Wednesday, 4 May 2022

Three Points on New Labour

I missed the anniversary bus because Covid, but there are three things that I wanted to say again about New Labour.

1. The circumstances that produced New Labour's victory are historically specific. As someone who was around at the time and has no political blocks on recalling memory, it was obvious Tony Blair was going to win the 1997 general election. Nor, had he lived, was there any doubt Labour would have won with John Smith. Blair might have reached deep into Tory territory and flipped more seats other right wing leaders couldn't possibly have reached, but a landslide was on the cards anyway. And the conditions that produced that landslide, among other things, were not just weariness with the Tories - large numbers of voters don't simply give up on a party because they fancy a change - but their incompetence, the damage inflicted, unpopular policies, perceptions of sleaze, mean-mindedness, and outright corruption. Sounds similar to today, but then there was no age (class cohort) polarisation, and the residuum of the solidarities built up by the labour movement over generations were more of an electoral factor. New Labour intersected with the moment: it offers no guide to the future.

2. Tony Blair's template was Bill Clinton, and in his turn Blair was the template for Barack Obama. Blair appealed not because he promised the earth, but because he offered something less tangible. The policies were thin gruel, but what we had instead were slogans like 'Education, Education, Education' and 'Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime' which chimed with the public mood and a vague sense of hope. Blair continually gestured toward better days ahead. Importantly, while Blair spent his time as leader of the opposition telegraphing his fealty to the Thatcherite settlement, he was far from shy in taking the Tories on. Then, as now, Prime Minister's Questions was a minority pursuit of the politically engaged, but seeing Blair slice and dice John Major on the evening bulletins ensured he tapped into the anti-Tory mood. Blair's empty 'change' vibes resonated with a sense he was on the public's side to such an extent that any social group could deposit their inchoate hopes in him.

3. New Labour did make significant inroads into tackling childhood and pensioner poverty and renovating public services. Individual rights at work were extended, along with equalities legislation, devolution, and the Good Friday Agreement. Understandably, the Labour right like to pretend these were the only matters of consequence. Lest we forget the catastrophe of Iraq and Blair's part in enabling the unnecessary deaths of hundreds of thousands. The racist campaigns New Labour launched against Muslims and refugees, and their attacks on the most vulnerable people in society - cutting social security support to single parents, forcing young people into workfare, and dreaming up the disastrous work capability assessment for the disabled. Its continuation of Tory housing policy led to the dysfunctional mess we have today. These were all bad enough, but its appetite for destruction didn't end there. Through its privatisation schemes, academisation of schools, attacks on public sector pensions while green lighting private employers to do the same, and an evisceration of manufacturing greater than that witnessed under Thatcher, New Labour set about liquidating its own base. The propertied pensioners who disproportionately vote Tory now, many of whom certainly voted Labour during their working lives, are a direct consequence of these short-sighted efforts.

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15 comments:

Karl Greenall said...

Within the past fortnight or so, I have heard David Blunkett expressing regret for the fact that we have people languishing in our jails because of his pathetic attempt to follow the Americans and their "Three strikes and you are out" policy. That they are still there today makes them bona fide political prisoners, just as Julian Assange is.
When we add his successful efforts to create chaos and carnage in the state education system, at the behest of his deeply prejudiced and incompetent advisors, we can start to create the grounds for a proper reckoning for the wasted opportunities of the New Labour years.

Alan Story said...

And a fourth point:

Labour and Blair made a manifesto commitment to hold a referendum on electoral reform. He won election. And then reneged.

Think how different the political landscape would/ could be today with PR. 1) No Tory landslide; 2) A real socialist party.

Phil said...

Periodic reminder that I called these bastards way back (the blog post is from 2006 but the article was written in 1997). There was really nothing radical about things like the Equality Act or minimum wage legislation - the only thing that made them look radical was the Tories' lurch to the Right. That's the real crime of New Labour - putting down a political marker that "Labour" stood for privatisation, social discipline* and a bit of investment in public services for a treat, and allowing the Tories to redefine and relaunch themselves as a far-Right populist party.

