Former MP HARRY BARNES offers his own take on Tony Blair’s time in office, and his thoughts on Labour’s future.
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 Blair to John Prescott and Margaret Beckett who at that time both had appealed to the left and centre-left of the party.
However, the new Labour project was to go way beyond moderate Labourism. It was to nurture and develop greater freedoms for the market introduced by Margaret Thatcher, while 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 took place during 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.
Blair’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 would now to be an advocate of a ‘dynamic economy’ – an Aesopism for capitalism.
Blair was now ready to make his appeal to middle England, meaning middle class votes. Given the mess the Conservatives had got themselves into, Labour was almost bound to win the 1997 election. However, Blair’s new Labourism was structured to usher in a landslide.
Blair was now in control of the shop. The norms of discussion and the limited compromises of 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, while many moderate Labourites jumped onto Tony’s successful bandwagon.
It isn’t easy, however, to drum Labourism (and even residual socialism) out of the Labour Party altogether. And immediately after the 2001 election Blair was put 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, while the appeal of new Labour to middle England was on the wane.
At the first meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) after the election, Blair expected gratitude for holding onto the gains of 1997, but found criticism from many of his past loyalists. A shift of direction was sought 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 Blair was saved by what became his eventual downfall – the consequences of the 11 September attack on the World Trade Center. The Labour Party conference was truncated and uncomfortable issues were sidelined. Blair tucked in with the Bush administration in the United States, a position that led 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 increasingly dissident views among his own back-benchers.
His luck held when few of his Cabinet followed Robin Cook’s line and resigned. It was mainly left to back-benchers to rebel on their own, and they did so in increasing numbers during the 2001-05 parliament.
Of course, it is possible to draw up a list of substantial Labour achievements during the past 10 years. Blair deserves credit for introducing measures such as the minimum wage and leading the settlement in Northern Ireland. He also took important initiatives in seeking to tackle poverty in Africa, in writing off certain third world debts, in tackling climate change, and in moving forward on disability legislation.
Of course, he could always have gone further 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.
However, there is a peculiarity about most of Blair’s achievements – they almost all have to be qualified.
So, while disposable income has substantially improved, so have inequalities; while university education has expanded, so has student debt; while employment opportunities have risen, manufacturing industries have continued to close; while pensioners can often travel more widely with free bus passes, workers are more often forced to travel to work for low paid and temporary employment; while power has been devolved to Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, local authorities have seen functions 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 (although he allowed a vote on the invasion of Iraq); and the failure to prevent ‘cash for honours’. Chief of all the errors, of course, was the invasion of Iraq, even though we can’t just stand back and refuse to offer help in overcoming its consequences.
Whither new Labour?
Will Blair’s leave us with a new Labour philosophy? There is no reason to believe that there will be a change of tack under Gordon Brown, as he has delivered the economic arm of the new Labour agenda. His clash with Blair has only been over pelf and place.
I think that Peter Hain should have stood for Labour leader and not deputy. He couldn’t have won, but he would have been capable of launching a feasible democratic socialist programme for change. Instead, I will back him for deputy in the hope that after a likely 2009/10 general election defeat under Brown, he will move in to pick up the pieces. I believe he would be in a better position to do this if he had 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.
Harry Barnes was MP for North Derbyshire until 2005.