Vol. 29 No. 6 · 22 March 2007

Defeatism, Defeatism, Defeatism

Ross McKibbin reflects on ten years of Blair in power

4704 words

Tony Blair’s political career (assuming his interminable delay actually ends in departure) is difficult to assess. He has been, electorally, the most successful British prime minister of the last hundred years: not even Baldwin or Thatcher quite equals him. Yet the record of his governments has been one of opportunities half-caught or missed entirely, of impulses that were sometimes admirable but rarely acted on, of reasonable but not unusual administrative competence, of some genuinely wrong-headed or shameful policies and, of course, a disastrous adventure abroad. Its overall record is incoherent, and becoming more so. His political leadership has also been paradoxical. He has given the Labour Party those unprecedented victories but done more to destroy it institutionally than anybody. It is a strange story with complicated origins.

We tend to associate New Labour with Blair (who was the first to popularise the term) or else to believe that it emerged fully-formed in the mid-1990s. That isn’t what happened, however. After the 1983 election, it was generally agreed in the party that Labour could no longer go on as it had in the previous decade. Out of that came something we might call semi-New Labour, though even that description is misleading. The ‘soft left’ around Neil Kinnock (from which New Labour eventually emerged) was responsible for shedding most of Labour’s electorally unpopular policies, or at any rate those policies which, however sensible (for example, abandoning the ‘independent’ nuclear deterrent), were thought to be unpopular, and its changes were accepted by John Smith when he succeeded Kinnock as leader after the 1992 election. Smith was not a member of the soft left, however; nor did he anticipate New Labour. The party he led was still recognisably in the British social-democratic tradition; still one in which the idea of the working class was more or less fundamental – if not in the way it once was. It was also a party that still believed in an economically interventionist state – the two ideas were of course connected. Smith had been trade and industry secretary in the Callaghan government and understood as well as anyone that those parts of the country wholly or partly dependent on the state – or that thought they were – remained loyal to Labour. That much was plain from the elections of the 1970s. Smith also knew that needs change, and commissioned Gordon Borrie to devise a modernised welfare state. But the Borrie Report’s proposals were recognisably ‘Labour’, uninfected by the neoliberal rhetoric that was creeping in everywhere else.

The party could, and should, have stopped its renewal at that point. It was perfectly viable politically and electorally and there is little doubt that it would have won the 1997 election under Smith’s leadership. But with his death and the election of Blair as leader, the renewal was renewed with a vengeance. The most obvious reason for this was the 1992 election result, which suggested to many that even the most moderate version of Old Labour was unacceptable to the electorate. The centrepiece of the campaign had been Smith’s model budget: a careful and sensible statement of Labour’s aims, misrepresented by the press and widely, though probably wrongly, believed in the party to have been responsible for its defeat. What was required was a risk-free alternative; and that is what New Labour sought to provide.

Smith was not a natural defeatist. He took the view, as had most previous Labour leaders, that you could do your best to keep the media sweet but in the end you had to live with the fact that they were incorrigibly anti-Labour. But Blair and those around him were defeatists. In their view the media were supreme. What the media believed was what the country believed; and what the media believed decided elections. Old Labour did its best to manage the press but not to capitulate: New Labour simply capitulated. It capitulated on crime, prisons, asylum, immigration and personal tax rates. And it capitulated because it believed that, apart from the occasional fudge, it could do little else.

It was only a short step from the conclusion that the dice were always loaded against Labour to the conclusion that it simply had to accept much of what the Thatcher and Major governments had done. This explains the decision to stick to Conservative expenditure plans for the first two years of government and Blair’s admission during the campaign that Labour had insufficiently recognised Thatcher’s achievements. Both Blair and Brown became increasingly reluctant to criticise the Conservative government or to admit that the principal victims of its policies had been the people the Labour Party was founded to protect. This led them further away from Smith, who never doubted that much of Labour’s core electorate had suffered badly from Tory policies or that the state had a moral responsibility, and the capacity, to undo this damage.

