Blairite (Everything’s Gone Shite)
The triumph of Jeremy Corbyn over three more centrist candidates did not just herald his victory, it was the symbolic victory of the left for the soul of the Labour Party. What makes that victory even more amazing is this fight was meant to be over in the 1990s. When the New Labour faction of the party took over they acted like the middle-class couples, whose votes they courted, were doing on home improvement shows of the day. A commitment to nationalising industry was ripped out like an avocado bathtub; an unsightly relic in an era of modernity, clean lines, and free markets. In both cases smooth faced men and women in their thirties gagged at the idea of something that so obviously didn’t belong in the modern era.
The sudden reemergence of a socialist faction as the dominant force within the Labour Party has left those hoping to inherit the Blairite crown feeling somewhat discombobulated, as if they’d been handed a bloody nose by a ghost.
Such an event should have lead to genuine soul searching, an attempt to understand why they suffered such a loss and why they are so unpopular within the party. Unfortunately thinking is difficult for the thoughtless. Unlike any of the other major political movements that found political and electoral success in the 20th and 21st centuries, New Labour had no intellectual thinkers in its midst. In fact it was profoundly anti-intellectual, Alastair Campbell said they “didn’t do God”, they didn’t do much philosophy either.
Any study of the rise of Thatcherism and the New Right, from its humble beginnings in the offices of the Institute for Economic Affairs and Freidrich Hayek’s surprise hit ‘The Road to Serfdom’, shows it had a brainy core. Its political breakthrough came from marrying this ideological belief borne of Oxbridge debate societies with populist policies. So a belief that the core tenet of freedom was ownership of property could form the basis of a knockdown sale of council houses dedicated to cleaving away traditional working-class Labour support — not to mention keeping workers in debt and less likely to go on strike.
Blairism never had this intellectual basis, other than to look at Thatcher, concede, “she changed everything” and stick broadly to her policy proposals, only with a slightly softer touch. Part of Labour’s ability to do this was due to the enormous amounts of tax revenues that were flowing into the coffers as a result of a growing economy, coupled with the deflationary affects of China’s growing role as the workshop of the world. Having money to throw at a problem meant that problems need never be fixed and people who live in cornucopias never need be creative.
The housing market growing too quickly and leaving many unable to buy or rent? Housing benefit would curb homelessness and stuff the mouths of landlords with gold. Companies driving down wages to below that which is needed to live? Tax credits would alleviate the worst of in-work poverty and subsidise the profits of businesses that relied on low labour costs. (These two policies formed the bedrock of New Labour policy, to use in work benefits and soaring asset prices to maintain internal demand in the economy while wages either stagnated or shrank.) From the NHS to Sure Start centres, the public sector received much of the rewards of growth, enabling an improvement in the lives of much of the population, without risking the ire of big business and the wealthy, whose taxes were kept at Thatcherite lows.
This plan worked fine up until the global economy started to fall apart. With Brown blamed for an international crisis a new Tory government took power and began imposing brutal cuts on many of the social welfare provisions that Labour had been so proud of. Austerity brought wrack and ruin to the social fabric of Britain. When I moved to Manchester my walk to the pub took me past one old homeless bloke, by the time I left the same walk meant walking past eight people, all with different but equally as horrifying stories. My mum’s work in mental health means hearing constant stories of just what cuts mean for real people. This is an outright attack on the most vulnerable in society and a death by a thousands cuts for those on lower and medium incomes. But faced with accusations of overspending when they were in power many of the architects of the New Labourism were and are completely incapable of creating a different vision for the current reality.
Ed Miliband bravely tried coming up with different policies, largely based on government intervention in the private sector to solve problems before they occurred. The housing market growing too quickly and leaving many unable to buy or rent? Rent caps would make life easier for the young, particularly those in major cities. Companies driving down wages to below that which is needed to live? A minimum wage that matched the living wage and a ban on zero hours contracts would mean an end to in work poverty. (These two policies would form the basis of Ed’s economic plan of reducing inequality and avoiding inflicting pain on the less well off, while saving government dough on various benefits and subsidies.) From energy pricing to boardrooms Miliband took the Labour party into areas that New Labour had deemed verboten.
Sadly, both for a seemingly decent man and the country at large, he lost.
With the Labour party keen to cast his ideas aside following defeat — where they have been picked up, in rhetoric at least, by UKIP and the Tories — a decision was made by those on the right and centre of the party to return to what had worked in the past. Liz Kendall was the epitome of a Blairite candidate, while Yvette Cooper and Andy Burnham proposed a form of Blairism 2.0, where populist ideas were lumped onto a decades old framework. New Labour went from fiddling with the edges of the economy to fiddling with the edges of their own economic policy.
Against this sea of mediocrity it was not difficult for Jeremy Corbyn to stand out. The mandate he received was overwhelming and a clear rejection of the past. But the past does not die easily — to quote Fitzgerald, “what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams” — and it has slowed Corbyn’s Momentum to the degree that he now faces a second challenge to his candidacy.
Angela Eagle was encouraged to run by a party establishment that never supported her, like a Tommy sent over the top by an officer’s class that just wanted to test the enemy’s guns, leaving Owen Smith free to challenge Corbyn without the “mark of infamy”.
But what does he bring to the challenges facing Labour and Britain in 2016? He talks of “solutions not slogans”, which is a very good slogan. He has offered nothing on how to bring together Hampstead liberalism and Hartlepool Euroscepticism other than to pinch Corbyn’s economic policies and throw in some anti-immigrant sentiment. Smith is a product of two decades of bland thought turned stale. The complete failure of New Labour to produce anyone of any intellectual inquisitiveness or ideological imagination during its golden years is now being aired and it has to ultimately damn the project.
Corbyn and his team have not been perfect: message indiscipline is not a left-wing principle but an example of sloppiness; McDonell’s estimable brain trust needs to start producing a few back of a fag packet ideas that can be sold to the public; and genuinely decent MPs like Louise Haigh should never have been alienated from a project they should support.
But from both the old left faction and the new blood that has joined their ranks — particularly the 2015 intake — there is a far greater capacity to actually deal with the challenges of our modern economic state than any of their rivals. It’s 2016, we shouldn’t be looking blearily-eyed into the fridge and chucking a tin foil container marked ‘Blairism’ into the microwave.