‘Why do you denigrate New Labour?’; ‘Isn’t that divisive?’; ‘Why aren’t you honest enough to celebrate Blair’s successes and achievements?’; ‘What happened to the new politics?’. These are all questions that will have become familiar to those of us on the left of the Labour Party over the last 18 months. Strangely enough, they weren’t asked so much when we were out of power, when we were having our sideshow conferences in the margins of the party, but that is because back then, we could be ignored. Now we are seen to be running the party (not really accurate, but I’ll come to that lately), so the question is asked in an ever more accusatory manner. But it’s a fair set of questions which deserve a serious answer, so I’m going to try to do just that, as succinctly as I can.
The first thing to say is that I’m not keen on the broad brush condemnation of Blairites and everything they stood for. I’m very suspicious of the outpouring of ‘Red Tory’ vitriol and not particularly interested in the personalisation of hatred towards Blair himself. One of the most important aspects of a good political strategy (which the left of the party has conspicuously lacked for far too long) is to know what you’re up against. New Labour wasn’t Tory in its political philosophy. Yes, it borrowed from Thatcherite ideas, but what was going on was a much more complex synthesis of right-wing social democracy and anti-statist liberalism. The success of the New Labour project was that they were able to combine those elements into a coherent political narrative, and sell it to the British public.
So, what about the concrete outcome of all this? Well, we’ve all seen these long lists of New Labour’s achievements that have been shared on social media, the general thrust of which is captured in this ‘Wordle’ below:
Here’s an actual list. Discarding the more dubious ones (Democratic Socialism? Erm, really?), there are some real achievements amongst them. Even taking into account very different economic times, there’s no doubt that in comparison to the preceding Tory governments, there were real gains for working people and their families in many of the things that New Labour did. So why aren’t we celebrating them?
There are two answers to this, in my view. The first is that, for socialists, it’s more complex than that. Broadly speaking, New Labour’s record can be split into three categories. Firstly, Good Things. Secondly, Good-Things-That-Could-Have-Been-So-Much-Better. And thirdly, Very, Very Bad Things. So we need to break that down, I’m afraid – because it matters. The second answer is that there were other factors, long term ones, which cast a shadow over any achievements and might be seen as the de facto legacy of Blair and New Labour. Most people will assume I’m talking about Iraq there. I am, but I’d argue that there are other legacies that really matter to us as democratic socialists.
So the first category – the Good – can mostly be populated with decent, old fashioned social democratic measures, based around investment in schools, child care, health services and the broader public sector. Sure Start is an obvious example. The only thing to argue about here would be the levels of investment, but overall these are good things. Of course, investment in public services is always easier when the economy is growing and financial markets are stable. There is no doubt that the early Blair government was aware of the importance of the public sector and invested in jobs. Another area where New Labour can be proud of its achievements is in equality legislation. Scrapping section 28, introducing civil partnerships and bringing in a raft of anti-discrimination legislation is not to be shoved under the carpet – these are hugely important, attitude-shifting changes.
The second category, the Good-Things-That-Could-Have-Been-So-Much-Better, kind of overwhelms the first category, however – specially in the second and third Labour governments. I can’t cover the full range of initiatives and policies where successive New Labour governments stopped short of anything radically transformative, but it’s clear that this became the modus operandi. This was partly ideological: there were places Blair didn’t want to go – such as challenging ‘right to buy’ legislation, but it was also to do with New Labour’s obsession with Middle England opinion, focus groups and media approval, which allowed tax credits, but not genuine advances on increasing taxation on high incomes and extortionate wealth. Equally, while the minimum wage is rightly trumpeted, in fact the idea had been kicking around the trade unions for many years, and it took an enormous effort to persuade New Labour ministers that this wasn’t an “anti-business” measure. When it was introduced, the level was set low, which trapped many in poverty – and enforcement was hardly resourced at all. Another example: while New Labour politicians talked a lot about the pressures of migration on communities and in workplaces, they dragged their heels for years before introducing the Agency Workers Directive. This delay affected many migrants very directly, and set worker against worker, when the focus should have been on organising migrants towards a levelling up of pay and conditions. These are just a handful of examples, but it shows why New Labour’s record can’t simply be ‘celebrated’. Especially on issues that would have challenged power and wealth, Blair, Brown and New Labour were almost bound to buckle. The financial sector was left unregulated, the richest were left to keep on accumulating and hard decisions on industrial investment were kicked into the long grass. Ultimately, that meant that inequality wasn’t tackled effectively and the establishment, class structures and entrenched political power was left untouched.