*"Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was a brilliant slogan for its intended purpose - signalling that a reforming Labour government would also crack down on crime - but we all missed what it really meant. Look at Sure Start (funded by the Home Office); look at the ASB agenda; look at all those crackdowns on benefit claimants. "The causes of crime", for Blair, meant "poor people living disorderly lives", and he was down on them from the start.

RobertD said...

Glad to see you back, and hope that your Covid is on the way out

Blissex said...

«Blair might have reached deep into Tory territory and flipped more seats other right wing leaders couldn't possibly have reached»

That is a famous and often repeated fantasy: in 1997 the Conservatives lost 4.5m votes, and New Labour only gained 2m, and that was purely a protest vote "to throw the bums out" because Nigel Lawson had crashed property prices (and also crashed jobs, but in 1997 the property vote was already more important than the jobs vote).

This is quite clear: in 2001 New Labour, because of the electoral toxicity of Tony Blair, 2 years before the war of aggression againast Iraq (but 2 years after the war of aggression against Yugoslavia), lost 3m votes, that is all those 2m probably ex-Conservative protest voters and 1m more (probably social-democrats who like Roy Hattersley despised a thatcherite government). New Labour then lost another 1m votes in 2005.

1992: 11.56m Lab. 14.09m Con. 6.00m LD
--
1997: 13.52m NLab. 9.60m Con. 5.24m LD
2001: 10.72m NLab. 8.34m Con. 4.81m LD
2005: 9.55m NLab. 8.78m Con. 5.99m LD
--
2010: 8.61m NLab. 10.70m Con. 6.84m LD
2015: 9.35m NLab. 11.33m Con. 6.30m LD+UKIP
2017: 12.88m Lab. 13.64m Con. 2.37m LD
2019: 10.30m Lab. 13.97m Con. 3.70m LD

If what grabbed 2m tory votes in 1997 was "reaching deep into Tory territory", why did millions of tory voters abandon New labour in 2001 and 2005, even if New Labour kept being loyally thatcherite?

What actually happened 2001-2005 was that the Conservative vote collapsed faster than the crashing New Labour vote: all those tory voters, far from being seduced by Tony Blair, instead of swinging their vote to New Labour they swung into abstention, as they still remembered the 1990s property crash, and would not vote for New Labour even if it was delivering massive property-based upward redistribution to them.

The memory of the 1990s property crash was still so strong in 2010 among tory voters that when New Labour did another property crash, the swing from New Labour to the Conservatives was quite modest and the main beneficiaries as to seats were the LibDems, Only after 5 years of booming property profits did tory voters forgive the Conservatives for the 1990s property crash and gave them an outright majority of seats.

Blissex said...

«the conditions that produced that landslide [...] their incompetence, the damage inflicted, unpopular policies, perceptions of sleaze, mean-mindedness, and outright corruption.»

The very same tories had got a 14m vote landslide in 1992, and as the elections of 2017, 2019 and current polls show Conservative voters don't really care about the venial sins of nasty spivs like most of the current cabinet, but care a lot about property prices as it is their "button issue".

«slogans like 'Education, Education, Education' and 'Tough on Crime, Tough on the Causes of Crime' which chimed with the public mood and a vague sense of hope. Blair continually gestured toward better days ahead.»

That was just as far as voters were concerned just the usual irrelevant bullshit they tune out. Instead New Labour's success was not because he merely "gestured toward better days ahead" but he hugely delivered them, with a tripling of property prices and a near tripling of rents that transferred hundreds of billions every year from the lower middle and lower classes to the upper middle and upper classes.

Blissex said...

«did make significant inroads into tackling childhood and pensioner poverty and renovating public services»

That is just government as usual, from a thatcherite point of view, rather than from an ultra-thatcherite point of view as from 2010 onwards.

But even those mildly positive policies only very partially reduced the negative impact of ballooning housing costs on the lower-middle and lower classes.

«New Labour set about liquidating its own base.»

They set out to liquidate *Labour's* base, because Labour is clear electoral and political danger to the New Labour party (and some would think also to the Cooperative party, the strongest ally of New Labour). Besides for "right-thinking" people all those "trots" are illegitimate voters and therefore should not be represented politically.

Blissex said...

«Besides for "right-thinking" people all those "trots" are illegitimate voters and therefore should not be represented politically.»

