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Saturday, 25 January 2020

Was New Labour a Failure?

The new Labour MP Zarah Sultana's condemnation of "40 years of Thatcherism" has hit a nerve. I suspect this has more to do with her age, 26, and her reference to the views of future teenagers, than it does to an otherwise uncontroversial reading of recent British history. For the defenders of New Labour, this intervention suggests that they have lost the argument over legacy and that no amount of praise for Sure Start and NHS investment, let alone revisionist tomes by the likes of John Rentoul, will alter the popular assessment. That the retort is "What about X?" when the charge is "You didn't do Y?" is evidence enough that they are batting on a sticky wicket. New Labour accepted the Thatcherite dispensation, even going so far as to fetishise it in the guise of "prudence". While it ameliorated the worst social effects, its intervention in the economy and society was characteristically neoliberal, promoting markets and consumer choice and bullying the marginalised and non-compliant. This isn't really in dispute. And nor, outside a fringe, is the calamity of Iraq.

However, to judge New Labour chiefly on that particular mistake would be to give too much significance to contingency and personality. Had 9/11 not happened, there is a good chance that the US invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq might never have followed, despite the neoconservative dreams of glory in Washington, and there are also grounds to believe that another Labour Prime Minister (say, Gordon Brown, for argument's sake) would have been more cautious, lining up with the rest of the EU on a policy of non-intervention rather than committing to military action. If we are to judge New Labour as more than the preferences and foibles of one man, then we should probably get out of the habit of talking about "Blairism" or "Blairites". After all, there is little that distinguishes the latter from the "Brownites" at the level of political theory, and the differences in terms of policy (enthusiasm versus scepticism about the euro, for example) were usually much shallower than presented by a gossipy media.

New Labour was a failure in its own terms. It didn't remake the Labour party and even the election of Keir Starmer as leader will not represent a revival of its fortunes internally. What killed it off was not Iraq, or even the steady growth of disillusion among the electorate after the millennium, but the 2008 financial crisis. New Labour's fundamental premise, that light-touch regulation of the economy could be combined with mild redistribution and decent public services, was shown to be inadequate in the face of capitalism's internal contradictions. With the climate crisis further accentuating those contradictions, and with the public's appetite for a more interventionist state whetted by Brexit, Labour is unlikely to change the direction of travel towards economic justice pursued under Corbyn. It may well revive the liberal managerialism of the New Labour years, but this is likely to be softer in tone and more sincerely committed to devolution and participative democracy, whoever becomes party leader.


New Labour didn't make Britain a "young country". We are clearly now a nation in which the interests of the young are marginalised and the interests of the old, from house prices to pensions, have a grip on politics. Nor did New Labour raise Britain's status in the eyes of the world after the initial high of the Good Friday Agreement and the fluff of "Cool Britannia". The country's reputation took a hit with the Iraq War, however the willing acceptance of the Washington Consensus and the emphasis placed on liberal interventionism were just as important in cultivating the image of "America's poodle". Of course, the UK has experienced declining global status for over a century now. In this context, New Labour could simply be said to have been on-trend - it failed to arrest this secular decline - however a case can be made that its behaviour over Iraq was the first example of a new recklessness in British politics that was all too evident over the last decade, from the stupidity of austerity to the casual gamble of the EU referendum and now the fantasy of Brexit's sunlit uplands.

While New Labour clearly achieved much in terms of better public services and reduced poverty, it did so in a manner that was always likely to prove impermanent. Its insistence on market efficiency and the virtue of fiscal prudence left the public sector vulnerable to parasitism and welfare subject to the "common sense" of austerity. While the latter was unquestionably a choice of the Conservatives under Cameron, it was already conventional wisdom precisely because of New Labour's record in government. This included its failure to adequately address the structural causes of growing inequality - famously exemplified in its belief that it could be tolerated so long as the winners paid their taxes - and its focus of the narrative of rights and responsibilities on welfare claimants rather than the rich or the financial sector. As Stuart Hall put it in 2003: "Marketisation is now installed in every sphere of government. This silent revolution in "governance" seamlessly connects Thatcherism to New Labour."

Hall was an early critic of New Labour and also of the ameliorative argument that would subsequently be presented in its defence: "It combines economic neo-liberalism with a commitment to 'active government'. More significantly, its grim alignment with corporate capital and power is paralleled by another, subaltern programme, of a more social-democratic kind, running alongside. This is what people invoke when they insist, defensively, that New Labour is not, after all, neo-liberal. The fact is that New Labour is a hybrid regime, composed of two strands. However, one strand - the neo-liberal - is in the dominant position. The other strand - the social democratic - is subordinate." It is this point about dominance that underpins Sultana's reasonable opinion. It is also no accident that many of New Labour's staunchest defenders have also questioned whether neoliberalism even exists, let alone whether it was influential. Remove that from the equation and you can better defend the record, albeit by reducing government to mere administrative tinkering.


