Friday, September 03, 2010

Blairism: when Labour were happy to support a centre-right government

The publicity around Tony Blair's memoirs reminds us of just how alien he was from many of the Labour party's traditions and perhaps helps to explain why the Liberal Democrats have been so united and robust in responding to criticism from Labour supporters over the coalition.

This week's New Statesman editorial praises his early achievements in office and believes he went off the rails towards the end of his first term.

In fact, the key to the New Labour project, starting with the period of opposition before 1997, was moving political discourse several notches to the right, particularly on crime and taxation, in a way that was anything but progressive. Blair discarded socialism in order to position Labour as a centre-right Christian Democratic party rather than a liberal one.

On criminal justice, where Labour and Liberals might have once made common cause in favour of humane policies, Blair and New Labour started trying to outflank the Tories on the right, in the process attacking the Lib Dems for being 'soft on crime', maintaining such attacks through to 2010. Having disavowed any intention of increasing income tax, in a bid to win over Conservative voters, Labour began attacking the Lib Dems for being 'high on taxes', despite our proposed 1% income tax increase being relatively modest. Such triangulation to the right continued through Labour's time in office, Gordon Brown's abolition of the 10% tax band being part of a bid to offer bonbons to those on middle incomes. Likewise, Labour's new positioning on crime was not just a rhetorical flourish to secure victory in 1997, but continued throughout their time in office, with hundreds of new criminal offences created, together with constant attempts to portray opponents who questioned government policy as 'soft on crime'.

I remember thinking back at the start of the New Labour project that all those old socialists and those of a more liberal-left persuasion in the Labour party would never tolerate this kind of thing. But in fact they were more than happy to campaign as a low tax, tough on law and order party and to support their leaders in carrying this agenda into government. Indeed throughout late Labour government's existence, any civil libertarian sentiment that might exist in the Labour party was noticeable if not by its complete absence then by its muted tones.

The point is that all those who supported Labour through the Blair years made their own accommodation with a right-wing agenda (did I mention the Iraq war?), prioritising tribal loyalty over any attempt to form a progressive consensus. This is why I find it hard to have sympathy with Guardianistas, New Statesmanites etc. who see the Lib Dems joining a coalition with the Tories as a betrayal of progressivism. They already made their 'pact with the devil' or acceptance of political reality in supporting Blairism. What the Blair and Brown years meant was that we could no longer regard Labour as a broadly progressive party and the Conservatives as a reactionary one. Instead both parties include both liberal and authoritarian, progressive and reactionary elements. In the circumstances it made sense to work with the one that offered the best chance of providing stable government and implementing some Lib Dem policy.

CODA: Blair's apparent endorsement of the coalition's budget policies prompts me to the following piece of counterfactual speculation. Had he chosen to face down Gordon Brown and his allies in 2006/07, declared his intention to lead the Labour party into a further general election and gone on to win it, Blair might now be leading a New Labour government pursuing exactly the same policies as the coalition is doing. In such circumstances, Labour supporters who now condemn the budget cuts would no doubt have tutted and harrumphed a bit, but still accepted and defended the policies they are now so quick to condemn.

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