher’s values, educational institutions began to be run like businesses. Today, vice-chancellors command salaries in excess of £330k and students are encouraged to see their education, not as an enriching experience but merely as a financial investment which will pay off in a higher salary later down the line.
Under New Labour, the myths about privatisation have been exposed. One of the most shocking examples is that of Private Finance Initiatives or PFI. These schemes were started by John Major’s government and extended greatly under New Labour. As the Guardian reported last year, ‘717 PFI contracts currently under way across the UK are funding new schools, hospitals and other public facilities with a total capital value of £54.7bn, but the overall ultimate cost will reach £301bn by the time they have been paid off over the coming decades.’ How reckless to allow what are essentially loan sharks anywhere near health or education provision, yet the current government are busy signing off yet more PFI contracts while disingenuously claiming they don’t want to shackle the country with debt. Take rail travel as another example. As journalist and campaigner Christian Wolmar has highlighted, the current system is subsidised by the taxpayer to the tune of £4 billion, around four times more than the cost under British Rail. In the meantime, passenger fares continue to increase.
There is real public anger about being ripped off by private companies whether it is energy costs or public transport. There’s also disgust at the likes of Atos profiteering out of declaring disabled people as ‘fit for work’, at workfare schemes and the Bedroom Tax. Among young people, there is deep frustration that university is becoming unaffordable and that far too many are facing crushing financial pressure and unemployment. But having either implemented or laid the ground for much of this in the first place, those still loyal to the New Labour project cannot bring themselves to disown these polices and present a coherent alternative. They are even unwilling to state the fact that the current economic crisis had nothing to do with ‘excessive’ public spending under Labour and everything to do with the fact that the government was forced to hand over £850 billion pounds to bail out the banks. This would involve admitting that deregulation of the banking system was a disaster.
It can never be forgotten that New Labour is largely responsible for allowing the Tory-led coalition to do what they are now doing. They are not introducing privatisation into the NHS, schools or welfare provision but merely accelerating processes begun by New Labour. Had Labour won in 2010 there can be no doubt that they would have introduced £9k fees, given that Mandelson set up the Browne Review. That’s why the pathetic ‘opposition’ which said ‘’we’ll double rather than treble your fees’’ was such transparent opportunism. Those who were part of New Labour such should never be allowed to re-invent themselves. The refusal of the Labour leadership to unequivocally condemn the discredited New Labour project is the greatest electorate liability the party has.
I’d like to finish on a more positive note. A few years ago when I was doing some interviews as part of research on the history Labour Party in County Durham, I found that one of the favourite hymns of many of the party’s founders began: ‘these things shall be’, before evoking a vision of an egalitarian and humane society. This spirit of defiance, hope and self-confidence at a time when working-class people were denied some of the most basic democratic rights and social security was virtually non-existent struck me as quite incredible. Those four words say more than any of the recent sound bites we’ve heard from Blair, Mandelson and John Reid and more than any number of professional politicians will say in their whole careers.
Those of us inside and outside the Labour Party, who want a society which is worthy of the name, must fight not just to defend what we have against this current government’s attacks but also declare openly and unapologetically that we are out to transform our society into one in which the dignity of human beings is always put before profit-making.