From there it was another short step to the belief that any attempt to impede economic globalisation was pointless. And wrong. The present government believes that a globalised economy works in Britain’s long-term interest, whatever the short-term pain. Both Blair and Brown see the international economy as something like the English Premier League: all the players might be foreign, but they are the best and you can’t keep the best out. (It doesn’t take much insight to see that immigration was going to be a problem here.) The belief that globalisation is irresistible has been accompanied by a general change in attitudes to capitalism which has undermined even the most moderate version of traditional social democracy. The once widespread assumption that capitalism was ‘inefficient’, and could literally not deliver the goods, disappeared a generation ago. The moral critique – the belief that capitalism may deliver the goods but does so inequitably – disappeared more recently, but it has disappeared. One effect has been to transform the Labour Party’s attitude to the private sector. For much of its history it regarded that sector as a burden the economy had to bear, and a good deal of its time was spent trying to chivvy the private sector into international competitiveness. Over the last twenty years or so, however, Labour’s leadership, like the rest of the country’s political and economic elite, has come to believe that the private sector is almost everywhere superior to the public. Like Thatcherite notions of political economy, this belief is now fixed.

At the same time, Smith’s successors have had to take into account the profound changes in Britain’s social structure that have occurred over the last thirty years, speeded up by the policies of the Thatcher government. While Europe’s social-democratic parties have always been social coalitions, their core, physically and ideologically, has been the industrial working class – in Britain for most of the last 150 years a majority of the working population. The industrial working class was not only the base of the Labour Party but the motor of the interventionist state itself. That class is today very much a minority: by all conventional criteria Britain is now inescapably a middle-class country. The Labour Party could not ignore this fact. Indeed, how it approaches the new middle class has become a central problem. In practice, New Labour has tended to define it in Thatcherite terms: suspicious of the public sector, socially ambitious, dislikes collective action, demands choice and variety, is individualist in its worldview. The working class was the class of production; the middle class is the class of the market. That New Labour should see the middle class in these terms is not surprising, but in many respects it is the wrong way to see it.

These are all negative political facts: things forced on the Labour Party or social changes over which it had little control, and to concentrate on them would be to give an incomplete picture of the early days of New Labour. In its eyes, Old Labour was not only electorally unsuccessful but politically remiss. Its historic failure on this view has been its complaisant acceptance of the British state. There are instrumental and cultural explanations for this. Labour has been the principal party of the state and the principal political beneficiary of the state’s activities. It has also believed that if you get your hands on the levers of the state – via a parliamentary majority, for example – you can do more or less anything. There is thus a strategic reason for complaisance. There is also a less flattering one. Cultural and political conditioning has encouraged it to defer to a state structure and social system which have usually worked against the interests of those whom it represented. The party’s inertia in the face of that situation was just about defensible while the convention that there is a point beyond which you do not go was still observed by both major parties. But the Conservative governments after 1979 notoriously did not observe the rules and the Labour Party and much of its electorate paid the price.

Constitutional and electoral reform was unquestionably in the air in the mid-1990s and I am prepared to believe that Blair then took seriously, for instance, reforms to the electoral system and to the House of Lords. He committed Labour to human rights legislation, which Old Labour might not have brought in. The TUC had voted in favour of electoral reform and the party was committed to the restoration of some sort of all-London council. The most interesting case, however, is Scotland. Scottish civil and political society (minus the SNP and the Tories), grouped around but not dominated by the Labour Party, had devised a system of devolved government dependent on a democratic electoral system and set of rules approved at a referendum. The Lab-Lib alliance that has governed Scotland since devolution is broadly representative of this grouping. New Labour’s only contribution was the second question on the enacting referendum, which asked the Scottish electorate specifically to approve the taxing powers of the new Scottish Parliament: a crafty way of ensuring that if taxes were increased the Labour Party in London would not get the blame.