Then to the third category, the Very, Very Bad Things: firstly, the obvious one – the Iraq War. As is well known, Blair took us into an illegal war on the basis of false intelligence and a promise to the US President. It was compounded by multiple cover-ups. Hundreds of thousands died because of that decision, many innocent civilians. A curtailing of civil rights at home and abroad soon followed, with the extension of detention without trial and rendition. But there were domestic disasters too: the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), which will saddle our public institutions with billions of pounds worth of debt for decades to come; the promotion of an internal market in the NHS, which was almost inevitably going to lead us down the road of full privatisation; this was not made any better by the almost constant restructuring of the NHS, leading to few gains but an overly complex management structure; similarly, the introduction of Academies may have produced a few gleaming schools, but ultimately paved the way for private companies to see them as cash cows – the seeds of privatisation and outsourcing had been sown. Overall, the mantra of public sector outsourcing has had massive consequences for our society, none of which would have been possible without New Labour’s dogma; then there was the refusal to tackle the anti-trade union laws, which left many workers without basic rights and opened up the labour market to appalling union busting and anti-worker practices – as well as dividing our own movement; the failure to regulate the banks and the financial services industries; the farce of the 10p tax rate policy and its withdrawal; the almost complete absence of a industrial strategy, leading to a rise in McJobs and the complete dominance of the service sector, leading to low paid, insecure jobs, especially in the de-industrialised Labour heartlands. There were also other policies which left a timebomb ticking for the party: the lack of real investment in social / council housing; the failure to tackle class divisions in education, and a bottling of real, strong, targeted environmental policies to tackle climate change are all legacies which have contributed to the particular crisis we now find ourselves in.
But there’s something else: something which also talks to the crisis we are facing, but the peculiar one in the Labour Party. To enable this to succeed, to implement these policies (good, good-so-far and very bad), Blair had to remake the Labour Party, and appeal above the heads of the party members. Neil Kinnock laid the ground work, with a shutting down of democracy far beyond the expulsion of Militant (which acted as a kind of smokescreen), but New Labour under Blair had to become a much narrower, less democratic and centralised operation if it was to succeed with its ‘revolution from above’. It couldn’t afford, and would brook no opposition, and steadily, from Blair’s election as leader onwards, dismantled the democratic structures of the party, distanced itself from the influence of the trade unions, evacuated local constituency parties, stripped conference of all powers, centralised control in the leaders office and amongst regional, handpicked bureaucracies. The small New Labour team then went on to reshape the whole party machine in their own image, securing every detail, every smallest power base for their project. Then they went to work on the selection of MPs, which became a lot easier once they had secured the party machine. This was heavily resourced through rich benefactors such as Lord Sainsbury and supported by a sympathetic liberal media, in thrall to a compliant, safe, top down party – the Labour Party of their dreams.
When people become exasperated at the conflicts which dog the the Labour Party now, these are its roots: they are deep ones, and none of us should be surprised that in 18 months, we’ve not been able to dig them up and start again. There is a deeply undemocratic, entitled culture at some many levels of the party, but most visible in the way that the party machinery (nationally and locally) and the Parliamentary Party operates: those two spaces are the power base for the New Labour project. They are not giving up their ball willingly. What we do about that, how we start to democratise the party again, how we organise and how we challenge that power, will define this leadership and our project. This isn’t Happy Families and burying our heads in the sand won’t do.