By Mike Phipps
Blair’s record in office has been well documented. But what lessons can the left learn today about how he treated his own Party in the run-up to 1997 – and to what extent is current leader Keir Starmer following the same playbook?
We know how Tony Blair, over ten years as prime minister, treated the country and, tellingly, the rest of the world. The illegal and immoral war in Iraq, a seemingly unending military intervention in Afghanistan and fulsome support for neo-con President George W. Bush in his ‘war on terror’ are all signal features of his foreign policy. Domestically, this meant the erosion of civil liberties, giving the police more power to hold suspects for unprecedented lengths of time before charges were brought, and introducing internment without trial for some foreign nationals – before it was overturned by judges in the House of Lords.
From surrendering to the Bank of England one of the government’s most important economic important levers – setting interest rates – to abiding by the outgoing Tory government’s spending limits for two years, despite running a £5.7 billion surplus in the public accounts, Blair’s government pursued a relentlessly neoliberal economic policy. ‘Welfare reform’, targeting people with disabilities, the introduction of university tuition fees, anti-social behaviour orders, 17 anti-crime bills in the first four years – this was Tony Blair in government. Scores of opportunities were missed – from housing, with fewer than 1,000 new units constructed in Blair’s first term – to a failure to make significant inroads into child poverty, one of his central goals. He also failed to reconstruct Britain’s industrial base, leaving Britain dependent on parasitic financial services and ill-prepared for the inevitable economic crash.
Before his election, few members expected such a right wing government. In fact, prior to 1997, there was some speculation that Blair had “got his betrayal in first”, and deliberately lowered expectations, so that his record in office would actually look impressive. If only!
The irony was that voters were actually to the left of Blair’s programme in 1997. 72% of voters in May 1997 wanted an income tax increase to fund better education and public services. 74% wanted no further privatisations. 58% wanted wealth redistribution. Blair would disappoint on all fronts.
Blair became Labour leader in 1994, following the sudden death of John Smith. His strategy for achieving power was one that sidelined the Party and its internal democracy. Big donations, including from arms manufacturers and companies whose human rights record had been criticised, and deals struck with the most conservative sections of the tabloid press were the hallmark of his time in office – but these things come at a price. Just as the allegations around “cash for peerages” dogged his last term, so just six months into his premiership his government was embroiled in the Formula one donation fiasco, the first of many ‘cash for favours’ scandals.
A December 1997 Labour Briefing editorial observed: “The people Blair wants most desperately to please are those who have amassed great wealth and power. Politically, he believes that elections can only be won, and office retained, by their grace and favour… That is why, prior to the election, Blair put far more effort into courting favour with Rupert Murdoch than winning the votes of millions of pensioners, trade union members, or single parents.”
Blair rebranded the Labour Party as ‘New Labour’. The ideas was borrowed from the US Democrats, who had won the Presidency in 1992, after 12 years out of power, under the conservative Bill Clinton, who had rejected what limited redistributive principles his party had once had in favour of a free market Republican-lite ethos. New Labour’s embrace of the market, individual wealth creation, market solutions and welfare reform was in lockstep with this approach.
One of Blair’s first acts was the replacement of Labour’s old Clause Four of its constitution, which committed the Party to a policy of common ownership: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service.”
This was not expected. In the race to be elected as leader following the death of John Smith, Blair himself, when asked if he planned to change the Party’s constitution, responded: “’I don’t think anyone actually wants the abolition of Clause Four to be the priority of the Labour Party at the moment… The vast majority of the British people don’t sit out there and debate the intricacies of the Labour Party constitution.”
Three months later, Blair performed a volte-face and announced exactly that at the 1994 Party Conference. In place of the commitment to common ownership, a bland form of words was substituted, embodying Blair’s much more limited vision, where “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.”
This move initially attracted considerable opposition. The General Committee of the CLP I was active in actually voted down the idea. The right wing regrouped and proposed a referendum of the membership, who, in a context of blanket official Party propaganda and mainstream media endorsement at the time, passed it by a majority. It was a device which would be used again to arm twist members into supporting the leadership.
Nearly half of Labour’s MEPs publicly declared their allegiance to Clause Four with an advertisement in the Guardian. The leader was not pleased. When the Blair government later introduced a closed list system for electing MEPs, whereby the party machine decided on the running order of the candidates on the party list, many of these MEPS who had dared to defy him would be placed in unwinnable positions. As a result they lost their seats, replaced by more pliant yes-men and women – a classic example of Blairite retribution.
A special Labour Party Conference in March 1995 voted to abolish the old Clause Four. The entire New Labour machine had mobilised against it. Arthur Scargill, the leader of the National Union of Mineworkers, whose historic year-long strike had been repressed by the Thatcher government a decade earlier, was slow hand-clapped when he questioned the legitimacy of the proceedings.