New Labour clearly failed to undo or substantially alter the economic and social dispensation of Thatcherism, and went so far as to make this a selling-point in the mid-90s. It even reneged on promises to reverse some of the emblematic achievements of Tory rule, such as anti-union laws and NHS marketisation. By accepting the Thatherite analysis, both in its diagnosis (that the country was being held back by unions and welfarism) and in its prognosis (that entrepreneurial spirit would drive prosperity), New Labour ensured that Thatcherism remained hegemonic and paved the way for a Tory revival. For all the differences in style and rhetoric, Cameron, May and now Johnson are all recognisably Thatcher's children. It wasn't mischief or levity when Thatcher claimed that her chief legacy was Tony Blair. As Phil McDuff recently put it, "In 1997, to say that Blair built on the economic foundations of Thatcher’s economic reforms would have been neither a radical statement nor something with which either Thatcher or Blair would have disagreed."

It is easy to forget how much Ed Miliband was attacked after 2010 for his minor divergence from New Labour orthodoxy, largely because this was eclipsed by the hysterical vituperation of Jeremy Corbyn. Any deviation from the script was seen as heresy, which in part explains the continued indulgence of Blair by sympathetic media. He isn't an elder statesman dispensing wisdom but a protagonist obsessively curating his reputation. For Blair and his epigones Labour has become rotten and essentially illegitimate. While this takes a variety of forms, from a critique of its supposed middle-class indulgence to the "scourge of antisemitism", there is a common theme of decay and corruption in the rhetoric, which sounds suspiciously like projection. The party has been "taken over", it has "lost its mind", it has "forgotten its history" (a charge that requires rejecting most of its pre-90s history). This is not a rational analysis but a psychotic episode.

New Labour was a failure because it didn't alter the political landscape in any substantial or lasting way. It steadily lost popular support through its economic caution, social authoritarianism and foreign policy misjudgements, but was unable to point to any major positives to offset the accumulating negatives. There was no equivalent to the foundation of the NHS or the introduction of Right-to-Buy, let alone the Falklands victory. In many ways Jeremy Corbyn, both in his politics and his age, was a godsend to Blair and his supporters, allowing them to create a more convincing strawman of antiquated leftism than was possible with Ed Miliband. The problem of Labour could then be presented as one of regression to self-indulgence, so reviving memories of the 1980s and the eventual arrival of the saviour. The truth is that Corbyn's popularity showed how superficial the impact of New Labour had ultimately been on the party. Having failed to change Britain, Blair also failed to change Labour.

7 comments:

  1. I think the last 5 years of politics have demonstrated the real legacy of 'New Labour', which is that their thoroughgoing managerialism and deliberate confusion of political expediency with spurious claims to 'expertise' have led to a massive reaction against that style of politics. The situation we are in now is that as people have seen an intensification of the managerial approach in work and everyday life they seem to want a political sphere that is almost a distraction from that, preferring politics-as-entertainment, 'plain-speaking', or ultimately disengagement from the whole Westminster ensemble. In many ways the focus on Corbyn has been a calculated attempt from 'New Labour' and its media allies to turn attention away from the fact that the 2019 election effectively represented the culmination of the lack of popular legitimacy that the elitist and cynical politics of 'Blairism' eventually produced. Corbyn was able to whip up enough enthusiasm to reinvigorate Labour in London and the cities, but was not able to reverse the rot in other ex-industrial areas that was obvious as early as 2010.

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    1. I think you're right that the last decade had been a reaction against liberal managerialism, and that the utility of Corbyn was as a distraction from this development.

      The significance of the current leadership contest (and disregarding sincerity for a moment) is that no one is offering a return to New Labour.

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    2. I think the serious politicians in Labour have realised that New Labour as a style of politics and governance is as popular as a bucket of cold sick. Unfortunately for them (and the members), they haven't decided what to replace it with this time round. The 'success' of the New Labour old guard and their media allies has been to ensure that any one literally too leftfield will now be seen as too 'unworldly' and vulnerable to criticism to be a viable leader. I suspect this makes Starmer the favourite, and he will probably lead initially in a sort of John Smith vein, cautious and mainstream but at least paying lip service and respect to the left. The problem with this approach is that unless the Tories really shoot themselves in the foot and lose their media support, it's hard to see Starmer uniting the disparate elements of the electorate that Labour would need to win the next GE.