Though the parliamentary party today has many fewer working-class MPs, the structure of the national party has not changed much; the unions, though no longer fundamental, are still well entrenched; the national executive, though amazingly ineffective over the last few years, still has potential authority. And the ideological assumptions of the historic Labour Party are tenacious. Most members and MPs probably still believe that social justice is in some way the party’s raison d’être, and those who don’t, feel obliged to say they do. Even the prime minister, who can scarcely conceal his impatience with the party, is stuck with it. He has no other political base and this imposes limits on how far he can stray politically. Both Blair and Brown have always known that the party’s standing as the party of the NHS and of a decent educational system was an electoral trump card, and had clear implications for levels of public spending. They also knew that the emergence of an underclass was something Labour, unlike the Tories, could not duck. The rhetoric of social inclusiveness and the serious, if very insufficient and belated attempts to eliminate child poverty come from this.

The policies of the Blair government have been shaped, therefore, by two unresolved conflicts: between what has been thought desirable and what has been thought electorally acceptable, and between those Labour traditions it has been thought necessary to defend and those it has been thought necessary to discard. All areas of policy have been marked by this, but public spending is probably the most important. The Labour Party in 1997 was convinced that its reputation as a high spender and taxer was electorally unacceptable. Hence the promise not to exceed Tory spending plans for its first two years in office. But Blair and Brown also knew, as most people knew, that the country’s health and educational systems were on their last legs and required significant increases in public spending. It was several years before they did much about it, but in the end they did: the NHS was saved from collapse and the country’s schools no longer fall down – or fewer of them do. Social expenditure has risen significantly. The government could (but probably won’t) claim to have restored the legitimacy of public spending. Certainly, the Conservatives are now extremely reluctant to make the promises to cut spending and taxes they once made so carelessly. But whereas previous Labour governments would have been content to leave it at that, New Labour is not.

Higher spending has been accompanied by determined efforts to include the private sector in the rich pickings. The Private Finance Initiative is useful to the chancellor as a way of clearing public spending off the Treasury’s books and transferring the true costs of capital works to succeeding generations, but it has also been a goldmine not just for the contractors but for the lawyers and consultants who write the contracts: having feasted on privatisation they now have their teeth in the PFI. PFI projects have to be structured so as to ensure that the contractors make a profit – which is why new hospitals may lose their A&E wards, or (as with the London Underground) it can be years before anything is done. Since the private sector’s borrowing costs are higher than the government’s, the PFI is just an ingenious way of wasting money. It would have been better to have excluded the private sector altogether or (arguably) to have made it bear the full costs by genuine privatisation. But that would have been impossible for a government which both believes that higher levels of public expenditure are politically necessary and is ideologically committed to the private sector.

‘Education, education, education.’ New Labour came to office full of good intentions. Selection was to be ended, the assisted places scheme abolished, city technology colleges restored to the LEAs. The government understood how inequitably the education system worked, how badly many working-class children did out of it and how run-down the state sector had become. And there is no reason to doubt that it continues to want an educational system whose rewards are more equally distributed. But the balance has inexorably changed: from a common public system to a system based on ‘choice’, where selection and discrimination may be concealed or may be explicit. Why? Because the government’s education policies are driven by an assumption incompatible with equity: that the vast middle class is ‘aspirational’ and wants ‘choice’. Fragmented itself, it demands a fragmented educational system. A common public system is not possible because the middle class doesn’t want it. These assumptions seem to me wholly wrong – and to misunderstand what Thatcherism did. Thatcherism was a genuinely reactionary doctrine which had unexpectedly dynamic consequences. It loosened the class structure that supported the old socially divided education system – and for the first time created the conditions necessary for a successful common system, just as it created the conditions necessary for a successful democratic political system.

