March 12, 2009


Blairism has destroyed the Labour party: David Selbourne says that New Labour won elections but eradicated all that was good in the party’s traditions. The Cameroons should learn from this terrible lesson (David Selbourne, 11th March 2009, Spectator)

In Britain and elsewhere market liberalisation has landed the public exchequer in mountains of debt. But at the same time, public bodies are still being invited to submit to the ‘disciplines of the market’, while company executives have trousered fortunes even as the taxpayer was bailing them out. ‘Give a capitalist enough rope and he will hang himself,’ said Lenin.

Yet at the very time when socialist and quasi-socialist methods have been adopted to deal with the crisis, Labour, gripped by defeatism, flounders. The reason is not hard to find: Labour as a popular movement, as a party, and as the embodiment of an ethic, was destroyed by Blairism.

Labour was not so much modernised as Mandelsonised. With electoral rehabilitation as the prize — today’s Tories beware! — Labour’s old purposes were transformed. This process was driven by the perceived need to shake off its ‘old-fashioned statism’, to ‘go with the flow’ of market forces, and to change Labour’s ‘brand’.

New Labour’s handlers, some of them ex-Marxists, declared that we were living in ‘post-ideological’ times. Producer interests — code for what used to be called the working class — had become a political albatross. Donkey-jackets and proletarian vowel-sounds were out, sleek haircuts and rimless specs were in. The citizen had been replaced by the consumer, and the political realm was to be treated as a marketplace like any other.

More important, ‘rebranding’ sidelined many of Labour’s old beliefs in the virtues of community, the dignities of productive work and the ethics of public service. A seedy construct, Blairism nevertheless brought New Labour and its hangers-on office and personal benefit. But it left much of the public domain ransacked and inefficient.

Under Gordon Brown’s aegis, New Labour’s privatisations went further than those of the Tories. The disenfranchised trade unions, already hit for six by Thatcherism’s ruthless way with manufacturing and local government, gradually faded from the public scene.

It's a very rare thing for a political analyst to forecast the future as presciently as Geoffrey Wheatcroft did in the Atlantic Monthly of June 1996, where he wrote:
Blair became the Labour leader in July of 1994, at the age of forty-one, projecting glamour, youth, freshness. His slogan was "modernization," and he unofficially but definitely renamed his party "New Labour." It may have looked more like a marketing strategy than a political philosophy, but it worked. Within a year Labour was so far ahead in the polls that if (in the political commentators' illusory hypothesis) an election had been held then, the Tories would have suffered the kind of wipeout their Canadian counterparts experienced not long ago.

Almost more startling than what Blair did was how he did it. He took over a party all but terminally demoralized by endless defeat, presenting himself as the man who could make the party electable once more. What wasn't clear at first was that he meant to do so by utterly transforming the party, by uprooting its traditions, by effectively destroying Labour as it had been known since its beginnings. There had long been struggles between the left and the right of the party, between advanced socialists and cautious reformists, and some leaders were more radical than others. But Labour had always had a sentimental tradition to which all paid homage, embodied in totems such as the state-socialist Clause Four of its old constitution and the singing of "The Red Flag" at the end of conferences.

Blair is the first Labour leader who barely pretends to be a socialist. He determined to ditch Clause Four, and duly did so. In the process he caused what one writer has called "the collapse of Labour as the party of organised labor"--an outcome that, as the oddly oxymoronic phrase suggests, is as though the Pope caused the collapse of the Church as the medium of organized Christianity. Even more brazenly, Blair has courted figures ranking high in the demonology of the British left, from the rulers of the East Asian "tiger" countries to the Prince of Darkness himself, Rupert Murdoch.

Above all, he did what no leader of the "progressive" side in British politics had done since the 1840s. Every Tory leader since Sir Robert Peel had implicitly agreed with his opponents that the future belonged with their side; that at best a rearguard action could be fought; that conservatism's role was to make concessions as slowly, and with as good grace, as possible. That is, until Margaret Thatcher. She was the first Tory leader who did not share this belief.

And Blair agrees with her. He is the first of the Tories' political opponents ever to concede that they have largely won the argument. An anthology of Blair's recent reflections speaks for itself.