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  2. «New Labour accepted the Thatcherite dispensation»

    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2002/jun/10/labour.uk1>
    “Peter Mandelson has re-entered the political fray with a provocative declaration that "we are all Thatcherites now" in an article in today's Times.”

    «we should probably get out of the habit of talking about "Blairism" or "Blairites".»

    Indeed I usually use the term "mandelsonians", because Blair himself was a mandelsonian.

    «After all, there is little that distinguishes the latter from the "Brownites" at the level of political theory, and the differences in terms of policy (enthusiasm versus scepticism about the euro, for example) were usually much shallower than presented by a gossipy media.»
    «“The fact is that New Labour is a hybrid regime, composed of two strands. However, one strand - the neo-liberal - is in the dominant position. The other strand - the social democratic - is subordinate.”»

    Lance Price, "Diary", 1999-10-19:

    “Philip Gould analysed our problem very clearly. We don’t know what we are. Gordon wants us to be a radical progressive, movement, but wants us to keep our heads down on Europe. Peter [Mandelson] thinks that we are a quasi-Conservative Party but that we should stick our necks out on Europe. Philip didn’t say this, but I think TB either can’t make up his mind or wants to be both at the same time”

    Soon TB became (or arguably had already became) a no-qualms mandelsonian.

    «how much Ed Miliband was attacked after 2010 for his minor divergence from New Labour orthodoxy,»

    Gordon Brown himself was also attacked for being a leftist deviant:

    “Gordon is interested in the middle classes only if he thinks they are “squeezed” — and therefore joining the ranks of the poor who have concerned him most for all his life. These voters want to feel loved when they are comfortable too. And as they see their taxes rise, as they battle with a schools system that puts equality above excellence”

    “Although Mr Brown talks a lot about aspiration, he means it in the sense that people at the bottom of the pile should be able to get to the middle, rather than that those in the middle should aspire to get a little bit further towards the top.”

    “When Mr Blair spoke of the many, not the few he meant the middle classes; when Mr Brown used the same phrase he was referring to the poor.”

    “A No10 aide admits that Brown does not have the natural empathy with the middle classes that Blair did. "The moment Tony sent his son to the Oratory those voters thought - 'he gets it'," he says.”

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  3. «prognosis (that entrepreneurial spirit would drive prosperity)»
    «the real legacy of 'New Labour', which is that their thoroughgoing managerialism and deliberate confusion of political expediency with spurious claims to 'expertise' have led to a massive reaction against that style of politics.»

    I tend to think that these statements are based on mistaking rhetoric and details with the main thing, which has been the same for the past 40 years of thatcherism: electoral politics reduced almost entirely to house price and rent inflation (which they call "aspiration"), and economic policy reduced almost entirely to misregulating and backstopping the finance and property sectors.

    Both Conservatives and New Labour talking about entrepreneurialism and managerialism are engaging in propaganda; what they seem to know very well is that their voters want big property gains, and their elites want that too plus big incomes from working in finance, the rest is verbiage.

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  4. «Both Conservatives and New Labour talking about entrepreneurialism and managerialism»

    Now that I remember, a columnist on the FT accurately defined thatcherite entrepreneurship with the description of crony rentierism:

    https://www.ft.com/content/9dfea428-0538-11e9-9d01-cd4d49afbbe3
    “Margaret Thatcher’s successful brand of entrepreneurial capitalism in the UK in the 1980s. Through privatisation, she turned ordinary savers into shareholders. Through the sale of council houses, she turned tenants into property owners.”

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  5. Herbie Destroys the Environment26 January 2020 at 16:02

    “and the interests of the old, from house prices to pensions, have a grip on politics.”

    And here is me thinking pensions and housing were of concern to all!

    New labour did not try to undo the social dispensation of Thatcherism, instead they accepted all its ideological premises and simply attempted to perfect it, and give it a veneer of respectability. The changes they made within the public sector made George Osbournes job of imposing austerity that much easier.

    We should very much see New Labour as a capture of the Labour party by the ruling class, representing globalised monopolistic interests. The attacks on Corbyn and the struggles ahead will be to ensure the Labour party remains captured.

    My bet is that they will succeed, so the announcement of the death of Blairism is very much premature. In fact neo liberalism seems more entrenched than ever, unless I missed something!

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