Yesterday marked a turning point in the Labour leadership election.
Neither of the trade unions with a leaning towards the Blairite wing of the party backed Liz Kendall. Community announced that they were backing Yvette Cooper, and Usdaw announced that they were backing Andy Burnham. This follows Kendall’s relatively poor performance in gaining nominations from the parliamentary Labour Party, indicating that the reach of the party’s right wing is surprisingly weak.
It is of course wrong to describe Kendall as a “Tory”, and the jibes about “Blairite Taliban” were ill-advised. The party is a broad church, and the strand of liberalism which Kendall represents has a long tradition within the party. As I have written before, it is wrong to compare Blairism with Conservatism.
Blair did have a distinct social agenda, which was both ideologically and practically progressive, compared to the Thatcherite governments which preceded it. The value of David Halpern’s 2009 book “The Hidden Wealth of Nations”, is the way he details the inherently radical nature of Blair’s social policies, though they were not necessarily derived from traditional social democratic influences. In 1997, NHS spending was at around 5% of GDP, and the conditions had been created by the Tories for an expansion of insurance based private sector; instead NHS spending rose to be around 10% of GDP in 2010. Early years intervention, such as SureStart centres for the parents of potentially disadvantaged young children has been a great success; and working tax credit has enormously increased prosperity and independence of parents in work. Labour repealed Clause 28, and introduced civil partnerships. None of these policies could have come from the Tories. […]
Blairism was founded on the idea of creating a fairer, more harmonious society through an empowering partner state that provides conditions for individuals to help themselves. For all its weaknesses, it is a distinctly different agenda from Thatcher’s ideology of regarding the state as inherently problematic, and that individuals needed to be liberated from its influence.
Indeed, far from being Thatcherites, Tony Blair’s supporters in the party have invested considerable effort to establish ideological continuity between themselves and the more traditional Labour revisionists; for example, Patrick Diamond’s 2004 anthology “New Labour’s Old Roots” selects extracts of centre-right thinkers in the party from Evan Durbin to Giles Radice, and editorialises them into a specious narrative leading inexorably to Blair.
Superficially, Blair’s emphasis on community and mutuality, divorced from any commitment to social ownership is indeed resonant of traditional Labour revisionism. But in truth, Blairism was distinct from both Thatcherism and traditional right wing social democracy.
If we compare Blair’s record with the most authorative statement of revisionism, Crosland’s “The Future of Socialism”, we can see that addressing the inequality of power that follows the inequality of wealth is a concept completely central to even centre-right Labourism; whereas in contrast Blairism falls foursquare within the limits of political liberalism, whereby all individuals are regarded as citizens, and the horizons of government are only to remove obstacles to individual liberty and choice; and empowering citizens to benefit from good choices.
To understand the politics of Liz Kendall we need to recall that there were two characteristic attributes of Blairism; which was only partly a distinct social agenda of boosting social capital while embracing the private sector; because it was also an electoral strategy predicated upon triangulating around the concerns of swing voters in marginal constituencies. This resulted in an inherent conservatism that militated against the radical solutions necessary to address the concerns of working class voters.
It is important to understand that these two aspects of Blairism could work against each other; and therefore that the current seeming abandonment of the policy agenda of Blairism by the right wing in the party is itself an attribute of the electoral strategy of Blairism, which is calibrated to exploiting minor differences with the Tories, and cannot cope with the paradigm shift created by the financial crisis, and Tory austerity. Blairism is no longer fit for purpose, even in its own terms. Tony Blair set targets for the reduction of child poverty, Harman, Kendall, Cooper and Burnham capitulated to the Conservatives over measures that will push children in disadvantaged families into desperation and hardship.
Indeed, the utter failure of not only Kendall but also Cooper and Burnham to oppose the Tory welfare bill shows a fundamental misunderstanding not only of the political situation, but of the demands for opposition in a parliamentary democracy.
Democracy is not only about elections, it is also about the contested evaluation of ideas and strategies for the governance of complex industrial societies. Ideas that are generated not only, and not even especially, by politicians and political parties, but also by think tanks, universities, faith groups, employers associations, NGOs, trade unions, single issue campaigns, magazines and journals and by public intellectuals. Indeed, significant paradigm shifts of political and ideological consensus often occur between elections, and are therefore not necessarily presented as a choice to the electorate. This is of course a point made by the Eurosceptic right, not without some purchase on reality.
The mantra from the right is that Labour needs to be in power to effect change, and therefore has to follow the electorate.
Of course any electoral party needs to address the need to build a potentially election wining coalition, but the Tories only gained the support of a minority of voters, and Labour also lost support to parties presenting themselves as to the left of Labour: SNP, Plaid and the Greens.
Of course, real and lasting change does require winning a general election and forming a government, but that cannot be done by wearing the political and ideological clothes of our opponents. British parliamentary democracy is built upon the foundation that the opposition parties will scrutinise, and force debate upon the government.
By so doing, opposition parties feed the broader democratic debate in civil society, and contribute to a culture of accountability and engagement.
Opposition parties are morally obliged, and by constitutional convention expected, to present a choice to the electorate, and indeed the danger for democracy is that if the mainstream parliamentary parties don’t reflect the actual political divides and debates in our society, then this promotes disengagement with our civic and social institutions.
Liz Kendall’s approach would be to isolate the Labour Party on the same narrow ground as the electorally rejected Liberal Democrats. Andy Burnham is presenting himself as the Greencross man “look right, look left, look right again”, and both he and Yvette Cooper are the continuity candidates with a political strategy that has now lost two elections. None of these three will win back the votes we have lost in Scotland to the SNP, or to UKIP in England.
As Harold Wilson once said “This Party is a moral crusade or it is nothing.” Only Jeremy Corbyn will relight labour’s fire.