Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Does ‘Blairism’ exist?

Paul Richards reviews ten years of Blair as leader of the Labour party

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Tony Blair celebrates the tenth anniversary of his leadership of the Labour party in July. We’ve all come a long way since that hot day in July 1994 at the Institute for Education in London when Blair was announced as the party leader.

We’ve had two landslide election victories, seen off three Leaders of the Opposition, introduced myriad pieces of legislation, announced eight Labour budgets, seen several cabinet sackings and resignations, and fought several small wars. Along the way, we’ve also devolved political power, lifted a million children out of poverty, created a million extra jobs, sustained the lowest interest rates and inflation for decades, and redistributed billions from rich to poor.

A ten-year anniversary is a good opportunity to consider whether ‘Blairism’ represents a serious break, or new phase, in British socialist thought.

Having come to politics late – after university – he arrived with a fully developed sense of his own values. His main influences were his Oxford friend and mentor Peter Thomson, the Scottish philosopher John Macmurray, and Christianity. As a student it was the Bible, not Mao or Marx, which formed the basis of his late-night caffeine and nicotine-fuelled discussions. Blair asked to be confirmed into the Church of England as an undergraduate, and there has seldom been a week when he has not attended a church service in the subsequent quarter century.

But the development of Blair’s politics, and the language and style of their expression, has been a longer, more deliberative process. In the 1982 Beaconsfield by-election Blair was at pains to describe himself as a mainstream Labour man, not a Bennite, nor a social democrat. After his defeat, Blair travelled to Australia to visit his university friends Thompson and Geoff Gallop, and to deliver a lecture at Murdoch University. This lecture is a forensic analysis of the Labour Party in the late seventies and early eighties. It places Blair at Labour’s centre, rejecting both the Trots and Bennites, and also the SDP and Labour rightwing. His maiden speech, in July1983, is pure ‘old’ Labour rhetoric. Its theme is unemployment, and Blair makes the claim:

‘I am a socialist not through reading a textbook that has caught my intellectual fancy, nor through unthinking tradition, but because I believe that, at its best, socialism corresponds most closely to an existence that is both rational and moral. It stands for co-operation, not confrontation, for fellowship, not fear. It stands for equality, not because it wants people to be the same, but because only through equality in our economic circumstances can our individuality develop properly. British democracy rests ultimately on the shared perception by all the people that they participate in the benefits of the common weal.’

The collapse of Communism gave Blair an opportunity to develop his distinctive position. In an essay in Marxism Today in 1990 he writes:

‘Politics this century have alternated between the ideologies of fairly crude individualism and collectivism and that what is required today is to define a new relationship between citizen and community for the modern world; and that the task for the Labour party and the left of centre is to make itself a credible expression of that relationship.

Here, the Blairite emphasis on community, rather than state control, equality, or any other of the left’s shibboleths is the dominant theme. In this period I would argue that a distinctive Blairite position was created. It was not created solely by Blair, nor was it necessarily new, but it contained the various features which would later become characterised as ‘New Labour’.

These might be summarised as:

* the overriding motivation to defeat the Tories and win an election for the first time in twenty years;
* a recognition that socialism is about values and ethics, not state control and higher taxes;
* a belief that the market can be made to work for the wider society, but cannot be its master;
* that Labour’s policies, especially on crime, must reconnect to middle-class and working-class voters alike.
* a reclaiming of words and ideas appropriated by the Tories such as fairness, family, efficiency, patriotism and decency;
* an understanding that public spending must be matched by reform of failing public services, and of targeting of resources;
* an internationalist approach to aid, debt, peace-keeping and, if necessary, military action against failed states.

In June 1994, Tony Blair published an important pamphlet for the Fabian Society. Socialism reinforced Blair’s own belief in community as Labour’s guiding value, and he coined ‘social-ism’ – a belief in the strength of society – as his way to describe it:

‘Socialism as defined by certain key values and beliefs is not merely alive, it has a historic opportunity now to give leadership. The basis of such socialism lies in the view that individuals are socially interdependent human beings – that individuals cannot be divorced from the society to which they belong. It is, if you will, social-ism.’

As Labour Leader after 1994, Blair had the authority and mandate to put this view of socialism into the heart of Labour’s policies.

Tony Blair stamped his mark on the party in dramatic fashion at the 1994 party conference in Blackpool. With an obscure passage about redrafting the party’s constitution, which was omitted from the media handouts, Blair signalled the end of Clause IV, and the theoretical commitment to nationalisation of the means of production, distribution and exchange. The replacement of Clause IV performed several functions: it established Blair’s authority and dynamism; it signalled to an electorate which hadn’t elected Labour for twenty years that the party had the courage to change; and it removed a commitment which no Labour government had ever attempted or desired, which was used by its opponents as either a threat, or as a benchmark against which Labour’s betrayal could be measured.

The New Clause IV was a commitment to a socialism based on values and ethics, and the famous lines:

‘By the strength of our common endeavour we achieve more than we achieve alone, so as to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together freely in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.’

The marketing around the new Clause IV, and the virtual renaming of the party as ‘New Labour’, was an attempt to persuade the public, especially those who had deserted Labour for Thatcher or Major, or who had never supported Labour, that Labour had changed, that the tax and spend bogeyman of Tory myth was dead, and that the water was once again safe for a dip.

But the marketing was built on a deliberate obfuscation. The party had changed: the language had changed, the faces, suits and ties had changed, and the unpopular policies of the seventies and eighties had been erased from the manifesto.

But Labour’s values were the same – the same as those espoused by Keir Hardie or Clement Attlee or Harold Wilson. What Blair had done, was to dredge up the true values of the Labour Party, wipe off the detritus of years of policy schisms, rows over unilateralism or nationalisation and left-wing extremism, and present them anew to an electorate crying out an alternative to the Tories. Blair’s historic achievement is the uncoupling of ends and means, the disentangling of values and policies, and the clear expression of Labour values in a modern and vital setting. Blair’s political thought represents an unbroken thread with the modernisers of the 60s, with Tony Crosland, with Clement Attlee, with RH Tawney and with the party’s founders.

Seen in this light, ‘new’ Labour is ‘true’ Labour, standing in a tradition of British socialism as a redistributive, devolving, practical and patriotic creed. Blair may be the latest leader to put that creed into action, but he has not created a distinctly different socialism. In this sense, Blairism does not exist. When considered against the rich tradition of British socialist thought and deed, it does not need to.


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Paul Richards

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