Hopefully this is the last time I will ever post about Tony Blair. I won’t be buying his book, I won’t be reading his book (I hear the prose is terrible) and I don’t take his interventions very seriously, so won’t be reacting to any of his ridiculous statements about policy or politics.
My interest is in the future of the Labour Party and the policies a future Labour government will enact. Some of this future will be based on an analysis of history, so the only reason I am responding to Blair’s book is to put my take on the history of the Blair administration. This is in addition to my pre-election analysis of what Labour needed to change to get over 1992.
We won in 1997 because we offered a radical alternative to the Tories. for all Blair’s subsequent positioning, and for all the criticism of him at the time, this was a real Labour agenda with some real Labour achievements. The Minimum Wage, Freedom of Information, the New Deal and statutory holiday pay were all radical at the time and very Labour.
We were rewarded for this radicalism in 2001 when we won a second landslide. Turnout was significantly down though – at the time felt because the election didn’t seem to be much of a contest. Perhaps this lowering of turnout should instead have been a first warning, but it wasn’t taken as such. Instead, forces within Labour decided that the reason for winning was not the radical policies we had enacted, but the triangulation and rightist presentation they had been dressed in. Slowly at first and then more rapidly as Blair became more and more disconnected from his party Labour started to ditch the radicalism, and dress up managerialism with a shiny right of centre wrapping. Blair’s regret of the Hunting Act strike me as an obvious regret over one of the last truly radical acts of that era of government.
In 2005, Blair was incredibly lucky to be faced with Michael Howard as Tory leader. Had the Tories chosen a Cameron style change – someone not from the discredited Major years, someone young and charismatic – the election could have been a lot closer. We lost millions of votes and over 100 seats. Fought as tired New Labour with full emphasis on triangualtion and modernising (Forward, Not Back – worst election slogan ever?), we only managed to limp to a three point lead over the Tories in the national polls. We didn’t win that election as New Labour, the Tories lost it again as the Same Old Tories.
To learn these lessons properly, we need to deny the braying voices on the right of our party who are frozen ever further into the New Labour dogma of eternal rightward shifting and triangulation. We won and were then rewarded when we offered a radical but electable alternative. We started to lose when we offered little but managerialism and attempts to outflank the Tories on the right.
We will continue and deserve to lose if we don’t just talk about offering something radically different, but do so too. Our leader – whoever they end up being – must understand the need the electorate will have to see a difference, a radicalism about our offer and must be able to sell that vision with passion and conviction. Brown went wrong not because he abandoned New Labour, but because in promising to abandon it and them failing to offer a definition of what his vision of a post-New Labour government meant, he failed to actually move on but ended up merely offering a blurring of the presentation.
We must now – after too long – define Labour for the 21st Centuary and make an attractive offer of that definition.