Blair's Shadow, or that of New Labour
It's been a while since I have posted here; there's been an election, which Labour lost and now Labour are having a Leadership election. It fascinates and disappoints me that we are still debating the impact of the New Labour Government and its electoral strategy. This article is a mirror of one I posted on my blog called Blair's Shadow. It is meant to be call for honesty, at least with one's self while having this debate; not everything it did was bad, and not everything it did was good. Certainly, it's my view that the electoral failure in 2020 had its seeds laid during the New Labour Governments and those who think there's much for Labour to learn from that time period have to answer some searching questions and not pretend they don't exist.
We in the Labour Party need to get to grips with Blair’s legacy. His shadow and that of his government still hangs over even this leadership election and it seems I am not the only one to thinks so. Andrew Fisher wrote something similar to this in the Independent. Coming to a consensus and coming to terms with its legacy will be difficult but I feel that it’s best viewed by considering the two full parliamentary terms as separate entities but for many of course the decision to go to war in Iraq will over shadow everything else he did. I have thought this for a while but at least one speech by Zarah Sultana MP, and the adverse reaction to it and Jeremy Gilbert at Open Democracy who wrote Labour should have argued against the last 40 years of economic policy, not just the last ten have made me revisit New Labour’s record.
During the first term, the Labour Govt. made major progressive constitutional reforms, Devolution for Scotland & Wales, the Good Friday agreement, the re-establishment of London Local Government albeit tarnished by the first executive Mayor. They also introduced the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information Act. While keeping their promise to stick the Tory spending plans for the first two year, they turned the money taps on for the health service and education which had major qualitative effects. They also started an almost unparalleled period of successful macro-economic management although the seeds of failure had been laid by making the Bank of England independent. They introduced the National Minimum Wage, repealed Section 28 and introduced civil partnerships. They set a target for 50% entry to Higher Education and over the three terms there was a successful attack on child poverty, although this is counterbalanced by a growing income inequality in society as a whole. Brown’s diplomacy to forgive much of the Global South’s foreign debt is also a significant positive. Labour's 2001 manifesto qualifies the size of the success in terms of the investment in schools, training programmes, and NHS staff numbers as does Niel Finnegan’s tweet, where he also quantifies the outcomes of these targets in terms of child poverty, waiting lists, school results.
Looking at the 2001 manifesto, there is little clue that New Labour proposed to establish Academy schools, Foundation Hospitals, Top-up tuition fees, pass two laws on the regulation of investigatory powers, which are the legal foundation for the surveillance state, introduce the Private Finance Initiative and rip up the “Ethical Foreign Policy” to go to war with the US in Iraq. Against this GDP and incomes rose, as did house prices and 0gross private sector debt. The education policy, despite increasing funding, and laying the PFI timebomb otherwise continued to weaken public democracy and teacher professionalism. New Labour set up Ofsted, established league tables and the national curriculum, and much of the capital budget was transferred to PFI.
The mantra of public sector “choice” echoed throughout the halls of Government, not so much in the homes and streets of the United Kingdom. There was a lot of anti-progressive things done and it was done, as ever, without the Party’s permission. The deconstruction of the Party’s checks, balances and self repair capability has been documented by Emmanuelle Averil, and Lewis Minkin in "The Blair Supremacy", but they included prohibiting MPs standing for the NEC in most seats, the introduction of the National Policy Forum which removed policy development from conference and the rule that meant that most CLPs had to send a woman to conference every other year. New Labour lost another 1.1 million voters over the second term and nearly 4½m over the full two terms.
If we want to ascribe the loss of the Red Wall to 40 years of Thatcherism one needs to examine the attempts and success of New Labour’s Regional Policy. I have a wiki article sharing my limited research on the subject and rely on Louise Dalingwater's Regional Performance in the UK under New Labourhttps://journals.openedition.org/osb/1151 published in "Observatoire de la société britannique"; but it's probably safe to say it was not as successful as it’s planners must have hoped and also got hopeless enmeshed with the failed push for regional assemblies and the “welfare to work” programmes. New Labour failed to ameliorate the decline in the economy of these regions as the UK moved from a coal and steel economy to hi-tech and services. In fact, it's arguable that the macro economic strategy was never designed to help these communities as it was coat tailing globalisation and become debt fuelled. The new industries and the educational access programmes were never going to help.
In the seventies, internationalism within economic policy focused on the debate around import controls. In the twenty first century it's become focused on immigration controls. John Stone, published a thread on New Labour’s actions on benefits, welfare and immigration which is really not pretty and illustrates a deep divide within the Party and it’s voting base, a divide reflected in the election result. In this article, above, I mention that the “welfare to work” programme and it’s surrounding rhetoric got in the way of an effective regional policy, it also got in the way of its anti-poverty programmes, exacerbated by the racism inherent in Britain’s citizenship definitions and immigration policy.
There were also are several important omissions in New Labour’s programmes; they did nothing on Housing and insufficient on Labour Law reform or Trade Union rights as I like to say, and local government finance. England & Wales needs a transfer union guarantee as was established for Scotland. The independence of the Bank of England, fundamentally a piece of theatre, together with tripartite financial system regulation became part of the problem in the 2008 collapse. The post-election (2010) reform of the financial sector regulatory bodies was bipartisan and designed to ensure that no Bank of England Governor could ever walk away from such a monetary policy disaster again.
Another less than stellar success involved plans to “reform” the House of Lords, in the first term, they reduced the number of hereditary peers to 92, in the second term, they failed to take the final step and eliminate them as the House of Commons could not agree what proportion should be elected and what proportion appointed. 😠
But he won elections and without power we can do nothing. My Dad once said,
Government’s take 1000s of decisions every day and under the Tories every single one of them is wrong.
This may be true but those who argue that winning elections is enough need to answer the questions why did we lose Labour’s voters, did Blair drive them away or is it true he assumed they had nowhere else to go because if so he was very wrong. It’s ironic that it was while being led to one of his greatest internal opponents that the birds came home to roost.
Did the New Labour Governments contributed to the loss of votes in the Northern towns and in particular the old pit and steel towns. Not directly it would seem but people started to leave Labour over this period, 5m of them and the Government failed to pursue strategies that might have staunched the flow. It’s not innocent so the fact it won reelection twice is not enough to absolve it for contributing to Labour’s loss of mind share and votes in these communities.