On the basis of its flawed assumption the Blair government has not merely destroyed a common system but created a patchwork of often utterly bizarre schools: heavily funded ‘state’ schools, for example, run by businessmen whose knowledge of educational practice is presumably negligible. But since this is a Labour government there have been the usual attempts to square the circle. Schools are not to select (except in specialist schools for those with ‘aptitude’), even though selection is clearly inherent in the system. The government is sensitive to the criticism that the proliferating ‘faith schools’ are socially divisive and therefore made a feeble attempt to compel them to admit 25 per cent of ‘non-faith’ pupils. The churches easily saw this off and a well-intended gesture simply made bad legislation worse. A government that has made much of anti-discriminatory legislation has put in place an educational system in parts of which discrimination is not just inevitable but compulsory.

The only policies that would make a serious difference to educational under-performance are those which eliminate relative poverty. Poverty, not the type of school attended, lies at the heart of educational failure. Indeed, as a variable it is unlikely that the school makes much difference, though a socially differentiated system certainly makes failure more common. The government knows this and by the standards of modern British governments it has spent heavily on children. But what is needed is a substantial redistribution of income – and that for the risk-free party is impossible. Neither Blair nor Brown has ever admitted just how corrosive the consequences of relative poverty became under the Conservatives, because to do so would be to raise the question of tax rates and income differences; and for the prime minister and the chancellor that is electorally impossible. Which is why there has been little change in income inequality since Labour came to office; and the principal victims have been those who attend sink schools.

‘Tough on crime; tough on the causes of crime.’ This was an entirely reasonable formula for a party that felt it was on the back foot over crime but knew that crime is largely generated by social deprivation. But policy has in practice been increasingly tough only on crime. We all know the result. We now imprison more people than any other European country and our fetid prisons are more than ever schools for crime. The huge increase in the numbers imprisoned in the last ten years is one of the most telling indices of Blair’s rule. And we must assume that as long as he remains prime minister punitive legislation will become ever more punitive. The prison population is the most socially, intellectually and economically deprived section of the British community, and that is true whether prisoners are on hard drugs or not. As much as children in ‘bog-standard’ comprehensives, they are products of extreme poverty. They were once people for whom the Labour Party had some sort of imaginative sympathy. No longer. The prime minister is now so in thrall to the idea that the tabloid press rules opinion that he can think of no way of treating deprivation other than locking it up. And all this even though no British general election has ever been won or lost on the issue of crime.

In the world of the tabloids, crime, immigration and terror are all equal threats to society. Unfortunately, this is now true of the government too. Again, that is not the way things started. New Labour is actually not unsympathetic to immigration. The labour force is a ‘factor of production’ and as such should be free to move. British business is keen on immigration, so the market speaks in its favour. Blair, to his credit, has publicly defended it – though increasingly sotto voce. But the right-wing press doesn’t like it, and likes asylum-seekers even less. So we have ended up in a typical New Labour mess. The government has not been able to hold down net immigration figures (did it want to?) because in a liberal democracy with an active market for immigrant labour it is almost impossible to do so. But in order to placate the press it has indulged in increasingly harsh anti-immigrant gestures, which have not placated the press but have done much damage to the reputation of the prime minister, the government and the country. And whenever we think ministers cannot sink any lower, they do: the proposal to x-ray the teeth and skeletons of underage asylum-seekers to see whether they are in fact children (and thus eligible for more generous treatment) is scarcely believable.

The anti-terror legislation has only turned the screw. Although terror is a problem partly of our own making, some kind of legislation was probably inevitable. But its enactment follows a familiar pattern. At first the government had a good human-rights record. The European Convention on Human Rights was brought into English law; there is a Freedom of Information Act; anti-discrimination legislation has been enacted; the more odious remains of Thatcherism, like Clause 28 of the Local Government Act, have been repealed. Then, inevitably, the government began to act as though it regretted what it had done. Ministers have been surprised and angered that the judiciary has taken the Convention seriously, and both they and MPs have done their best to frustrate the workings of the Freedom of Information Act. ‘Security’ and ‘terror’ are the words used either to drive this policy or else to justify it. Some actions of the government have gone way beyond what even the pessimists expected. The shockingly intrusive and wasteful ID card scheme – justified on many grounds, but primarily designed (so it seems) to make the Tories appear soft on crime – is only the best example of this. Like the muddle over immigration, introducing both the Human Rights Act and ID cards is characteristically New Labour.

