Wednesday, 1 September 2010

Was it really not New Labour what lost it in 2010, Tony?

The first extracts of Tony Blair's memoir "A Journey" have been published on the publisher's website, and are the major story in Wednesday's newspapers.

The Guardian has a print interview with Martin Kettle, which focuses on Blair's comments about Gordon Brown, and how not being New Labour cost the party the 2010 election.

Blair writes in the book that ""Labour won when it was New Labour. It lost because it stopped being New Labour".

"Had he pursued New Labour policy the personal issue would still have made victory tough, but it wouldn’t have been impossible. Departing from New Labour made it so. Just as the 2005 election was one we were never going to lose, 2010 was one we were never going to win — once the fateful strategic decision was taken to abandon the New Labour position."

"The problem, I would say error, was in buying a package which combined deficit spending, heavy regulation, identifying banks as the malfeasants and jettisoning the reinvention of government in favour of the rehabilitation of government. The public understands the difference between the state being forced to intervene to stabilise the market and government back in fashion as a major actor in the economy."

But can that argument be sustained? I think it is very difficult to stand up.

Firstly, this argument is much more plausible if it makes the difference between Blair and Brown one of personality - so that the critique is of Gordon Brown's performance, his ability to communicate through the media. Yet Blair is clear he is not arguing this - he insists "that the argument is not about personalities", as Kettle writes.

Yet, for all of the internal arguments between Blair and Brown, the story of New Labour from 1997-2007 was one of Blair-Brownism, which delivered rather more than the personal relationships might suggest, particularly in the first term. After a first, rather dysfunctional year of the Brown premiership, Brown chose to steadied the ship, essentially seeking to replicate the old winning formula, creating a new Brown-Mandelson axis which dominated the 2008-10 government and the strategy for Labour's 2010 election bid.

Secondly, it is very difficult to find substantive evidence of a significant policy shift from New Labour under the Brown administration after 2007 - still less one which would be electorally crucial.

This was a large part of Gordon Brown's problem. Having run on change, he failed to define it. The only broken New Labour mantras was the adoption of the 50p rate on earnings over £150,000, presented as a reluctant response to circumstances. I very much doubt this was a significant electoral problem for Labour: the 68% support for the policy was reflected in the Tories' unwillingness to actively oppose it. (It was also one of the few comprehensible policies which Labour had in 2010).

The most significant broader policy development was the more interventionist approach to political economy, overseen by Peter Mandelson at the Business Department.

And Blair's own comments are rather imprecise when it comes to the response to the financial crisis. My reading of "the public understands the difference" is that he supports the significant policy decisions - such as the bank bailout - yet worries about the "narrative" which went with them. It is not particularly clear how much of substance hangs on this. Moreover, Alastair Darling's sober reluctance to engage in banker-bashing largely reflected similar instincts to those set out by Blair.

Blair's "legacy" instinct before 2007 was mostly to worry about "the pace of public service reform". The idea that Brown ditched this reflects media perceptions, not policy, where a lot of emphasis was placed on extending GP opening hours, for example, perhaps over-selling this as a flagship policy. The condition of public services matters a lot to voters, and the policy debate about how to improve them matters. To some extent, New Labour in its second term, over-emphasised the extent as to how far reforms like Foundation Hospital status were central to driving the quality of public services.

Thirdly, the 2010 campaign was New Labour to its fingertips

The Brown-Mandelson axis put together New Labour's fourth term bid, with all of Blair's old allies reunited for a final push. Brown's was a continuity premiership in large part because Brown was schooled in and had been central to shaping New Labour's winning electoral formula. Whatever he might have imagined he would do while waiting to succeed between 2003 and 2007, he proved unable to find a viable alternative. Like Blair, Brown's politics turned out to be shaped primarily by the experience of the 1992 election defeat. (Brown largely rejected advice - from people like me, arguing that New Labour, having begun to shift the Tories at last, would not maintain its own electoral coalition if it relied almost exclusively on a "keep the Tories out" argument).

I spoke to Patrick Diamond, who worked for Blair and Brown in Downing Street, when writing about the election debate. Diamond says "we very quickly reverted to a New Labour formula". Despite an awareness that Labour had to contest the argument on "change versus change", the argument became about the risk of the Tories.

Others who worked in number ten and on the campaign talk about how the most significant arguments over the manifesto often reflected not only policy debates, but also New Labour instincts. Peter Mandelson’s support for Heathrow’s third runway, and resistance to extending maternity and paternity leave was not only about Business Department policy. It was rooted in the electoral rules of the New Labour playbook: being on the wrong side of business, whatever the cause, would repel crucial swing voters, not just the CBI. (Mandelson prevailed in most of these policy arguments, though they were significant in shaping Ed Miliband’s belief that New Labour was too wedded to outdated mantras because, on these issues, as on ID cards, the centre-ground was no longer where New Labour imagined it to be).

Finally, Blair risks being too complacent in suggesting that New Labour ran into trouble only after 2007. It means he ends, perhaps inevitably having been at the helm for a decade, as rather more of a "consolidator" than a moderniser.

Blair's comments again reflect, as I set out for the New Statesman, how the current 2010 inquest divides most sharply over what the 2005 election meant - whether this should be seen as simply the third triumph, or an important warning of just how much Labour's electoral coalition had fractured.

