Has Tony Blair missed the point of New Labour?
In amongst all the flim-flammery of Tony Blair’s autobiography, there’s something that’s seemed… well, wrong. And I’m not talking about all the Brown-bashing or the clumsy failure to apologise over Iraq. No, I’m talking about his assessment of why Labour lost the last election, and what the future should hold for his party. It’s the argument that his way – the New Labour way – was the right way, the only way. Well, tell that to Jack McConnell or Frank Dobson, for starters.
But leaving aside the fact that Blair’s Labour Party did lose an election in Scotland (and he even blames himself for this happening, remember), and that the chosen New Labour candidate in the 2000 London Mayoral Election was humiliated by Ken Livingstone’s victory, it seems to me that Blair has produced a rather weak assessment of his own creation.
Take New Labour’s big successes. Was the Minimum Wage a New Labour idea? Of course not. Was devolution a New Labour concept? Blair’s scepticism towards the idea proves that it was not. Did Labour’s support for progress on LGBT equality begin only in 1994? No, of course not. So the things for which the last Labour Government can be praised aren’t New Labour ideas at all.
By contrast, look at New Labour’s big failures, and the issues for which it has been criticised. Meagre pension increases in the early years – definitely not an Old Labour way of looking at things. Tuition fees – not something that would emerge from the party of Attlee and Bevan. The 10p Tax Rise. Detention without trial and the erosion of civil liberties. And, of course, that small matter of Iraq.
So why was New Labour so successful at first? It wasn’t to do with policy or ideology. Indeed, it was only midway through the second term, when top-up fees and foundation hospitals came to the fore that we actually saw any kind of ideological thread running through Blairism. For me, the reason it worked when it did was that it tried to apply the party’s basic tenets to the world around it. Obviously Thatcherism had made a return to public ownership of industry impossible, but focusing instead on earnings and on issues like devolution (the need for which had clearly been established by Wales and Scotland’s consistent rejection of the Tory Party that governed them) meant that Labour was still Labour (and through the compromise on hereditary peers, through the creation of the Scottish Parliament, and the NMW, arguably got closer to the Keir Hardie vision than any other Labour Government) but updated for the position of the UK in the mid-1990s.
And it was helped by the collapse of the Tories: the collapse of the ERM on their watch, the splits over Europe, the drip-drip of scandal and sleaze gave Labour a stepping stone into office in 1997, but they basically handed them the next two election victories as well.
Take 2001: when it was clear that everyone else was worried about public services, the Tories campaigned on Europe, and while the country as a whole was growing increasingly tolerant towards drug use, William Hague appointed the shrill Ann Widdecombe as his Shadow Home Secretary, whose approach may have produce rounds of applause at the Tory Party Conference, but didn’t have any appeal beyond that.
Then came Iain Duncan Smith, who was voted in by Tory Party members on the basis that he wasn’t Ken Clarke, but (and they conveniently forget this) was put on the ballot paper in the first place by Tory MPs on the grounds that he wasn’t Michael Portillo.
Michael Howard did, at least, get to fight an election, unlike IDS, but again, while public services and anger over the Iraq War were the key points in 2005, the war-supporting Tory Party’s manifesto may as well have been entitled, “We’re not racist, but…”
So what John Prescott referred to as “traditional values in a modern setting” coupled with the Tories’ irrelevance was what handed Labour three election wins. Why did they lose Number 4?
It wasn’t that they had shifted from the New Labour agenda. Well, they had, but it was difficult to see what had taken its place. The basic approach taken was “We’ve done nice things, but the Tories will wreck it!”. And that was it. There were no ideas at all. There was a party that had torn itself apart over the 10p tax rate, and had been hit the hardest by the MPs’ expenses scandal. And of course, the Gillian Duffy moment, where, firstly, Brown’s complete absence of sincerity was highlighted, and secondly, Brown’s complete lack of touch with ordinary people was proven as well.
By contrast, there was a policy vacuum at the heart of the Tory party as well, but they’d made their absence of anything concrete relevant. They’d made a vague promise of “cutting the deficit, not the NHS”, using the two biggest name-checks of the time, and looked a little more in-touch with the rest of us, despite Labour’s constant carping about their having gone to Eton, which served only to make Labour look chippy.
So the pendulum had swung: Labour look tired and irrelevant, as the Tories had in 1997, while David Cameron had got his party to get some semblance of an act together.
But back to Blair: the whole point is that New Labour wasn’t about this belief or that belief, as it took Blair nine years in the Leadership, and two General Election victories, to work out what his policy agenda actually was. It was about being relevant, being in tune with the times.
Labour lost because they are no longer in tune with the times.
And Blair’s intervention, based as it was on settling all his old scores with Gordon Brown, proves that he is no longer in tune with them either.