Least of all by the New Labour party, where the "illegitimate" votes of "trots" were explicitly rejected by Tony Blair himself, my usual quote:

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2015/jul/22/tony-blairs-speech-on-the-future-of-the-labour-party-in-full
«I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.»

«"Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" was a brilliant slogan for its intended purpose - signalling that a reforming Labour government would also crack down on crime»

It was australian-style, Howard-style "dog whistling":

https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2001/sep/02/immigration.labour
After the election, David Blunkett was promoted to the Home Office. He promised Blair he would 'make Jack Straw look like a liberal'. He was bragging, there's not a politician in Britain who can do that. But again it tells you something about the PM that Blunkett was obliged to make it.

https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=jJj0NgA08SUC&pg=PA244&lpg=PA244
George Orwell, "Review of The Civilization of France by Ernst Robert Curtius" (1932):
In England, a century of strong government has developed what O. Henry called the stern and rugged fear of the police to a point where any public protest seems an indecency.
But in France everyone can remember a certain amount of civil disturbance, and even the workmen in the bistros talk of la revolution - meaning the next revolution, not the last one.
The highly socialised modern mind, which makes a kind of composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers, has not been developed - at least not yet.


That "composite god out of the rich, the government, the police and the larger newspapers" was written in 1932, and yet how well it describes our current political climate, across all major parties (Conservatives, New New Labour, LibDems, SNP).

Blissex said...

«Periodic reminder that I called these bastards way back (the blog post is from 2006 but the article was written in 1997).»

Roy Hattersley did that in 2001 in a major article in "The Guardian":

https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2001/jun/24/labour2001to2005.news
«It's no longer my party
It has been a difficult four years for the Labour Party's unrepentant social democrats. One by one, the policies which define our philosophy have been rejected by the Prime Minister. [...] At this moment Labour stands for very little that can be identified with social democracy. [...] Or, believing that the party does not belong to Tony Blair, we could rise up against the coup d'├ętat which overthrew the legitimate philosophy.»

"There Is No Alternative"?

Zoltan Jorovic said...

You omitted the half-cocked political reform. Devolution in Wales and Scotland, but for the House of Lords only replacing hereditary with jobs for mates, and nothing of worth for England. So Wales and Scotland have PR and their own assembly/parliament, while England is left with FPTP as part of a UK parliament, of which one house is unelected. It beggars belief. If NL had done the job properly we would have PR and some sort of English or regional structure.

That's without mentioning the state of English local government, with its multiple different systems, varied tiers, and range of electoral systems. And how it is (not) funded. Local government is a mess and has only got more confusing, more complicated, and more dependent on the centre.

The need for constitutional, electoral and political reform is desperate. Our planning system is broken, the NHS collapsing, social care rotting, and the legal system falling apart. We have not delivered enough to prevent dangerous climate change, and even seem to be rolling back on what small steps we had made. The current political system treats any changes to all these as cards to play for electoral gain, rather than fundamental infrastructure upon which our society depends.

I hold NL responsible because they had the opportunity with their huge majority for real reforms to our 18th century political system, and they failed to take it.

Karl Greenall said...

Proof, if ever needed, that New Labour, and now New New Labour, were, and continue to be the Establishment's second 11.

Blissex said...

«That's without mentioning»

Sure many things are broken or pretty bad, but those affect mostly Labour voters.

Ask the person on the Clapham omnibus, the average southern upper-middle class tory voters: they are very satisfied with this government and they worship Thatcher, Blair, Osborne and now Johnson as economic geniuses, because their living standards have been booming for 40 years, allowing them to afford lifestyles they had never imagined they could. They don't care much for all the things that don't work because they hardly affect their rapidly rising prosperity. It is not just pensioners.

https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/property/1589003/house-prices-growth-property-uk-nationwide-house-price-index-latest-uk
Nationwide’s latest HPI has found that the annual house price growth increased to 14.3 percent in March, from 12.6 percent in February.

Commenters on "The Guardian": “I will put it bluntly I don't want to see my home lose £100 000 in value just so someone else can afford to have a home and neither will most other people if they are honest with themselves

Rejoice! Rejoice! :-)

Zoltan Jorovic said...

