Monday, 23 July 2012

That is not dead, which can eternal lie...

Anthony Blair’s musing over a return to British political life has caused much consternation amongst the Labour movement. The two great criticisms of New Labour as a project, that it was too close to Big Finance and Big Media, are being thrown into sharp relief by Leveson and the events at Barclays.
Mr Blair has some extremely competent defenders, and my friend Stephen Bush over at Progress does a remarkably good attempt at defending ‘the legacy’. Yet the third great criticism of New Labour goes without mention in his article. That, of course, is Iraq.

It’s almost a decade since the marches, the arguments and the invasion. Many argue it’s been done to death. But actually, for much of the Labour movement, it’s not even about the blood and treasure squandered in the deserts of Mesopotamia. It’s about the will and double standards of New Labour.

For the length of the New Labour project, we socialists were told we were dreamers, with our notions of greater workers’ rights, economic rebalancing, public ownership and the rest. But we weren’t the only ones. The aspirations of the New Labour elite, from the Euro to ending boom and bust, seem like fantasies today. Yet Iraq is the defining moment where the Labour Government reversed the old maxim and declared “Not for Peace, but for War”.

The rulebook was thrown out the window. The Clintonian triangulation about focus groups and public opinion was ignored, the importance of party unity disregarded, the media threatened into submission. The biggest march in British history came to the streets of London, and the prime minister remained unmoved. While Tony Blair did, indeed, go on to win the 2005 election, he received fewer votes than Major got in 1997.

This demonstrated the power of ideology over pragmatism. The Labour government did have the power to enact a hugely expensive, hugely unpopular policy, and spend its entire political capital both domestically and internationally doing so. What had been lacking was the will. The fundamental legitimacy of the Labour movement was put on the line. This was not done for an issue of social justice, or economic success, but for the particular ideological convictions of its leader. And so the arguments against ‘Old Labour’ policies were exposed as bunkum. It was not that New Labour couldn’t bring about the reforms the movement had asked for, it was that they didn’t want to. The psychological shock of that betrayal – of knowing what could have been achieved after 6 years – still reverberates within the labour movement.

I do not degrade the important things done in office. As a man who likes other men I have a lot to be grateful for, though my student debt wears away at that gratitude a little every month. And yes, I still get a twinge when ‘Things can only get better’ comes on. But the man of 1997 is not the man of 2012.  You don’t have to keep defending the messianic tax-exile because you loved the nice young reformer.

At the last though, we don’t judge people in the balance, we judge them on the worst things they did. Nothing Ted Kennedy did made up for Chappaquiddick. Making decent chocolate bars doesn’t make up for Nestle pushing formula to African mothers. And there is no exchange rate that says you get excused so many dead civilians in a foreign land because you gave pensioners free bus passes.

But perhaps the best argument against Blair’s return is deeply Blairite. He’s no use. The fireworks and slick sheen are useless against a far more cynical electorate than we had in 1997. Substance is required, not spin.The challenges to the labour movement today are immense. And as someone once said, today is not a day for soundbites.

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