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The New Labour Project…  March 18, 2016

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.
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Great anecdote in this piece here by John Kampfner on the latest tome about Tony Blair – this one from Tom Bower who has written pieces on a range of figures including Conrad Black and Richard Branson.

 

It was December 1995 and I had just left Tony Blair’s parliamentary office feeling rather pleased with myself. I had interviewed him for an Analysis programme on Radio 4 dedicated to unearthing the philosophy behind the “new” politics. Alastair Campbell had been unenthusiastic (“pretentious bollocks”), but had relented on the proviso that I had half an hour, max. Instead Blair spoke eloquently for more than an hour, answering my questions with effortless gusto. On the way back to the studio, I allowed myself a smile, only for my producer to retort: “That was useless. I’m not sure there is anything to salvage from it.”

She was right. The conversation was an exercise in charm-laden vacuity. We decided to bulk up the programme with various political scientists versed in the “third way”. There were only two conclusions that could be drawn from the mess: either I had conducted a bad interview and was not bright enough to tease out the gems, or the Blair project was an empty shell. That was, for virtually everyone at the time (including a generation of mesmerised Conservatives), unconscionable.

I’ve got to admit I always found Blair fascinating. I recall vividly the first time I saw him on television – it must have been about 1992 or so and he was discussing LP policy and it struck me how fluent he was. I’ve often thought that absent the Iraq War he would have a markedly different historical and political legacy. No great leftist he, almost not at all in some ways, though his governments were more redistributive than not. But there was always a sort of cultural cringe, his successor had it as well, an unwillingness to even articulate left wing rhetoric. It is no surprise to me that after a decade and more of LP government there was no strength to the in some cases good aspects of social provision put in place so that when the Tories returned they were able to wash much of it aside. It is, at the least, a cautionary tale for any who think that contemporary social democracy offers any sort of fastness against the right. It doesn’t and it can’t because it is too deeply compromised by and too deeply in thrall to the right.

1998? The GFA/BA? Well, difficult to see it going quite the way it did without him – and that other political chameleon, our very own Bertie Ahern. There’s a study that cries out to be done, comparing and contrasting two very modern politicians. But broader dynamics would, one suspects, have meant that a GFA/BA redux was almost inevitable, be it sooner or later. Perhaps our gain (compromised as that was too) was the world’s loss.

And nothing can remove the appalling period from 2002 onwards and that will always and with complete justification be tied to Blair. His inability to understand that seeming good intentions amount to less than nothing has merely compounded all that he supported, and more than supported, from then on. But if that appeared like crass stupidity on his part – well, according to the latest book perhaps it was. Ignorance on one side of the Atlantic feeding into ignorance on the other:

Throughout the narrative, Bower portrays Blair as a charlatan, a man who is easily bored and cannot think through complex issues of public policy. The party leader who won three elections and, for a time became the poster boy for the international centre-left, had little interest in books or history, Bower asserts. “He lacked any hinterland regarding politicians, social movements and conflicts before 1939. He was uneducated about the Reformation, the French Revolution, the eruption of European nationalism and socialism during the 19th century, the causes and conduct of the first and second world wars … he was even uninformed about the Labour party’s history and its leaders”.

So that cosmetic fluency signified… nothing? It’s not difficult to find this plausible given the sheer lack of direction of his administrations. And yet Kamfner notes how efficient, how astute, Blair was in closing off any opportunities to prevent the inexorable slide to war.

That mixture of almost credulity, expedience and finger wagging self-righteousness has continued and continued to serve him well. Writing about his retirement Kampfner notes:

One moment he appears on a video extolling the virtues of Kazakhstan’s long-serving autocrat, Nursultan Nazarbayev. Next he is defending the Rwandan leader, Paul Kagame, in the face of human rights accusations (as the British government, it must be said, has long done). He publicly gives the benefit of the doubt to Egypt’s military ruler, General Abdel Fatah al-Sisi. For a man who based his foreign policy on unseating “evil” rulers, Blair’s “relations with dictators have been, and continue to be, bewildering”.

Anything goes, if good money is to be made. Thus he can fly (private jet, of course) to Florida to make a speech to the International Sanitary Supply Association.

Astounding, isn’t it? No one here would support Saddam or any of those worthies, but then no one here prosecuted a war that shattered at last one or perhaps two states and then went on to have the grim chutzpah to defend some of those other characters all the while loudly proclaiming the virtuousness of his stance.

