Wednesday, 1 June 2011

New Labour – power, pragmatism and the place of socialist principles

I am proud to have known Tony Blair. I found him to be honest and up-front. He was a brilliant communicator and persuader. I was no more to him than someone who stood at the back of the crowd and applauded, but I am proud to have been part of that era. My wife and I still keep and treasure the Christmas cards we received from him.

Although he did not invent the idea, of course, it is from Tony Blair that many of us have our understanding of ‘New Labour’.

Labour in the 1980s was unelectable. Full of dinosaurs, extremists, fantasists and militants, it had become a national laughing stock (of which scorn poor old Michael Foot unfairly took the brunt).

And so it was that the pragmatists came to power within the party. Led by John Smith and then Neil Kinnock, their argument was that – as long as the Party continued to alienate the middle class by espousing loony-left principles – it would never get into power to be able to implement moderate-left principles.

I think we fail to cut enough slack to those moderates who fought that bitter battle – to whom we owe the Labour Party. If they had not won, the Labour Party would not exist today.

The crux of the matter, of course, was Clause 4. It was not just a promise to drop nationalisation; it was a promise to business that business was safe in our hands. And indeed, it turned out to be more-than-safe – under New Labour business experienced a boom which ran so uncontrolled that it ended up in worldwide financial meltdown.


It is hard to understate how deeply this strand of pragmatism of New Labour runs in the Labour Party today.

It is presumably why we have a Labour leadership which has decided to make its pitch to the ‘squeezed middle class’ (by which it means people earning up to £100,000 a year!) – a leadership which complains when the Tories remove benefits from families earning £50,000 a year – a leadership which thought it was acceptable to double (from 10% to 20%) the tax paid by someone on £7000, but declined to raise the tax rate paid by people on £149,000.

Visit any Labour Party branch in the north-east and you are likely to find someone who will tell you that, unless we get elected in the south-east, we will never have a Labour government again. There is a terror in Labour ranks of saying anything which might upset the middle classes of the south-east.


So that is the orthodoxy – but how valid is it?

I have my doubts.

Firstly, I would question how important it was to getting elected in 1997 that we sucked up to the middle classes. I am sure it helped, but do you really think that that was what brought Tony Blair into Downing Street? Do you not think it was much more the 18 years of Tory right-wing rule?

And not just that the Tories were bankrupt, corrupt and divided. During those Thatcher years there had been a pronounced shift to the left in the British public. It had been proven to them that right-wing politics bring social suffering. People who had stood firm against the miners’ strike had marched for the miners when the pits were closing. And that leftwards swing was so strong and so permanent that – even faced with a Labour government which was bankrupt, corrupt and incompetent itself in 2010, the electorate struggled to turn completely against it.

Just because we won when we were making a pitch to the middle classes does not mean that we won because we made that pitch – and it most certainly does not necessarily mean that making our pitch to the middle classes is the way to win again.

Labour did not win over the middle classes in 1997 because it pandered to their wealth and greed; they voted Labour because they saw in Labour a socially-better alternative.

Secondly, are there not working-class people in the south-east? Why are we not making a pitch to them?

And thirdly, are you sure that the way to get elected is to abandon all our socialist principles and espouse pragmatism? There is a difference between tempering your principles with pragmatism, and abandoning them altogether.

Much of the hand-wringing that is going on in the Party today is wondering why we don’t seem to appeal to young people any more. Are you sure that this is not because they no longer see the Labour Party as a repository of principles? Instead, I am sure they see the Labour Party as old-fashioned and irrelevant. Name one meeting you have been to in the last year which a young man would have come out of with his head and his heart on fire.

I think we ought to regard it as a humiliation that it was the Lib-Dems who were regarded as the party of principles at the last election – and now, seeing as they have thrown away that reputation, is it not time for us to be stepping into the breach?


Nobody is suggesting we reinstate Clause 4. Nobody wants to go back to unilateral nuclear disarmament, or a higher income tax rate of 83%.

But don’t tell me that pursuing Tory-policies-only-slower will ever get us elected.

It is time to look to our roots, and to start advocating what we really believe.

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