Sunday, 9 March 2014

Why Some Labour People Don't Like Blair

Is Tony Blair Labour's greatest ever leader? John McTernan certainly thinks so. He lays out Blair's stall and talks up the nice things he achieved in office. It begs the question, what is wrong with those people who grumble about him? Rising employment, stable public finances, the minimum wage - Gordon Brown couldn't have inherited a better set of policy achievements. It must be that Blair refused to nationalise the top 100 monopolies, and didn't squeeze the rich until the pips squeaked. Or perhaps it's because he won three consecutive elections by sticking dead centre and ignoring the advice/demands of the left. Only the embittered argue with success. But is that it, really?

Disclaimer time. As Blair took the reins of the Labour Party I was being radicalised. Apart from a very, very brief moment in 1996 when I thought about joining the party, I always had Blair down as a wrong 'un. The smooth patter and coiffured sincerity never chimed with me. Then again, teenage Trotskyists were not the priority swing voters Millbank wanted to win over. Wind history forward to now and as a relatively dull and sensible socialist Blair strikes me still as less charm, more smarm.

None of this would matter if his achievements were legacy-defining. But to describe them that way is to throw a sack over the historical record and give it a good thumping. For me, Attlee was. Thatcher was. But Blair? It all depends on how you look at him and what angles matter to you and your politics. On John's part, it's public services, rights at work and, of course, winning elections. Funnily enough, these things matter to most Labour Party people too, so that's where I'll drop a few words.

On public services, yes, lots of nice new hospitals were built. Building Schools for the Future - before it was cancelled by the Tories - ensured hundreds of thousands of children won't be sitting in cold Victorian buildings and rain-stained portakabins. Add community centres and fancy buildings for the government bureaucracy in old London town to the pot too. All good stuff, I'm sure you'd agree. But what's that oil in the lemonade? Oh my, the slick has a distinctive shape. It's spelling out three letters: PFI.

Yes, the Private Finance Initiative. The process by which a hospital worth, say £500m, ends up costing the public purse double or triple that amount. A scheme that was cooked up while John Major was still haunting Number 10, Blair and Brown made it very much their own. Basically you get a private contractor, such as Balfour Beatty, to build you your school, hospital or whatever and then over a period of time (usually 25-30 years) the public sector organisation that inhabits it pays off a mortgage. Services are also usually locked into expensive maintenance contracts too. As per the decadent character of our ruling circles, it was designed to reap short-term political capital by keeping new infrastructure costs off public spending figures. The pain, however, is long-term liability. It will cost the taxpayer many more billions in the long-run than if the government had simply paid out for the buildings. George Osborne has occasionally singled out PFI as proof of the last government's profligacy (curiously, he didn't raise his voice in opposition at the time). So concerned about the great PFI rip-off is he that the government are committed to a PFI wave of their own. Osborne and friends have never had a problem with socialism when it's for the rich and sadly, neither did Blair.

How about the workplace, the labour movement's front line. Did things get better under Blair? Setting aside the minimum wage, I'm interested in the balance between capital and labour. The "new rights" granted trade unions were mandatory recognition in workplaces of 20 or more workers if half of employees voted for it - a vital "in" after a period where unions more or less operated underground in many an office and factory. At the same time, New Labour strengthened maternity leave and introduced two weeks paid paternity leave and can lay claim to piloting equal rights at work through the Commons. Again, why grumble? The bulk of the achievements here - welcome as they were - are individual rights, not collective rights. Does this matter? Of course it does. Stronger unions mean fairer workplaces and less inequality in wider society. Time after time employers and employees skirmish over pay, holidays, pensions, the work process, managerial authority, and so on. Blair's reforms, ultimately, did not enhance the capacity of working people to press for greater freedoms in the job. In fact, the number of workers covered by collective bargaining fell.

