Beyond Blair

To once again command a majority of the British public, the Labour party has to make peace with the legacy of Tony Blair, argues Philip Collins.

The Labour party is taking longer to recover from Tony Blair even than the eternity that the Conservative party took to get over Margaret Thatcher. Successful leaders cast such a shadow and they can be difficult to elude. One of the oddities of political parties is that although electoral defeats are a blow, it is victories that leave the longer legacy. And that legacy has to be overcome before a party can renew.

The Labour party has just conducted its second leadership contest in which all the contenders defined themselves expressly against Labour’s time in office between 1997 and 2010. The evasions and compromises and difficulties of government have been laid aside for the comforting indulgence of authentic Labour. It is exactly what the Conservative party did in its long period in the wilderness.

Commentators are apt to use metaphors taken from madness to describe this kind of convulsion. In fact there is nothing surprising about it. Government is hard and it is a natural temptation to take a break. As a consequence, Labour has responded to an overall majority for the Conservative party by moving unapologetically to the left. This is a move so common in politics that David Frum, a former speech writer in the Bush White House has called it the ‘ham and eggs’ theory of politics. A party goes into an election offering ham and eggs to the electorate. When the electorate declines that offer the party wonders whether they might not like double ham and eggs. With the election of Jeremy Corbyn the Labour has ordered industrial quantities of ham and eggs and made them compulsory for anyone who wants breakfast.

For all that this is a common political manoeuvre, the echo of Einstein’s famous remarks about madness being the state of repeating an act that clearly does not work is audible. What is the proximate cause? If the Labour party looks to the non-partisan like a party running away from credibility, what is it actually running away from? What is it scared of? The answer is both obvious and extraordinary. It is not the follies of either Gordon Brown or Ed Miliband that the Labour is trying to throw off. The Labour party is haunted instead by the ghost of Tony Blair.

The Labour party has to find a way past this obsession. Those people who have been vocal supporters of Mr Blair in the past, which includes the present author, are often accused of being fixated with the former prime minister. That is close to the opposite of the truth. It is in fact his more vehement critics who obsessively recycle their own misinterpretations of both the motives and the consequences of the Blair period in office. It is surely past time to forget it and talk about the future. The Labour party has to come to an accommodation with its own most recent past. If it fails to do this it will be paralysed in the present and unable to march into the future.

The first requirement is for an agreed set of achievements. Labour was in power for 13 years and not even its most ardent Conservative critic would say that nothing was achieved. Yet this is the impression that the Labour party gives of itself. Ed Miliband was so keen to distance himself from the governments of which he was a part that he ended up unprepared to defend their record at all. Hence a distinguishing feature and a point of credit, which is to say that the Labour party has recent experience of government and has shown it can govern credibly, was simply abandoned. Worse than that, the only part of the Labour record that Mr Miliband was prepared to stick up for was Labour’s spending, on which he ought to have been more cautious.

Labour has got into a habit of apologising for all the things it got right and endorsing all the things it got wrong. It needs an agreed list so that it can sue for peace with its own time in office. That story will be about investment in public services, better school results, a greatly improved NHS, peace in Northern Ireland and a decade of prosperity and growth.

It is worth reflecting on what it is about Tony Blair that the Labour party struggles with. There are two obvious answers which only take us part of the way. The war in Iraq excites more passion among the Blair-haters than any other issue. There is no doubt that it makes the dislike of Mr Blair toxic. If Britain had not joined the American intervention in Iraq there would, of course, still have been a war. There would not, however, be quite the measure of Blair loathing that there is. It would be foolish to dismiss Iraq as a cause of the problem.

Likewise, Mr Blair’s money-making and association with dubious regimes since he left office has left a sour legacy with the Labour party. There is more than a strain of puritanism in the Labour party which does not usually care for people who make money and Mr Blair is receiving some of that distaste.

These two objections to Mr Blair are frequently voiced, the former being considerably more important than the latter. But as potent as these criticisms are, there is more to the Labour party’s difficulty with Mr Blair than that. In a way the Iraq war is a surrogate for a deeper discrepancy, a more fundamental distance between Mr Blair and Labour which cannot be described as a falling out because there was never a falling in. Roy Jenkins put this well when he said that Mr Blair’s relationship with the Labour party was like that of a man who had climbed up the building from the outside. There was always something not-very-Labour about Mr Blair and it might just be that this was the source of his appeal.

This can be seen most clearly with respect to Mr Blair’s views on, first, equality and, second, the reform of public services. The disparity between Mr Blair and the centre of gravity of the Labour party took time to reveal itself but, by the time of his departure from office, the gap had become a wide one. The thinking displayed in Mr Blair’s autobiography The Journey has not been echoed by anyone in a senior Labour position since.

Equality is the Labour party’s sovereign idea. It is the title of RH Tawney’s most well-regarded book and the foundation of Labour’s claim to be a moral crusade. But more than that, it is the one guiding idea that the Labour party has left. In his brilliantly depressing history of the Labour party, Strange Eventful History, Edmund Dell, the former trade minister, describes the gradual philosophical emptying of the Labour party.