But it was an early example of the importance of narrative. Once the notion of common ownership had been labelled as merely symbolic, any attachment to it was purely nostalgic. This put defenders of the commitment on the back foot, forcing even left wingers like Michael Meacher to concede: “I was taken by surprise, but it is not an unreasonable point to say that in 1994 the constitution needs redrawing. There was no indication that this was the end of socialism.” But clearly, why hold a special conference to make this amendment unless this was precisely what was at stake?
And while most MPs, with the exception of the Campaign Group, went along with the change, a survey of Labour MPs carried out before the 1997 election found that 68% regarded “public ownership [as]… crucial to the achievement of social justice”.
Other reforms followed, always presented as streamlining and modernisation, but in practice curtailing democracy and weakening the trade union link. The 1997 Conference adopted Partnership in Power, a programme which “modified the composition of the NEC, abolishing the women’s section, reducing the number of trade union representatives from seventeen to twelve, assigning three places to governmental appointees from within the Parliamentary Party, and making six places dependent on a postal ballot of all Party members. In addition, Partnership in Power transferred control of Party policy from the Annual Conference to a National Party Forum.”
This was a major loss to the membership. Henceforth, policy debate would be confined to a behind closed doors framework, where decision-making was opaque, votes were infrequent and maximum pressure was mounted against those who disagreed with the leadership. Annual conference would now be an empty affair, tasked with projecting the Party’s image to the wider public. By the end of the New Labour years around a third of local parties had stopped bothering to send delegates to this toothless body.
The NEC was also stripped of its responsibility for Party policy at this time. In fact, the right wing thought it was also the NEC’s responsibility to project the Party’s image and brought forward a draft Code of Conduct to restrict NEC members from speaking to the media.
In truth, many of these reforms were extensions of a process begun under former leaders Neil Kinnock and John Smith. But Blair in particular framed these reforms as ones that could empower ordinary members, over the heads of its elected committees, who were supposedly dominated by unrepresentative activists. On one occasion he even claimed that people who had been active in the party during the more radical 1980s were “in need of therapy”.
In the run-up to the 1997 general election, Blair again appealed over the head of the Party’s elected structures and put his much-diluted manifesto highlights to a referendum of Party members. The central five pledges were a reduction of class sizes, fast track punishment for young offenders, reduction of NHS waiting lists, proposals to take 250,000 young people off benefit and into employment and a commitment to low inflation.
This ballot of party members was presented as a means of empowerment, but it was nothing of the kind. It would be unthinkable, weeks before an election and after 18 years of Tory rule, for the grassroots to reject their leader’s proposals at a time when maximum unity was needed. They duly voted for them, which Blair interpreted as a mandate.
Eighteen years of Tory government helps explain the ease with which some of Labour’s long-standing principles were overturned. Members were desperate to win power and Blair looked like a winner. Today, after a decade of Tory misrule, the same factors will help Keir Starmer get his way in the Party, as long as his poll ratings improve. The danger is that his factional approach, especially towards Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters, and his flexibility with the Party’s rulebook, will create such divisions in the Party that he will be a re-run of the serial loser Kinnock, rather than Tony Blair.
One of the lasting impacts of Blair’s stewardship of the Labour Party was the control freakery which meant the overturning of democratic selection processes and the imposition of candidates more acceptable to the New Labour leadership.
One early casualty was Liz Davies. In 1995 she was selected as parliamentary candidate for Leeds North East only to be publicly witch-hunted, vilified and denied the opportunity to run by the leadership of her own Party.
Having been democratically selected by constituency members, approval by the National Executive would usually be a formality unless there had been procedural irregularities. But even before the NEC met, the press was reporting – because New Labour spin-doctors had briefed it to do so – that Blair had “gone ballistic” and was determined to stop the selection going ahead on the grounds that Liz Davies was too left wing.
This, the tabloids decided, was to be an acid test of Blair’s leadership. Liz found herself at the centre of a ferocious media feeding frenzy, with both her political views and private life in the spotlight. The Blairites had fed her to the wolves and with no evidence of any wrongdoing on her part, they were forced to invent some. Liz later won a libel action against three Islington councillors who had been persuaded to concoct a story that she incited violence at a council meeting. But this victory came far too late to stop her being deselected by the NEC.
Tony Benn noted in his diary at the time: “Liz Davies is due to have her endorsement as a parliamentary candidate for Leeds North East refused by the NEC tomorrow morning… Frank Field, MP, has encouraged Labour voters in the past to ‘Vote Liberal’ and that’s alright. Roger Liddle, who was an SDP councillor until May and voted against Labour, is taken into Blair’s private office. But Liz Davies, who voted against her Labour Council – to save a nursery school – is not allowed to be a candidate.”
Vetoed by the NEC, Liz appealed to the 1995 Party Conference. Clare Short – often upheld as a left winger in the Blair team – was wheeled out to finish the job. She denounced Liz’s association with the “nasty, vicious” magazine Labour Briefing – more damaging to Labour’s cause apparently than the Sun, whose proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, Blair had recently flown to Australia to court. Which is why Tony Benn observed, “If Liz had written for the Sun instead of Labour Briefing, she would have been honoured by a special visit from the leader to Australia.”