"I believe Margaret Thatcher's emphasis on enterprise was right."

"A strong society should not be confused with a strong state."

"Duty is the cornerstone of a decent society."

"Britain needs more successful people who can become rich by success through the money they earn."

"People don't want an overbearing state."

Any of these could have been uttered by a Tory, or by a none-too-liberal Democrat or, indeed, by a none-too-liberal Republican. Come to think of it, Patrick Buchanan's main disagreement with the Labour leader would be over Blair's uncritical admiration for "wealth creators" and free trade. It has been a breathtaking achievement--but a paradoxical one. Political parties have changed character before now, and have sometimes been taken over from the outside. This is a unique and much stranger case: a party has been captured from the inside, and by a man who in his heart despises most of that party's traditions and cherished beliefs. [...]

It is plainly the case that by the 1970s the unions had become an arrogant and destructive force, and that their connection with Labour was politically damaging for the party. When the Thatcher government curbed the unions' power by removing their privileged status outside the law (originally conferred by Disraeli, of all people), the step was welcomed by almost everyone except the union bosses. Any Labour leader who wants to become Prime Minister must accept that.

He must also accept that heavy taxation is unpopular, that rainbow coalitions of ethnic and sexual minorities arouse little enthusiasm among ordinary voters, and that the kind of liberalism that appears better disposed toward criminals than toward their victims doesn't win many votes either. Hence Blair's insistence that there will be no return to the taxation rates of the last Labour government, hence his fulsome tribute to a policeman murdered on duty and his almost-too-neat promise to be "tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime."

There is also a growing consensus, way beyond neo- or paleo-conservatism, that Dan Quayle Was Right: that the hedonistic individualism of the 1960s and 1970s was socially destructive, and that its ultimate victims have been not the well-to-do bohemians who first propagated it but the poor. Hence also Blair's language of responsibility, duty, and self-discipline. This was shrewd as well as sincere. [...]

Many people claim to have disliked some aspects of "Thatcherism," even if the claim is a little hypocritical, since they often went on voting for it. Blair's strategy is to appropriate the economic gains of the 1980s but to mitigate the worst side effects, differentiating himself from the Tories by shifts of emphasis, by a rhetoric of community and civic virtue, and by simply playing on the undoubted disenchantment or weary boredom of the electorate after seventeen years of Tory rule. [...]

He has not explained in detail what his government would do. Instead he has conducted a brilliant marketing operation for a product no one quite understands, known as New Labour--or Labour Lite, as someone has unkindly called it. And in the process he has lorded it over the party he now leads, and rubbed his colleagues' noses in it. It was right to recognize (as the chattering classes are still reluctant to do) that the Tories have some genuine achievements to their credit in these past seventeen years. It is another thing to say so in the way Blair does: to insist that "the Thatcher-Reagan leadership" of the 1980s "got certain things right. A greater emphasis on enterprise. Rewarding, not penalizing, success. Breaking up vested interests." [...]

"During the sixties and seventies the left developed, almost in substitution for its economic prescriptions, which by then were failing, a type of social individualism that confused, at points at least, liberation from prejudice with a disregard for moral structures. It fought for racial and sexual equality, which was entirely right. It appeared indifferent to the family and individual responsibility, which was wrong.

"There was a real danger, occasionally realized, that single-issue pressure groups moved into the vacuum. Women's groups wrote the women's policy. Environmental groups wrote the environmental policy, and so on. This was the same elsewhere. I remember a telling intervention of a speaker at the Republican Convention of 1984 in the U.S. asking rhetorically, `When was the last time you heard a Democrat say no?' It was too close to the truth for comfort."

When the leader of a party of "the left" approvingly quotes Republicans, something very funny is going on. [...]

[Alan Watkins] observed not long ago that although Labour MPs have gone along with Blair, the truth is that most of them hate what he is doing to their party. But, then, the feeling is mutual. Someone who knows him says, "You have to remember that the great passion in Tony's life is his hatred of the Labour Party."

It is the nature of the Third Way beast though that Tories can't accept that he was one of them and that when David Cameron positions himself as Blair's heir it is Maggie's mantle he'll inherit.

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Posted by Orrin Judd at March 12, 2009 12:04 PM
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