The party won brilliantly in building a broad nationwide appeal in 1997. It was a major achievement to repeat the landslide in 2001, if on much reduced turnout, and against weak opposition. But New Labour was in quite a lot of trouble by the time it was returned with a solid majority in 2005 - but with 35% of the vote, just 3% ahead of an opposition led by Michael Howard. Those who conducted focus groups for the party talk about how Labour retained (somewhat grudging) respect for its strong economic record, but how the unelectability of Michael Howard was an absolutely Godsend when it came

Tony Blair had enormous success as Labour's most successful election leader. Four of the five million voters who left Labour between 1997 and 2010 did so by 2005. Labour's strategy for winning elections can not be to hope that Norman Lamont can be drafted into a Michael Howard role as a future Tory leader.

On issues like immigration, crime and welfare, which were difficult for Labour in the election, it is difficult to show that Labour's arguments in 2010 were particularly different than in 2005. The tightening of immigration policy, through the points system, replicated the desire to close down immigration and asylum as issues in 2005.


The Blair remarks are mostly going to be seen as covert support for David Miliband, and a critique of Ed Miliband. That is obviously where Blair's preference lies in the leadership race, but I would venture that things may also be rather more complicated than that.

For one could equally suggest that this reflects a generational shift - which could perhaps place Blair and Brown on one side, and both Milibands conceivably on the other.

Ed Miliband has been among those to articulate the thesis which Blair criticises, including at the Fabian New Year Conference in January 2009:

Ed Miliband's main argument was the claim that the financial crisis has "shaken the foundations of politics" and changed the ideological mood fundamentally, in particular because "this was not caused by government; this was caused by a lack of government".

That offered a challenge and correction to how the Winter of Discontent created a "widespread belief that the state and trade unions were too powerful, and the market needed to be given freer reign".

"Even though we won in 1997, that moment shaped the politics of the last thirty years", he said. "We inherited part of Margaret Thatcher's political settlement".

And yet here was James Purnell, usually described as the Blairite voice of the last government, and somebody who remains a significant influence on David Miliband, speaking at the same conference, talking in very similar terms to Ed Miliband about this.

For the last thirty or so years, politics in Britain has been determined by the image of the winter of discontent. And the idea of achieving a fairer society through state action was damaged. I think that unbalanced politics. And the left had to work within that paradigm. I don't think we will rebalance to the other side, where markets are entirely dismissed, but I think we can have a more balanced politics as a result.

Whatever Blair's critics say, he has a central place in Labour's recent political history. But it may be a generational as much as a political shift which makes it quite difficult to find an obvious torch carrier for a next generation continuity Blairism.


MatGB said...

Hmm. The question is when did New Labour stop being New Labour, and does 2005 with 35% count as an actual "win" apart from on the obvious "the electoral system gave it to us anyway" count?

I voted tactically Lib Dem in 1997 to remove a Tory (won by 12 votes, success) and tactically in 2001 to keep a jnr minister (who wasn't anywhere close to threatened but the risk was too big).

I voted for Blair's New Labour "big tent" both times. I wanted to politically liberal economically redistributionary but not anti-business platform he ran on.

We got a lot of my then hot issues in the '97 Parliament. Devolution, HRA, FOI and a bunch of other stuff. By 2001, some of the cracks were showing (English devolution was already revealing as a bit of a white elephant and we'd had TACT2000), but it was still a positive vote.

By 2005, I'd lost interest completely, and didn't vote. It wasn't just the war, although that was the proverbial straw.

Blair 'lost' in 2005, New Labour was conceived as a Big Tent to bring liberals and "the left" together, permanently. That was completely abandoned by 2005, and the collapse in vote share showed it.

Blair's right, Labour lost when it stopped being New Labour. But that was his decision, and it happened under his leadership. It just wasn't obvious to those inside the remnants of the tent, those that had left "weren't needed". Until 2010, when suddenly Cabinet ministers were desparately calling for tactical votes &c.

I liked being in that Big Tent. I really did. Rebuild it, call it what you like, and we might be able get somewhere again.

Sunder Katwala said...


Interesting comment, thank you for that. There are a number of people in the Labour party (Jon Cruddas has argued this for some time, but it is a view held by different perspectives, for example John Denham has said similar things) who believe that New Labour was particularly successful in constructing a broad coalition 1994-97 and through to 2001, but that it narrowed a great deal after that.

matgb said...

And I pretty much agree with them. I defended Blair strongly while at Uni (mature student 1999-2002) in IR and similar, "Blair the warmonger" and similar were regular epithets, but I supported all his interventions (hell, Yugoslavia was one of the big issues that got me involved and paying attention to Ashdown 10 years before), they were the interventions of a liberal internationalist. I'm a liberal internationalist, wrote papers on it for IR.

But defending Afghanistan and Sierra Leone was easy, they were palpably necessary, but effectively abandoning Afghanistan for Iraq was indefensible, and by then the tabloid pleasing gallery playing was far too apparent.

A 5.5% drop would've destroyed any other Govt, but Blair held on, partially as both Tory and Lib Dem campaigns were absolutely useless (CK was sacked for a reason, and I didn't rejoin until after he'd gone).

Meh, rambling. New Labour was finished by about 2003, by which point I was already regretting my vote for Bradshaw. Of course, once he got into Cabinet I changed my mind back again, but...

I don't know what you call the Labour administration from 2003/2003 onwards, but it wasn't the New Labour created in opposition.

james said...

Blair seems stuck in terms of spatial metaphors. He also doesn't understand the thinking of the squeezed middle.

Given that he's now in a very different position in economic terms, he's naturally going to be perturbed by questions of democratic accountability in the economy.

His thinking about the views of top UK bosses on job creation show how out of touch he is with public sentiment. Senior businessmen - many of whom would be affected by a higher rate of income tax and/or reform to remuneration practices - expressing concern about the jobs of UK workers is not received in the same way as during the nineties. Greater globalisation has meant greater numbers of people are fearful of rationalisation and outsourcing - and resentful of executive remuneration practices.