Twenty-five years ago this week, Tony Blair became UK Prime Minister when the Labour Party won an electoral landslide; beginning a period of 13 years of the party in office. This still casts an enormous influence and shadow over the times we live in. How we understand it has implications for the present – and the future.
Tony Blair, to a select few, is still a miracle worker and winner who won three elections in a row. To many more, he is a political charlatan, a dissembler who believed that he could persuade anyone of anything, and who supported and aided the illegal Iraq War that resulted in the deaths of hundreds of thousands in its aftermath.
The New Labour era was positive in that Labour won successive elections with working majorities for the first time in its history and understood the need to win. Blair and Gordon Brown – after four consecutive Labour election defeats that had allowed Thatcherism to dominate and reshape – recognised that the party had a propensity to lose, and to accept this state of affairs.
Labour in 1997, like those other rare moments – Clement Attlee in 1945 and Harold Wilson in 1964 – spoke for a progressive Britain, captured the political zeitgeist and an idea of the future. In each period, despite numerous advantages for Labour, each turned out to be a temporary dominance before the normal service of Tory hegemony continued.
In terms of how the New Labour era is understood and perceived today, Tony Blair has offered his own take in a Labour Party video and Daily Mirror
article marking the 25th anniversary. These both reveal how Blair in retrospect sees this period of Labour ascendancy, its descent and the present. In the video, Blair presents New Labour's era in office as one of a country transformed: 'we changed our country to make it more tolerant and more equal… a new different country at ease with itself'.
One takeaway from both is that what Blair does not talk about is as important as what he does. In both, there is no mention of Scottish and Welsh devolution – achievements which Blair is known to be ambivalent about from previous comments and his memoirs.
The New Labour era became diminished not just by the disaster of the Iraq War but by the corrosive way it did politics. There was the politics of spin and media manipulation, the command and control of the political centre, the deliberate undermining of public service and the Blairite obsession with private outsourcing. And for all the differences between Blair and Brown, which began to emerge over the years in office, they were united by so much, including a profound fear and refusal to make the explicit case for a progressive politics, embrace redistribution and social justice, and take on the forces of reaction in the country.
Most profoundly missing and a chasm which can still be felt to this day – for all the initial hope of May 1997 that Labour spoke for and understood a progressive Britain and represented the future – was the unavoidable fact that it failed to deliver the potential of this purpose and the historic moment that was undoubtedly that 'brave new confident morning' of May 1997.
Labour, even with three election victories in a row, rather than being forward-looking, ambitious and imaginative, seizing and claiming new political territories, in reality did the opposite. Increasingly, it became inward-focused, concerned about control in the party and country, reactive and afraid to the point of paranoia of the Daily Mail
, Murdoch and the City of London.
The gaping chasm about the kind of Britain and society that Labour wanted to create meant that under both Blair and Brown were an endless cycle of initiatives, micro-politics to shape newspaper headlines, continual attempts by the political centre to control things, and a never-ending self-defeating managerialism.
'Blairite' and 'Blairism' may have become over-used political terms of abuse, but for large periods of Labour in office there was a void where there should have been a moral credo about what New Labour stood for. It wasn't an accident that the defining text of the early post-1997 years was not Will Hutton's The State We're In
, about the need for stakeholder capitalism, but Anthony Giddens' vacuous The Third Way
, which could not decide whether it was for a new centrism or renewal of social democracy: a strategic ambiguity at the heart of New Labour.
Twelve years after Labour left office, 17 years since Labour last won an election, and 21 years since Labour last won the popular vote in England at a UK election, Labour still doesn't have a sense of what it stands for, the constituencies it represents, or any real sense of its strategic direction. An element of that is the party's ambiguous relationship with the New Labour era.
It is not an accident that the most inept, corrupt UK Government in living memory are, despite everything, able to get away with it for now. Part of the affrontery of the Tories is down to the serious shortcomings of New Labour, from Iraq and imperial hubris and the lies and disinformation associated with it, to Blair, Brown, Alastair Campbell and Peter Mandelson's lack of honesty and transparency reducing all politics and statecraft to media management, and the corporatisation of public service(s). All of this bred cynicism and mistrust and led directly to the climate of anger and indignation which produced Brexit and Boris Johnson as Prime Minister.
Decades later, Labour has still not learnt from the pluses and minuses of these years. Labour needs to want to win – but to do so to make a positive difference, not just to be in office and to challenge the culture of losing. Labour in office has to be about bringing about change, but still within too large a section of Labour there is a belief that taking power involves diluting and selling out principles, and that is too high a price – a view which came to the fore in the rise of Corbynism.
Blair, in his recent Daily Mirror
article, stated: 'power without principle is power without a purpose and therefore pointless; but principle without power, is just an exercise in self-indulgence'. The fact that such basic truths still need pointing out to Labour is illuminating. Tories do not have such reflections; rather they believe they should naturally be in power.
Labour has to put values, principles and vision at its heart, and talk of and represent a different Britain and idea of the future. It has to understand and respect the popular constituencies it represents and give voice to. It must never return to the Blairite conceit of regarding the biggest obstacle to change as the labour movement and trade unions, and the biggest forces for change as corporate hustlers, consultants and bloviators who defined part of the New Labour era.
A different Britain means not being apologetic about advocating for far-reaching change and being against the current state of Britain. It means recognising who present day Britain works for; identifying its insider class, apologists and advocates; and calling out why they cling to the wreckage out of self-interest and corrupt conflicts of interest.
Labour needs to have the confidence and self-awareness to know that the alliance for change cannot come from Labour alone, but has to involve Lib Dems, Greens, Scottish Nationalists, Plaid Cymru and independents, in a popular front of the mind.
The existing political, economic and social order in the UK works against the interests of the vast majority of people and has to be dismantled and democratised. That task of opening up politics, society and the economy cannot be the task of just Labour alone, or the Labour leadership. But is Labour capable of understanding the scale of change needed and the requirement to make a broad, popular alliance which can take on the vested interests who hold Britain back?
Twenty-five years on, 1997 has become a kind of reverse 1945, with Tony Blair an inverse of Clement Attlee. It seems to be how Labour does its history – filled with heroes and villains, betrayal and those standing against the odds for principles, idealists on one side: Keir Hardie and Attlee, and traitors on the other: Ramsay MacDonald, Tony Blair and many more.
Labour has to embrace a more nuanced understanding of its past, its record in office and the purpose of power. This is not some luxury or add-on but central to it having the confidence to map out a future taking on the entrenched forces which need to be defeated. This doesn't mean that people have to learn to love Tony Blair or New Labour, but instead have a more subtle reading of Labour in office: Blair and Brown, Wilson and Callaghan, Clement Attlee and even Ramsay MacDonald pre-1931.
Tony Blair was once famously 'the future', as David Cameron quipped, and then he was the past, still defined by the battles of previous decades. Labour has to be of the future and to do so has to come to terms with its own past – finally after 120 years.