The same thing has happened to constitutional and electoral reform. The government met its commitments to Scotland, Wales and London and commissioned Roy Jenkins to think about electoral reform. Since then it has been downhill all the way. Electoral reform has been discarded and the ‘reform’ of the House of Lords has rarely risen above the level of farce. This hasn’t been the fault of the government alone, of course. The culture of the ‘imperial parliament’ is almost impervious to significant reform. MPs are incapable of seeing that electoral reform is actually in the interests of all parties; and, notwithstanding the recent vote in the House of Commons in favour of a wholly elected upper chamber, reform of the House of Lords remains very unlikely, especially as many MPs voted for the proposal in order to kill reform altogether. Another formidable obstacle was the prime minister’s pleasant discovery that under the present regime the executive has almost unchecked authority – it would take a more far-seeing prime minister than Blair to dilute that authority. It is now clear that a democratic parliamentary system will not come from New Labour, although one of New Labour’s attractions in its early days was the real possibility that it would.

Which brings us to Iraq. There is little more that can be said about that disaster and it will follow Blair to his grave. But the disaster is his and not New Labour’s: there was nothing in New Labour’s thinking that meant Blair had to go to Basra. But that he was allowed to go to Basra is the doing of the Labour Party. Almost certainly, most MPs and ministers, left to themselves, would never have followed the Americans – and about one-third of Labour MPs voted against doing so. Left to themselves, most would never have approved ID cards or city academies, but they were unable or unwilling to stop them. The Tories gave Blair crucial support over Iraq, but that alone can’t explain it. The formal powers of the Parliamentary Labour Party are weak: it can neither elect the cabinet nor control legislation, while many MPs are (or were) convinced that they owe their seats to Blair. Such formal powerlessness and electoral anxiety have produced a damaging political lassitude in MPs. They trail through the lobbies voting for things most do not support. This lassitude has also produced a wretched political rhetoric. Urging the party not to lurch to the left, its chair, Hazel Blears, has argued that only ‘bread and butter issues in Middle England’ matter. That a government should not knowingly quarrel with the electorate is axiomatic – but it is the sheer banality and superficiality of the sentiment that is striking, as is the faint contempt for ‘Middle England’. It is not unlike the contempt the Conservatives actually felt for Essex man – and the Labour Party should reflect on what Essex man did to the Conservatives.

Britain’s involvement in the invasion of Iraq was made possible by the institutional collapse of the Labour Party and of its esprit de corps: a consequence of Blair’s relentless drive for ‘renewal’ and Labour’s hunger and gratitude for victory. But Iraq had another malign result: it finally killed Blair’s Europeanism. One of the most gratifying features of his early leadership was his Europhilia – the apparent break with the dreary Europhobia of the Conservatives and much of Old Labour. It seems hard now to recall that Britain’s entry into the eurozone was once thought a real possibility. Even before Iraq, the prime minister had probably concluded that Europe was an electoral liability, but the extremity of his commitment to the United States has largely excluded it from his own thinking and certainly marginalised Britain in Europe.

The increasing incoherence of the government’s legislation is made worse by the working habits of the prime minister. Over the last century only Ramsay MacDonald became prime minister with as little ministerial experience as Blair. He doesn’t have much idea how departments of state function, while his own casual way of doing things – the ‘sofa politics’ that Lord Butler so disliked – has done much damage to orderly legislation and the government’s sense of direction. The result of this and the unresolved tensions within the government have led to the same torrents of legislation, one unsatisfactory bill after another – especially on education, crime and immigration – as poured out from the previous Conservative government. There is the same sense that nothing is ever settled, that the only way to cope with the media is yet more legislation.