Ask the person on the Clapham omnibus, the average southern upper-middle class tory voters

I'm guessing you haven't been on a bus for a while if you think that those sort of people are regular riders. I also wonder where you have been for the last few years. The electoral evidence suggests that the upper-middle class are no longer solidly tory. I live in a leafy southern county and the tory vote is declining consistently. Several district councils that were almost 100% tory are now very mixed, including LD, Lab and Greens as well as independents. Several are NOC. This was unheard of 20 years ago.

Recent election results suggest that the typical Tory voter is now a Brexit- supporting home-owning lower middle, or working class pensioner. What might unkindly be called a Gammon. All the figures show that education level and age are the key indicators of who you vote for. As in, old and not very educated meaning tory. Of course there are exceptions, and still a big residual "comfortable" lounge bar / golf club vote. But things are changing.

James Semple said...

7 May 2022
So, what about the latest test of public opinion? Tory fortresses fall to Labour in London, but nothing clear anywhere else.

I have access to a Tory (my sister) who I need to talk to about family matters, but politics does come up. She thinks Boris "gets things done" by which I suppose she means Brexit. Corbyn was the devil incarnate but she approves of his successor and would vote for him (and no other lefty scum) if he stood in her constituency - instead she is represented by Priti Patel, although she regrets this on personality rather than racial grounds.

My point is personality does count, as our host's comments on Blair illustrates, but it's not enough. Do we have to swallow Tory policies with a splash of red glaze or hold out for a environmental catastrophe to break the mould.

Blissex said...

Ask the person on the Clapham omnibus, the average southern upper-middle class tory voters

«I'm guessing you haven't been on a bus for a while if you think that those sort of people are regular riders.»

The "Clapham omnibus" means in our times the commuter train users that go to work in the City etc. from the leafy suburbs where the propertied southern upper-middle classes fester:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Man_on_the_Clapham_omnibus
Clapham, in South London, was at the time a nondescript commuter suburb seen to represent "ordinary" London

«the upper-middle class are no longer solidly tory. [...] Several district councils that were almost 100% tory are now very mixed, including LD, Lab and Greens as well as independents»

They are still almost 100% tory, even if some tories no longer vote Conservative. I am using the common convention of using "tory" (lower case) to indicate generic right-wingers/thatcherites (very few right-wingers remain who are not thatcherites), whether with or without "woke" leanings, and "Tory" (capitalized) to indicate a Conservative voter, and indeed I think that is your convention too:

«the typical Tory voter is now a Brexit- supporting home-owning lower middle, or working class pensioner.»

Ah the "deplorables", even if "home-owning" and "working class" or "pensioner" is not a fully meaningful combination: property or pension rentiers don't have strong working class interests. Also if they own property in the south they are at that point upper-middle class, given property prices in the area.

As to the upper-middle southern tory classes no longer being so keen on the Conservatives in general election (those that matter) that is proven by the swing to the LibDems in 2017 and 2019 of that 30-40% of non-"deplorable" Conservative voters who supported "Remain", exactly as predicted by Tony Blair, and thanks to that we have had Tim Farron and Jo Swinson as Prime Ministers since. :-)

Note: as to the difference between "protest" elections and those that matter, in 2004 New Labour lost badly the local elections, a clear indication of Tony Blair's ever increasing toxicity, but still in the 2005 general elections tory voters did not vote against New Labour because upward redistribution continued to be massive.

«My point is personality does count, as our host's comments on Blair illustrates, but it's not enough.»

Some studies I have read show that "leaders" usually swing 0-2% of the vote (with the notable exception of Tony Blair who was so electorally toxic that he got 4m New Labour voters to stop voting for it).

Property owning thatcherites won't vote for a "trot" regardless of his personality, but given a choice among thatcherites then personality probably matters a bit, but consider the voter with a cheap £300,000 two bedroom terrace house, very satisfied with their £40,000 work-free, tax-free profit since 2021: she may well be a "woke" middle aged teacher who detests Johnson's personality, and reckon Starmer a more presentable thatcherite, but is she going to risk a political upheaval when Johnson is delivering to her such enormous redistribution from the lower classes?

Most tories won't risk it, and will keep voting for (or in 2001, 2005 not against) the thatcherite team with a record of delivering big property-based upward redistribution, even if a more presentable alternative thatcherite team were available.