Thursday, May 10, 2007

13 Wasted Years

In The Beginning

Few of those who voted for Tony Blair in the Labour Leadership contest of 1994 knew or cared about his New Labour project. It was sufficient for the centre and right-wing of the Party that he was presentable and would not rock the boat as far as the electorate was concerned. After all, Labour had been in the wilderness since 1979.

Moderate labourites preferred Tony to John Prescott and Margaret Beckett who at that time both had an appeal for the left and centre-left of the Party.

The New Labour project was, however, to go way beyond moderate labourism. It was to nurture and develop the greater freedoms of the market introduced by Margaret Thatcher, whilst looking for schemes to redirect some of the newly created wealth towards socially desirable ends such as new schools, shorter hospital waiting lists and more job opportunities. Although it was occurring in a new historical context, New Labourism reflected the very norms of Lib-Labism which Keir Hardie and others had fought against when helping to establish the Labour Party itself.

Out Of The Blocks

Tony's first move to break Labour's mould came with his proposal to change Clause 4 of the Labour Party's Constitution, with its commitment to public ownership. Instead, Labour was now to be an advocate of a "dynamic economy" - an Aesopism for Capitalism.

He was now ready to make his appeal for Middle-England (meaning Middle Class) votes. Given the mess the Conservatives had got themselves into, Labour were almost bound to win the 1997 election. Tony's New Labourism was, however, structured to usher in a landslide.

He was now in control of the shop. The norms of full discussions and limited compromises in Cabinet meetings ended. The new wave of Labour MPs tended to be ultra-loyal, hoping that this would ensure their future re-election. The Constitution of the Labour Party was further changed so that the rank and file would find it almost impossible to work out how policies could be changed.

Many left and labourite activists began to re-examine their commitment to Labour. New Labour recruits were attracted in their place, whilst numbers of moderate labourites jumped onto Tony's successful bandwagon.

New Labour Survives A Blip

It isn't easy, however, to drum labourism (and even residual socialism) out of the Labour Party altogether. And immediately after the 2001 election, Tony was placed on the back foot. Although his approach had helped to deliver a second landslide electoral victory, the numbers turning out to vote collapsed. It was now a landslide victory by default. The Conservatives were still in a mess, whilst the past appeal of New Labour to Middle England was on the wane.

At the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party(PLP) after the election, Tony expected gratitude for holding onto the gains of 1997, but what he found was criticism from many of his past loyalists. A shift of direction was now being looked for towards better Party and PLP democracy, in order to alter some of the norms of New Labourism.

An uncomfortable Labour Party Conference was on the horizon, with the Trade Unions both reflecting and influencing the new mood of assertiveness amongst back-bench Labour MPs.

But Tony was then saved by what became his eventual downfall - the consequences of the 11 September attack on the Twin Towers. The Labour Party Conference was truncated and uncomfortable issues sidelined. Tony was now tucked in with the Bush Administration in America, leading to the fateful decision to join in the invasion of Iraq. He increasingly played the role of the National Statesman and was ready to use the votes of Conservative MPs to override the dissident views of increasing numbers of his own back-benchers.

His luck held when few of his Cabinet took the line of Robin Cook and resigned. It was mainly left to the back-benchers to rebel on their own, which they did in increasing numbers in the 2001-5 Parliament compared to that of 1997-2001.

What About Tony's Positive Achievements?

It is, of course, possible to draw up a list of substantial Labour achievements for the past 10 years. But there is a peculiarity about most of these.

Apart from items such as the introduction of the principles of the minimum wage and the praise I lavished on Tony yesterday on Northern Ireland, most of his Government's achievements have to be qualified.*

So that whilst disposable income has substantially improved, so have inequalities. Whilst University education has expanded, so has student debt. Whilst employment opportunities have risen, so has the closure of manufacturing industries. Whilst pensioners can often travel more widely with free bus passes, so workers are more often obliged to travel to work for lower paid and temporary employment. Whilst there has been a devolution of power to Scotland, Wales and now Northern Ireland, local authority functions has been taken away and centralised.

Almost every plus has its associated minuses. Then there are the pure negatives such as the culture of spin. The destruction of the old public service ethos. The downgrading of the role of Parliament (despite allowing a vote on the invasion of Iraq). And the failure to prevent "cash for honours".

The invasion of Iraq was the leading error, even though we can't just now stand back and refuse to offer help in overcoming its consequences.

Whither New Labour?

Will Tony's legacy be to leave us with a New Labour Philosophy? There is no reason to believe that there will be a change of tack from the centre under Gordon Brown, as he has been the economic arm of delivering the New Labour agenda. His clash with Tony has only been over pelf and place.

I have regularly spelt out why I think that Peter Hain should stand for Leader and not Deputy. He can't win, but he is capable of launching a feasible democratic socialist programme for change. But he now only has about 24 hours left in which to make this move. When this doesn't happen, I will have to come out in favour of John McDonnell who will (if he gets the nominations) be the only socialist in the game - surely it won't be Michael Meacher. I will then back Peter for Deputy in the hope that after a likely 2009/10 General Election defeat under Gordon, he will move in to seek to pick up the pieces. Yet he would be in a better position to do this if he stood for Leader now (and lost). We need a champion for now and not tomorrow or Labour Membership and support will go even further down the drain.

An Added Note, 11 May.

* = At this point I should have given a recognition to the important initiatives he took in seeking to tackle poverty in Africa, writing off certain third world debts, in tackling climate change and in moving forward on disability legislation. He could always, of course, have gone further on these and I was particularly frustrated by his unwillingness to advocate an international tax on currency speculation - known as the Tobin Tax. But at least on these matters, he headed in a very different direction to both Bush and the previous Conservative Government.

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