The question is whether Gordon Brown, presumably soon to be prime minister, can rescue the ‘project’. Brown presents himself and is presented by his admirers as the personification of orderliness and prudence. Yet he is an elusive figure. It is rumoured that he has never really approved of the worst manifestations of Blairism, but he has supported all of them. He could have stopped Iraq, ID cards, the worst of the security legislation, indeed, more or less anything, but is now shackled to these policies. It is also questionable how prudent he has been.

Under his chancellorship Britain has acquired levels of personal and national debt that would have shipwrecked previous governments. What he has had is luck. The democratisation of debt has been essential to the political success of New Labour and so far the country has been able to sustain these astronomic levels without a crisis. If they can be sustained indefinitely so much the better for Brown and the Labour Party. But it will be only down to good fortune if they are. He has also, unlike Denis Healey, his Labour predecessor, been lucky with the international economy. Brown’s decision to hand over much of the direction of the economy to the Monetary Policy Committee of the Bank of England is thought to have been a brilliant stroke. But it has worked only because the comparative stability of the international economy has allowed it to. Had the MPC been in charge in the 1970s they would have been as much at sea as the Treasury. But if the international economy remains stable, again so much the better for Brown.

Brown’s leadership will doubtless be calmer and more genuinely risk-free than Blair’s. Yet, even with all the luck in the world, it is unlikely that he can save the ‘project’. The problems of New Labour are not, as many would argue, the result of its abandonment of Old Labour and its desirable values. New Labour has not abandoned Old Labour. On the contrary, New Labour has been forced out of political necessity to draw on the traditions of Old Labour, even though the present leadership believes in them less and less. They are, in effect, trying to bolt together two almost antithetical types of politics: a hand-me-down (though often extreme) Thatcherism, on the one hand, and a broken-backed Labourism, on the other. Blair’s government has been so disappointing not because it is without achievement, but because its achievements are much less than they might have been and its mistakes much worse.

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Vol. 29 No. 7 · 5 April 2007

Ross McKibbin acknowledges record spending on public services and the unprecedented electoral capture of power, yet discounts devolution and ignores Northern Ireland (LRB, 22 March). His deeper charge, that this government has done nothing to halt inequality, is simply unhistorical. Look at the global and long-term trends and it is remarkable how redistributive this administration has been. McKibbin obviously dreams that a previous Scottish Labour leader would have been more left-wing than the current Scottish-educated one and even more ambitious than the Scottish one lined up for us. But the idea that John Smith would have been ‘more socialist’ or electorally as successful as Blair is far-fetched. There is little evidence that he was ever likely to be as popular as Blair became. Smith didn’t accept that Labour had to alter its values – not just some of its policies – to change the political landscape. And, whatever you think of Iraq or Blair himself, that is what a decade of New Labour has done. As McKibbin grudgingly acknowledges in passing, this is now a country in which public services, liberal social attitudes and equality of opportunity sit alongside a real concern for international development and the environment. These are now baseline British values.

What people like McKibbin have to realise is that Britain was and to a large degree still is strongly conservative, capitalist and individualistic. Blair shared some of those values and his success was that he realised that aspiration, empowerment and the market need not be the enemies of social democracy.

Charlie Beckett
London NW5

Ross McKibbin credits the New Labour administration with ‘reasonable but not unusual administrative competence’. In this assessment is he taking account of the chaos at the Home Office, or the endless financial and service provision dramas in the Health Service? (This, despite a record increase in funding.) Then there’s the matter of awarding more work to private companies or consultants (another record increase) even when they did a bad job last time. Did he follow the Child Support Agency saga? Has he talked to any farmers or teachers, or indeed anyone on the receiving end of this administration’s ‘reasonable competence’ and the amazing amount of paperwork it generates?

Howard Millbank

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