Early in its life its official economic position was socialist, embodied in the demand for public ownership. This was modified and softened into planning with some limited nationalisation. But then, even Herbert Morrison’s nationalisation, which was always justified on the grounds that it was more efficient than capitalism, was dropped. When Tony Crosland revised the history of social democratic thought in 1956 with the publication of The Future of Socialism, he rested the Labour party’s claim to be a thinking party solely on the primacy of equality. The problem of capitalism, wrote Crosland, had in effect been solved. Growth was perennial and the remaining problem was its distribution. Even nationalisation had become optional. It was a means not a sovereign end. From the panoply of socialist thought, the only idea that counted was equality.

It is hard to recall what a battle the revisionists had at the time. To abandon nationalisation and planning, to relegate those ideas to the status of means, brought forth the accusation of betrayal. This explains why old Croslandites such as Roy Hattersley always believed, as he once put it to me, that the Labour party had not lost its soul but the heretics had definitely taken over the running of it. Having given up so much the revisionists were not prepared to give up equality. That was tantamount to giving up everything. When they heard Mr Blair candidly concede that inequality was not his abiding passion it was too much. They felt the Labour party coming loose from its moorings. It is a common feeling and it is no accident that Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn have both made the fight against inequality the signature tune of their leaderships. If there is an authentic Labour party it can be found in opposition to inequality.

The record of the Blair governments on income inequality is, in fact, rather good. In an era when the economic pressures, especially the increasing premium for skilled labour, was increasing wage inequality in all developed economies, the Blair governments, by stealthy but extensive redistribution through the tax and benefits system, ensured that inequality in 2010 was almost exactly what it had been in 1997. It had taken a great deal of government action to combat inequality to ensure that the nation stood still. It had never seemed, however, that Mr Blair cared all that much. Indeed, his open embrace of enterprise and Labour’s close relations with business rather suggested that his priorities lay elsewhere.

For a long time the bargain between Mr Blair and his party held. When it cracked it was not so much on equality, still less on the war with Iraq, than it was on the reform of public services. The Labour party is, in its bones, a municipalist enterprise. It has a penchant for the institutions of local democracy. It believes in public lines of accountability. It believes in control. It has a worrying tendency towards a benign view of bureaucracies. It has a generous view of the efficacy of the state. The sort of education system it likes is comprehensive, which is to say pretty similar wherever it is found, and brought under the aegis of local democratic bodies. The health service it likes is public, in its provision as well as its funding. To introduce principles imported from markets into these services is, as even as supple a thinker as David Marquand has written, a kind of impurity. Markets tear at the fabric. They ruin what is precious in the public realm. This argument has been heard, in its most sentimental form, in Andy Burnham’s failed leadership campaign, but not only there. It is, again, as close to an authentic Labour view as it is possible to unearth.

The later days of Mr Blair’s governments offended all these principles, in my view correctly. The Academies programme, which Lucy Powell, shadow spokeswoman for Education, has now said she wants, more or less, to abolish, granted schools independence from their local authorities. The head teacher was to be granted licence to run the school, relatively free of obligations to any intermediate body such as a Local Education Authority. In the battle over the 2005 Schools White Paper, which was an attempt to enshrine this principle, backbench Labour MPs kicked back hard. The Bill passed in the end only with the support of Conservative MPs. It was apparent this was not a Labour measure.

The same feeling persisted with respect to the reforms to the NHS which the Blair government began from 2003 onwards. Gordon Brown spoke for the Labour party when he objected to Alan Milburn’s plan to allow foundation hospital trusts to run their own affairs and take their own financial decisions. The objection was dressed up as financial prudence but it was more philosophically fundamental than that. It was essentially about control. When the private sector was invited in to compete for some specialties the suspicions of Labour members were raised. The last few years have seen, under Ed Miliband’s leadership and Andy Burnham at health, a major reversal of the direction of this policy. Labour has marooned itself in the bizarre pretence that the NHS is being privatised. It may not be true but it feels comfortable saying it.

This is the cul-de-sac that its obsession with Mr Blair has led the Labour party into. One day somebody will have to lead it out. That will not lead back to the same policies Mr Blair was adopting in 2005. The very point of new Labour was that it was a form of permanent revolution. It had to keep changing. Someone like Mr Blair today would not be remotely like Mr Blair in 2005, still less 1994. David Hare once said that Tony Blair was the only Labour leader he had ever met who did not want to turn the clock back for a single second. It therefore follows that going back to Tony Blair cannot be the right answer for Labour now. That seems like a forlorn hope anyway. At the moment Labour would settle for a way of moving on.

It is obvious what is needed but equally obvious that it has not yet been supplied. As Peter Mandelson said in his leaked memo, an intellectual renewal is needed. Labour thinking stopped. The long haul back from the brink to which Jeremy Corbyn will take the Labour party has to begin with rethinking. The Labour party is a reflective party, unlike its Conservative rival. It needs to march to the drum of a belief and the only ideas on offer at the moment are old ideas. Labour has retreated to where it feels warm and where it glows. In comfort, in protest, in anger. It cannot win from there but in order to win again it needs to make peace with the one leader in its last seven, soon to be eight, who was able to command a majority of the British public. In that last sentence there must somewhere be a lesson for the Labour party, were it interested in learning it.