So I’m hearing Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson have been crawling out of the woodwork to claim that Ed Miliband was wrong to reject New Labour, and a return to Blair’s centre-right policies is essential for the Labour Party to revive its fortunes. A lot of people (especially in the right-wing media) seem to agree. Alas, some in the Labour Paryy also seem to agree.
I think these people are ignoring some pertinent facts about the Blair years, and how they ended.
Tony Blair won three elections: 1997, 2001 and 2005. I remember them all well, and I remember growing into adulthood through them. I was 18 in 1997: the first time I had the chance to vote. I’d been politically active throughout my teens, starting with the despair of 1992.
People forget that Blair didn’t win the 1997 election: the Tories lost it. For five years, the Major government had struggled on with a slim majority that bye-election after bye-election eroded and chipped away as support drifted to Labour and the Liberal Democrats. There was no UKIP back then, or at least, no effective UKIP. I remember neighbours in 2001 sporting a UKIP bumper sticker but I don’t think they were around for 1997.
The Conservative Party was hit by scandal after scandal during the mid-1990s. Shortly after the 1992 election, Britain was forced out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism in Europe and the value of the pound crashed; a recession hit and recovery was slow under the Tory system. Unpopular legislation and unfair policies added to the miasma that surrounded them. 1997 was to the Tories what 2015 has been to the Liberal Democrats (or to Labour in Scotland), which is why the “Portillo Moment” was seen as so iconic, and why people in 2015 were referring to it as the comparison (finally saying that there were so many such moments that 1997 paled in comparison, and it was impossible to pick a defining moment like that one).
I watched as commentator after commentator asked Blairite after Blairite if they regreted moving the Labour Party as far to the right as they did, given the scale of the victory, and Blair and his cronies answering, “No, it proves we were right to.” The commentators (poor, naive souls) imagined that Blair only moved to the right in order to win the election, that it was just a ploy. But time after time, the Blairites replied, “We were elected as New Labour, we shall govern as New Labour”. The commentators’ analysis was, however, spot-on: there was no need to be New Labour in order to win that election. Tony Blair wanted to do it that way.
The years from 1997 to 2001 were typified by a successful economy run by Gordon Brown: “no return to boom and bust”, and “prudence”, were the oft-repeated refrains from 11 Downing Street. They did some good things (like the Human Rights Act) and some bad things (like PFIs) and we protested things like the introduction of university tuition fees. Blairism seemed to be working, people largely felt good about themselves and their prospects. A lot on the Left felt disenfranchised with no viable representation, and defected to the Greens, or the breakaway Socialist Labour Party, or the Liberal Democrats, or other things; many people just felt there was little need to vote because Blair was such a guaranteed winner. It was the beginning of “voter apathy” in the 2000s.
Blair duly won, with plenty of criticism and growing dissatisfaction in various quarters. He had a reputation by then for being shallow, a populist, in the pockets of the right-wing media. The Liberal Democrats manoeuvred towards the left as New Labour moved into the ground they had once occupied. The LibDems gained support as they started to adopt policies that many Labour supporters wished their party would. 2001 and 2005 were years when I felt so betrayed by Labour and found hope for a way forwards in the Liberal Democrats (and their key policy of Proportional Representation). It was made easier that I could use my LibDem vote as a tactical vote in a safe Tory seat where the LibDems were 2nd place.
2001 was, of course, the year that Al Qaida became a household name; Blair backed up the new Republican president and led Britain into war with Afghanistan and later, Iraq. Gone were the surpluses and fiscal prudence of the previous term: if New Labour overspent, then it was in Blair’s Wars that they did so. It certainly wasn’t through overspending on benefits, public services or immigration.
2005 was Blair’s war election, but his star was fading already. The feel-good of 2001 was past, and the main thing keeping him in power was that the Tories had moved steadily to the Right since 1997 in an effort to appeal ever more strongly to their base. That was the Michael Howard election, “Are you thinking what we’re thinking?” his creepy voice intoned from their election messages. He was not a viable opposition and Blair stayed on.
It didn’t take long, however, for him to become a liability in the eyes of the party. He resigned as leader and, in due course, the Party elected his anointed successor as their new leader. Gordon Brown lacked the charisma of his predecessor. Talk of a civil war having brewed for a decade between Blair and Brown rumbled on, and Brown’s attempts to appeal to the electorate fell flat. But Brown was a part of the New Labour project. Without its cult leader, the project was dying.
Then the “Credit Crunch” happened. The seeds were sown back at the beginning of the 2000s, as New Labour sought to be more business-friendly and imitate the Tories. They relaxed the checks and regulations on banking activities. Similar problems were taking place in the US as well. The economy crashed as the consequences finally fed through into people’s lives.
When people suggest that it was a mistake to ditch New Labour, they forget that in 2010 New Labourism was a toxic, discredited model. It produced the Credit Crunch (in people’s minds), and had been exposed as shallow and unable to stand on its principles: it was, in biblical terms, the house built on sandy ground.
They also forget that at no point was Blairism alone sufficient to win an election. In 1997, the incumbent government had made themselves unelectable. Even if we claim that that was a time of recession and needing recovery, the nature of that recession and the recovery were different, and since Blair had promised to match the Tories on tax policy, it’s unlikely that Blairism had much to do with the recovery. Certainly, it would not resemble the recovery Brown was orchestrating in 2010 and nothing to do with the situation in 2015.
In 2001, we had a strong and stable-looking economy. Blair was the incumbent, and gained the benefits from that. There was no possible comparison with the situation following 2010 or going into 2015, and Blairism would not be appropriate to answer the changed landscape we see today.
And in 2005, his opponent was still not strong enough to mount a realistic challenge. Blairism’s popularity was waning.
Blairism is no longer a vote-winner, because it’s a policy based on a political world that no longer exists and at least a decade out of date. Ed Miliband distanced himself and his party from New Labour because New Labour was a millstone around his neck, and it was the acts of New Labour from which he couldn’t separate himself, that the Tories kept returning to to attack him. A return to Blairism would not win back the “aspirational” voters, and would once more abandon those who feel disenfranchised and don’t vote any more.
It’s possible to promote aspiration while sticking to policies of equality and leftwing principles. I’m confident that a Labour leader who wants first of all to engage with the roots, and with the old-fashioned Labour values, can figure out how to make those values represent the aspirations of Middle England as well as the protections and liberties yearned for by the working class, excluded minorities, and impoverished.