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.