Small wonder that the actual project – New Labour, foundered last year amidst the nonsense of its own contradictions. Say what one does about Jeremy Corbyn (Nick Cohen surely can’t stop talking about him), at the very least his approach is open and transparent – it will, on a slight tangent, be educative if that ultimately can sway broad swathes of the British electorate. But even that cannot surprise, that the project foundered. It was never that deep rooted to begin with. Too late though for Iraq though. Too late for Blair himself. And Labour?

Comments»

1. benmadigan - March 18, 2016

certainly too late for labour in Scotland and Ireland

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2. Peter James - March 18, 2016

“No great leftist he, but his governments were broadly distributive” (the writer on Blair).
Most decidedly not .
Inequality, poverty and cuts to the social wage all continued apace under him . The balance between wages & profit continued to turn against workers. Blair & Mandelson were “very comfortable” with the rich getting richer. Anti-Trade Union laws were kept in place . And Thatcher thought her best legacy to be New Labour.

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ejh - March 18, 2016

Inequality, poverty and cuts to the social wage all continued apace under him

This might be right, but I’d like to see the stats.

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3. sonofstan - March 18, 2016

A student of mine just dug up a lovely quote from Geoffrey Howe about how the Thatcher revolution transformed ‘not one party but two’

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CL - March 18, 2016

Likewise with the Reagan ‘revolution’

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4. Phil - March 18, 2016

there was always a sort of cultural cringe, his successor had it as well, an unwillingness to even articulate left wing rhetoric.

On the contrary, it was Kinnock who had the cultural cringe. Blair was always out and proud about not being left-wing in any way at all; he just finessed it by renaming ‘left’ and ‘right’ as ‘old’ and ‘new’. As I wrote in 1997:

“among the true believers – many of whom seem to be former Communists – the fervour for ‘renewal’ coexists with a passion for ‘realism’: a fierce disdain for anyone advocating reforms which would actually redistribute power or wealth. Ultimately the two enthusiasms seem to spring from the same source: the convulsive, triumphant abandonment of all those things Kinnock and Smith spent years edging away from. It must be quite a relief to admit that you don’t *really* oppose the status quo – nuclear weapons, privatised railways, 40% top rate of tax and all: it must feel like coming home. What is new about New Labour, in short, is that the party doesn’t plan to change anything fundamental and it admits it. … Freed from the uphill struggle to build support for left-wing policies, New Labour’s managerial apparat can bring their new brooms to bear on running the country.”

Then there’s this passage, which is quite interesting for anyone toying with the idea that it was all fine until Iraq. Remember that it was written before the 1997 election:

“consider what we already know about the Blair agenda. Patriotism; alliances with big business; attacks on unconventional lifestyles. Closure of ‘failing’ schools by central diktat; compulsory childcare classes for irresponsible parents. Restrictions on the right to strike; restrictions on welfare payments; no tax rises for the middle classes; more money from the Lottery. Oh, and the party conference will be made ‘more like a rally’. It doesn’t look like a country I’ve ever wanted to live in – let alone a programme I could ever vote for.”

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5. Alibaba - March 19, 2016

“That mixture of almost credulity, expedience and finger wagging self-righteousness has continued and continued to serve him well.”

I’d like to add ‘egotistical’ into that mix because I am remembering some Tony Blair quotes:

“They say I hate the party, and its traditions. I don’t. I love this party. There’s only one tradition I hated: losing.”
– Final conference speech, September 2006.

“The allegation being true it would have merited my resignation … Any person listening to that would think we had done something improper, not that we just got our facts mixed up.”
– Condemning a BBC report on the Downing Street dossier on Iraqi Weapons of Mass Destruction to the Hutton inquiry, August 2003.

“I can only go one way, I’ve not got a reverse gear.”
– Conference speech, September 2003.

“A day like today is not a day for soundbites, really. But I feel the hand of history upon our shoulders. I really do.”
– On the eve of the Good Friday / Belfast agreement, April 1998.

It is helpful to recall, as noted by Peter James, “Anti-Trade Union laws were kept in place”. Didn’t Tony Blair honour his pledge to the bosses to “leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the western world”? The vast majority of those restrictions on trade unions imposed by Thatcher remain and continue to cripple union power. What proposals, if any, does Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters have to reverse that? Hopefully any leftist inside the Labour Party worth their salt would seek to get it sorted.

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