January 11, 2015 by Paul Goldsmith
The further away we get from Tony Blair’s Premiership, the harder it is for my students to understand why the current Labour establishment are so ashamed of someone who won three General elections for the party. After all, it’s difficult to achieve the social justice that the left hankers for if they are in perpetual opposition, yet Tony Blair’s name is booed at Labour Party conferences, and it isn’t just about Iraq, but his domestic policies too. Thankfully, Neal Lawson, Chairman of the left-wing Compass pressure group has helpfully explained that the problem was that Blair won majorities that were too big.
During Political ideologies lessons I spend quit a bit of time explaining Labour’s victory in 1997. Not just how it was achieved but also why it was achieved as New Labour. I tell the story of Thatcherism, of the 1983 lurch to the left under Michael Foot that had achieved the lowest share of the vote for Labour since the 1920s. I tell of Neil Kinnock’s battles against the Militant tendency. Then, and this is particularly significant, I tell of the 1992 election loss, in which Labour were ahead in the polls up until the day then found themselves losing to a Tory government that got the most votes of any winning party in history, even up until now.
I explain the psychological impact of the four election losses and how it ended up building up such a desperation to win that Blair was allowed to change its constitution (Clause 4 – a commitment to nationalising the means of production) and to publicly accept that inequality was acceptable as long as opportunity was more equal. Blair and his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, committed to not raising income tax and to follow the Conservative spending plans for the first two years of Parliament. All of this for the purpose of getting as many people ‘onside’ as possible.
This is why, as Neal Lawson recounts, he found himself on the Campaign trail, traipsing up gravel drives past BMWs in Southgate (North London) to persuade people who had never voted Labour before to put Stephen Twigg (aged 23) in parliament instead of Conservative Cabinet member Michael Portillo. This situation is used as an example, Lawson says, of how New Labour’s ‘tent’ was far too big and Blair “spent the next 10 years trying to keep the wrong people in it: the very rich, for example.” Lawson claimed that the “wrong people were voting Labour” and the policies that Blair adopted to keep them doing so, or, more importantly, the policies he didn’t adopt so that they continued doing so, is the reason for some of this antagonism towards him from within the party.
This is where Lawson makes the point that has attracted most attention, that Blair’s majorities were “too big”. Some have ridiculed this observation, but it is an important thought. In 1997, Labour’s majority was 179. A landslide is a majority of 100. To get a majority of 179 showed the extent to which Blair tried to include everyone, and Lawson asks “what meaningful project includes everyone?”
Lawson explains that the Tories were in such disarray in 1997 that John Smith (Blair’s predecessor as Labour leader, who died in 1994), would have won. In fact, it is generally accepted that such was the political hangover from ‘Black Wednesday’ (when Britain dropped out of the ERM) and the fatigue from 18 years of Tory rule was such that a performing monkey could have led Labour to a win.
This is true, and It is also true that that monkey could have been a proper socialist monkey too and still won. The country was ready for a revolution, but Labour were so terrified of losing again that Blair and Brown made commitments that hamstrung them completely during their first term from performing any kind of revolution. Yes, they introduced the minimum wage, and yes they bumped up peoples’ low incomes through the tax credit system, but “never with a political flourish, never with a sense of moral purpose. It was all stealth and no one knew why they were better off”. This made it easier, according to Lawson, for the Tories to ‘turn back the clock’ in 2010, with the public’s approval.
When I speak to lifelong Labour supporting friends about Blair’s time in power, they tend to understand why all those commitments were made to win in 1997. It is the 2001 election that they turn their real ire towards. The Tories were still in disarray, under a young and ineffective leader in a William Hague who couldn’t find policies to challenge them on. THAT was Blair’s opportunity, as Lawson insists, to “reshape the world in line with a new vision for society”.
Blair and Brown had the best opportunity ever to bring in the social justice, real equality of opportunity and protection of the poorest in society. The best opportunity to “shift the centre of gravity by detecting and rising new waves of political and cultural energy”. Many cite 1945, with the introduction of the welfare state and the NHS, as the nearest we came to a socialist revolution. But it couldn’t be completed as there was no money. The country was ravaged by war, then had rationing, debt problems, a terrible winter in 1947 and then involvement in the Korean War. When Harold Wilson arrived in 1964 Conservative Chancellor Reggie Maudlin was apologising to incoming Chancellor Jim Callaghan about the mess he was leaving in the country’s finances. In his book “The Future of Socialism”, Anthony Crosland was insistent that economic growth was an important part of implementing socialism, as the people would be more comfortable having rising wealth redistributed.
In 1997, wealth was rising. The economy was growing, and we were running a (small) budget surplus. So the money was there to fund a revolution in the provision of public services, but also the growth was there to make people less resistant to redistribution of income and wealth and companies more open to paying a ‘living wage’ rather than a ‘minimum wage’. For reasons explained above, Blair and Brown had been afraid of not winning, and had this committed to no rises in income tax and matching Conservative spending plans for two years.
2001 was their chance though. They surely must have known they would win. Surely that was their chance. That they got a majority of 166 shows just how much of a chance they had. They could have given up somewhere near 100 of those seats and still had a very workable majority. Those 100 seats may have been lost as the very richest left them, and perhaps some a Newspaper editors withdrew their support, but Blair and Brown were not prepared to risk that.
Lawson tells Blair in his letter that this was because “you were scared of the electorate and the British establishment. Your New Labour clique always acted like gate-crashers at a party – waiting to be turfed out of office. Despite all the bravura performances, you were uncomfortable with power.
It was as though if one seat or one newspaper editor were lost, the whole game would be up.”
From this, Lawson concludes that all Blair was interested in was “winning at any cost. And being a winner meant being on the side of other winners. Bush, the bankers, Murdoch. These were the people on top – so all you had to do was be on their side.”
Neal Lawson has a good point. The problem isn’t that Tony Blair won elections. The problem is how much he compromised to win them by such unnecessarily large margins. Blair had a chance to reshape how the British population felt about solidarity and equality and he passed up this chance to lead. Blair argues that the population doesn’t want left-wing policies, that they won’t vote for them. But that’s because he as a leader chose to follow an electorate that was punch drunk with atomised selfishness from 18 years of Tory rule, when he could instead have led them away from that to a brighter dawn. That, Lawson says, was his job as a political leader.