You see, it is impossible to to assess Blair's record on workers rights without looking at his wider policy agenda. Across the public services - local government, the NHS, education, the law, the post office - New Labour strengthened internal markets where they existed, introduced them where they did not. Public institutions were obligated to contract out certain services to the private sector. For workers, this meant pay cuts, a worsening of conditions, the closure of final salary pension schemes, and an upsurge in part-time, insecure working. In short, the technocratic fantasy that markets deliver greater efficiencies was then and remains an article of faith, but Blair's commitment to it severely undermined Labour's base. The Tories never make the mistake of hammering their constituency, and neither should we.

Lastly, those general elections. I've come across many otherwise sensible Labour people who have allowed three election victories under Blair crowd out their critical faculties. Of course, yes. It is a superficially impressive achievement. But Blair's victories were hardly alchemical. It's a truism that governments lose elections, oppositions don't win them. And in 1997 Labour was blessed to be facing an exhausted, scandal-ridden and divided Tory administration. Had John Smith not died prematurely Labour were still on course for power - returning Major for a second full term just would not have happened, period. Just look at the votes. 14.1m votes for the Tories in 1992 - the highest popular vote ever - and Labour's 13.5m votes in 1997, two million more than Kinnock's outing five years earlier and accounting for less than half of the voters who deserted the Tories. Turn out was down six per cent.

Come 2001 Labour lost three million votes but only five seats, thanks to first past the post. Turn out collapsed by 12%. And in 2005 another 1.2m votes vanished while turn out went up two per cent. Was Blair an electoral genius, or - like Thatcher - lucky in that his opponents were in disarray and were unable to substantially capitalise on the Iraq debacle. What is annoying is not that Blair won three elections. It's that Labour's support was gradually dispersed through the pursuit of policies antithetical to the interests of our key supporters.

To be fair to Blair, his record is more complex than one-sided hack jobs from either the left or right suggest. The SureStart centres, improvements in NHS care, the minimum wage, LGBT advances, these are real, tangible positives that made big differences to people's lives. That campaign groups, the unions and the far left have worked to protect the public services Labour renovated under Blair and Brown is enough to show a substantive difference existed between Blair and the Tories in those years. But being economic with the truth, of overlooking the inconveniences, all that John's article establishes is his unwillingness to look at Blair's record as it really was. Nostalgia, of seeing 1994-2007 bouncing to endless replays of Things Can Only Get Better has its uses, but drawing conclusions on the basis of analysing facts is not among them.


Phil said...

The SureStart centres

A Criminologist Writes: the funding for SureStart came from the Home Office budget; it was designed and justified as a crime prevention measure. When Blair said NL would be "tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime", he meant it. He saw poverty, broken families, chaotic lifestyles and bad parenting as causes of crime, and he wanted to eradicate them: by providing opportunities where possible, by imposing sanctions where necessary. What most people heard him saying - that an unjust and divided society created the impoverishment which led inevitably to crime - was the one thing which was right outside his sense of what was possible.

Speedy said...

Surely you missed the biggest, most definitive fail - social mobility.

The failure to improve social mobility - indeed preside over a period in which it got worse - is the only measure you really need to understand whose side New Labour were really on.

Giving up on the working class to appeal to middle class voters meant tailoring policies for those voters even if the initial intention was to serve the interests of the many. This effectively transformed it in to the Whig/ Liberal party the rise of organised labour had knocked for six back in the day.

Thats why it failed - because in trying to appeal to everybody it forgot who and why it was. It identified middle class interests with its own - "labour flexibility", immigration etc - and forgot the class struggle. Forgot its own name, so created another one - New Labour.

And its no good saying - we are all middle class now, because the same families who went to the same schools are in the same jobs. Because to some people middle class is a statistic, to others it is a private joke.

Robert said...

And don't forget that genius Mr Tony wanted to join the Euro as part of his modernisation project. Fortunately Gordon Brown knew better. Not a fan of Mr PFI Brown but I certainly prefer him to Tony.

The Tories are right to say that New Labour helped to bankrupt the country. Of course had the Tories been in power they would have followed the same disastrous policies of PFI, light touch regulation of the City, internal markets and encouraging an unsustainable debt boom. Idiot Driven Syndrome aka Duncan Smith was also in favour of the Iraq war. If only Ken Clarke had been Tory leader at the time he'd have made mincemeat of Tony over the despatch box and the vote to go to war might have gone the other way.