Liz wasn’t the only casualty in this witch-hunt. Leeds North East CLP was suspended by the NEC, disciplinary proceedings were taken against its leading activists and four were expelled – the price of defying the Blair machine.
New Labour could not get rid of Liz entirely. In 1998 she was elected as part of the Centre-Left Grassroots Alliance slate to the NEC, where she fought hard on a range of policy and organisational issues – detailed in her book, Through the Looking Glass (Verso, 2001).
The removal of oppositionist candidates continued after New Labour won office. Dennis Canavan, an MP since 1974, and other leftwingers were excluded from the panel of Labour candidates for the first elections to the Scottish Parliament in 1999. Canavan later ran as an independent and was elected.
New Labour also moved to block Rhodri Morgan from being the leader of Labour in Wales. They bit off more than they could chew when they manoeuvred to prevent Ken Livingstone getting the nomination as Labour’s London mayoral candidate – he ran as an independent and beat the official Labour placeman decisively.
Liz Davies’ book Through the Looking Glass documents other exclusions, including would-be Labour candidates for the new Greater London Assembly: “Left-wingers, including Christine Shawcroft (councillor for twelve years, member of the London Labour Party Board, primary school teacher and mother), Geoff Martin (twenty years a UNISON activist, previously a Labour councillor, convenor of London Health Emergency, convenor of London UNISON Affiliated Political Fund, football supporter and father) and Theresa Pearce (voted by Labour Party members onto the Party’s National Constitutional Committee in two successive years) were told they lacked ‘life experience’.” A high proportion of black candidates were also excluded, including councillors and senior activists.
The very brutal, public way in which Liz Davies and others were disposed of was a clear signal to party activists that the selection of candidates from the left would not be tolerated and a high price would be paid by those who attempted to disobey. This dissuaded many talented left wingers from even considering seeking a parliamentary candidacy. The result was a generation of uninspiring careerists.
The grip on selections extended through the Blair-Brown years in office and was relaxed only in 2010. It helps explain why there are so few socialist MPs between the generation of Jeremy Corbyn, Diane Abbott and John McDonnell on one side, and the more promising intakes since 2015.
Why did the Party put up with all this? The fact is that many less active members are not focused on the internal life of the Party. If a local CLP is put in special measures and prevented from meeting sometimes for years, if a selection contest is overturned and a candidate imposed, if Party officers are suspended, it’s a big deal locally, but beyond, it’s barely visible.
Most members want to see Labour win and understand that without power, little is achievable. The reasons why Labour loses elections are varied and complex and there is frequently a battle between the Party’s left and right over whose analysis will dominate. In 2015, the left won this battle. We were successful at underlining the timidity and confusion in Ed Miliband’s campaign. The fact that Labour was wiped out in Scotland, losing to the SNP, which was frequently to our left, helped show that it wasn’t Labour’s being excessively left wing that cause the Party’s defeat. This understanding helped get Jeremy Corbyn elected leader in 2015.
In 2019, our left-led Party lost heavily. Again the reasons are multiple and many on the right couldn’t wait to blame Jeremy Corbyn, despite years of sabotaging his leadership. Even those on the left who primarily blamed Brexit disagreed among themselves as to what Labour’s position on this should have been. The general disarray, demoralisation and fragmentation on the left following the 2019 defeat has left us ill-prepared for dealing with the right’s offensive.
Meanwhile, many ordinary members see the improved poll ratings that Keir Starmer is enjoying and are prepared to give him the benefit of the doubt. The treatment by the Party leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has rightly upset left activists, but a recent Survation poll, which showed that members were almost evenly split on whether Starmer was right or not to withhold the parliamentary whip, should alarm us. With former Corbyn-supporting activists leaving the Party in significant numbers, we cannot afford to lose the support of the broader membership.
Peter Mandelson once boasted that New Labour had encased the Labour left in a “sealed tomb”. They had been rendered seemingly obsolete. But nothing in politics is permanent and as people became disillusioned with New Labour’s neoliberalism, authoritarianism, war-mongering and venality, the left’s ideas began to gather a new relevance. Today we are too big to entomb, but as the current increase in suspensions show, there are many other methods the right wing and the apparatus can utilise to crush the left and there are plenty of recent precedents – even if for many activists the current onslaught feels unprecedented.
The defeat the left has suffered, alongside the ensuing fragmentation, internal disagreements and loss of membership, means that we are going to have to choose our battles carefully if we are going to survive, and more importantly, maintain our relevance with the broader membership. Failure to understand this will increase the danger of our marginalisation.
Mike Phipps is a member of Brent Central CLP and of the Executive Committee of the Campaign for Labour Democracy. His book For the Many: Preparing Labour for Power was published by OR Books in 2018.
Image: Source: Flickr as Tony Blair – World Economic Forum Annual Meeting Davos 2009. Author: World Economic Forum, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.0 Generic license.
Subscribe to the blog for email notifications of new posts