The malaise within the Labour Party runs deeper than even its most sternest critics could have conceived. It is measured in the fact that Ed Miliband’s defeat in the election and demise as leader was a cause for celebration not only by a victorious Tory Party but also by the Blairites within Labour’s own ranks. The sound of those champagne corks popping in the early hours of May 8 was not restricted to Tory Party HQ. It was also heard at gatherings at which Blair’s name is still associated with everything that was good about Labour rather than bad.
Coalescing within and around the party’s Progress faction, this staunch redoubt of the Third Way post-ideologial doctrine championed by Tony Blair has identified an opportunity to return to prominence in seeing one of their own elected Labour’s next leader in an upcoming battle that will determine the future of the party as no other has since 1994, when Blair took up the reins.
Crisis precedes opportunity, they say, and the voices of Labour’ recent past have been quick off the blocks in making the case across the media for the party to abandon the left orientation of Ed Miliband and return to the centre ground.
Peppering post-election interventions by the likes of Jonathan Powell, Alan Johnson, John Reid, Alastair Campbell and Blair himself have been words such as ‘aspiration’, ‘middle class’, ‘ambition, and ‘centre ground’. In other words, Mr Blair and his cohorts would have us believe that Labour’s defeat was down to the party shifting back to prioritise its base with a return to something approaching the core principles upon which the party was founded.
The world has changed, they tell us, and Labour can only win by appealing to a middle class and the business community in a coalitional arrangement that mirrors the aspiration (that word again) of people to do well for themselves and their families. It is a manifesto of selfishness, a smokescreen employed to justify the embrace of Thatcherite nostrums when it comes to the economy and the role of government as an enabler of market forces, rather than a necessary check on its unfettered drive for profit regardless of the human, social, or environmental cost.
Further, it is an analysis that collapses upon the rocks of the reality of Labour’s decimation in Scotland. The electoral hiding the party has just received north of the border had nothing to do with it being too left wing or failing to appeal to middle class swing voters. Its drubbing in its former industrial heartlands had everything to do with its past record under Blair and the abandonment of the very core values that once ensured its dominance in Scotland could be taken for granted.
Under Tony Blair, Labour abandoned the social base upon which it was founded in search of another one. This ‘other one’ comprised middle England, vying with the Tories for the votes of those driven by the principles of ‘me’, ‘myself’, and ‘mine’ instead of ‘us’, ‘we’, and ‘ours’.
The shedding of members and votes Labour experienced over two decades of Blairite domination of the party is a matter of record. Five million votes were shed over three elections upon ever-lower turnouts, as Labour voters in Scotland and throughout the country stayed at home, preferring a non vote to a vote for a party that no longer represented their communities and lived experience.
In Scotland the emergence of the SNP as a social democratic alternative to Labour – however justified when its policies are placed under scrutiny – has culminated in the most seismic political shift in British electoral history. It was no overnight occurrence and will likely take many years to reverse. The election of a Blairite as next Labour leader will only guarantee that it will never be reversed.
Scotland is not in the grip of some post-rational nationalist fever, as many commentators south of the border have postulated or inferred. The huge surge in support for independence last September was not driven by narrow nationalism but by an opportunity to break with parties and a Westminster system that had locked out working class communities from the political process, not only in Scotland but across the UK.
Alienation, marginalisation, and social and economic injustice has been the norm for large swathes of the country since
Thatcher’s revolution set about uprooting the foundations of the postwar settlement. The Iron Lady’s oft-repeated statement that one of her greatest achievements was New Labour is as true now as it was when she made it. The party of the millions was transformed into a party of the millionaires, responsible for inequality going through the roof as it eagerly attached itself to the coattails of big business, the City, and media barons such as Rupert Murdoch.
The expenses scandal, phone hacking scandal, cash for questions scandal, and of course Britain’s shameful attachment to Washington’s rear-end – these were the consequences of the Blair years. As for Iraq, this remains a stain on the British establishment that will not be eradicated until Tony Blair is held accountable for it. It was a criminal war that left a mountain of dead bodies in its wake, leading inexorably to the abyss in which Iraq and its people exist today, 13 years on.
The coming struggle within Labour between right and left is long overdue. And as it begins the right and those who adhere to the values espoused by Mr Blair should be under no illusions that they own the word ‘aspiration’. On the contrary, it is the very word that describes the hard years of struggle that won working people the justice and quality of life which they and their communities are now seeing assaulted under the rubric of austerity.
Individual aspiration or collective aspiration. Strip away the embroidery and this simple statement describes the contours of a struggle not only for the soul of the Labour Party but the country as a whole.