Vortigern said...

The SureStart centres are massively important innovations, if you are a person with a very young child. Improvements in NHS care matter hugely if you are ill (possibly a matter of life and death). The minimum wage is a game-changer equal to the establishment of the NHS, if you are on low pay. LGBT advances are nothing short of a validation of your very right to exist.

All these things matter hugely if you are affected by them. They are mere academic issues if you are not. To dismiss them in a paragraph seems a bit, I don't know, haughty?

Gary Elsby said...

A rising tide floats all boats was the theme and of course specialist groups felt left out always.
Putting it into a more complex context would see millions of disillusioned Labour supporters losing election and election with some manifestoes worthy of an Oscar in any other setting.
The drift to the right was so-so annoying but hard right Conservatism was bouncing along with the electorates approval.
Blair came in (as Stoke entered it's second decade of recession) and promised the world.
It was great to be on the winning side in this lifetime.
He delivered on the big promises and Gordon delivered on 'no bust'.
This was a key point.
The Tories always delivered a 'boom' and the working classes returned the favour at the ballot box.
The dwindling Labour vote (as the schools and hospitals went up) was because no boom came our way.
It was drudgery and rising bills (as Stoke entered its third decade of recession).
Have the Tories done enough 'boom' to secure a victory from others in 2015?
Labour will offer what? Better training for teachers?
I met Blair and he was a very likeable, personable man who spoke with great confidence and belief.
In Stoke he was tolerated but would have been removed if given the chance.
I always believed he was a means to an end who would deliver if he could.
There were things I didn't like about Labour 97-2010 and Miliband repeats that process on a daily basis.
Being recorded as a great politician for Labour (or others) is often out down to an invasion or two so pity Gordon for tinkering in the shadow of a known incoming world recession and ponder the thought of a decade under him.

Gary Elsby said...

An explanation from Robert of his dislike for Tony's enthusiasm for the euro is required.

Phil said...

This post is about why Labour people don't like Blair, Vortigern. If it was an assessment of all the pros and cons if would be called something else entirely.

Chris said...

I regard Blair as a bit of a snake oil salesman.

I work in the public sector and what they offered was the carrot and the stick. On the one hand better maternity pay but on the other 24 hour opening. On the one hand more flexible working arrangements but on the other oppressive micro management.

And what has been the main objective for the last 10 years? Bit by bit take away the carrot so only the stick is left.

This is the essence of Blairism, one big confidence trick.

I didn't hate Blair until Iraq but I never liked him and stopped voting Labour as soon as he took the reigns. I think in hindsight I was fully justified in making that decision, and nothing is yet tempting me to vote for them again.

Robert said...

@Gary. What if Britain had joined the Euro?

Gary Elsby said...

A half cocked scare story that just doesn't and didn't add up.

Quite amusing though that Britain would have had a harder recession than necessary if we had taken Tony's advice.
The other side of the coin was that Gordon wanted that honour as PM.

All of the advanced Countries seem to be back in the black (apart from guess who?)
including most using the euro currency.

The case against continues not to stack up no matter how awash with anti euro stories we have to put up with.

DrDude12472 said...

I tend to think of Blair in the way the Chinese now regard Mao - 70% good, 30% bad. Certainly the Major government could not continue in 1997, and the minimum wage and SureStart are things I would die defending.

The high employment rate was great, as was the extra investment in the NHS (even though PFI was a rubbish idea).

But then things like Iraq, PFI, the weird obsession with markets and the lack of regulation of the City get to me.

There's also what Roy Hattersley brought up on Hennessy last week - Every time we criticise the Tories now, they get to say "You did it first". Blair's to blame for that.

I place him in the middle of the Labour prime ministers on my ratio of amount of good done to hand dealt - above MacDonald and Wilson, below Brown, Callaghan, Attlee (in that order).