How should we understand the legacy of New Labour?

By Michael Calderbank

When, almost two centuries on from the French Revolution, he was asked what impact these tumultuous events had on human history, the Chinese Communist leader Zhou Enlai is reported to have said that, “it’s still too early to tell”.  Similarly, while nearly 25 years might have passed since Tony Blair’s election in 1997, the debate within the Party about the nature of his legacy is far from resolved.   

For those of middle-age and above, the BBC’s latest Blair & Brown documentary has been a blast from the past – even the most hardened socialist cynic must have allowed themselves at least a brief moment of enjoyment in 1997 as the sleaze-ridden Tories were unceremoniously booted out of office after 18 long years.  But how many of our hopes and expectations did New Labour fulfil?   To what extent, and why, did it fail to deliver?   For a younger generation, New Labour’s legacy can only be judged retrospectively – by the kind of world it left in 2010, and how successive Labour leaders have responded.         

So as Political Education Officer of my local CLP (Tottenham), I organised a debate where members could get beyond the ritual abuse and simplifications typical of too much social media debate (Blairite scum vs Trot dogs, etc.) and try to debate out the issues.   In the blue (or New Labour Purple?) corner was John McTernan – combative former Political Secretary to Tony Blair and former adviser to Australian “moderate” PM Julia Gillard.   In the red corner, Pamela Fitzpatrick, a Harrow Councillor and prospective parliamentary candidate under Jeremy Corbyn – whose work for the likes of the Child Poverty Action Group and Citizens Advice meant dealing with the direct impact of New Labour policies on working class communities.

While far from absent from the discussion, the spectre of the Iraq war did not squeeze out every other issue.  In fairness, foreign and defence policy aside (where McTernan was trying to defend the indefensible), the case he made was about as robust a defence of New Labour as could have been put.  Obviously, much was made of the ruthless focus on electoral success, and the successive majorities this yielded.   But recounting the list of achievements was a necessary corrective to the view that the period was an unmitigated disaster from start to finish – Sure Start Centres; the National Minimum Wage; extension of basic employment rights; investment in health and education; alleviation of poverty via tax credits; peace in Northern Ireland; the foxhunting ban; devolution. He could have added more, including the Freedom of Information Act – which Blair now considers a mistake! – staying out of the Eurozone, and the smoking ban in public places.

In response, Pamela Fitzpatrick pointed to less well publicised but quietly devastating impacts of other New Labour policies – from denying asylum seekers any “recourse to public funds” and relocating them in the poorest parts of hard hit towns and cities, the impact of having tax credit overpayments automatically deducted, and the stoking of the housing crisis produced by continuing with Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ and failure to build council homes.     

 Members also chimed in on this theme, with CLP Chair and disability rights activist Barbara Lisicki recalling that her network had welcomed the election of the Labour government in May 1997 but by December was throwing red paint at Downing Street in response to benefit cuts for disabled people.    She also recalled that, scandalously, it was New Labour, not the Tories, which introduced the Work Capability Assessment and benefit sanctions.   Similarly, a retired teacher spoke of dire experiences about the creation of Academy schools, under corporate rather than democratic control.

It’s true that New Labour sought to ameliorate the worst social impacts of the post-Thatcher economy, redistributing at the margins via the welfare system.   But by failing, for example, to regulate the housing market, ‘benefit’ income was increasingly diverted to the ‘ultimate’ benefit of buy-to-let landlords.   Famously, Peter Mandelson claimed to be “intensely relaxed” about “people getting filthy rich” – and, as even Douglas Alexander told the BBC documentary, New Labour did very little to tax the wealth of top earners.    The result was that, shockingly, Britain was a less equal country when Labour left office in 2010 than when it came to power. 

Both Blair and Brown were united in seeing neoliberal globalisation as either a positive opportunity for Britain to get ahead of international competition, or at least an unchallengeable and inevitable horizon to which we must adapt. The City of London was the ‘goose that lays the golden eggs’, creating the wealth, a proportion of which could be diverted to progressive ends.   But by deregulating the finance sector, New Labour left the British economy more vulnerable to the effects of the global financial crisis than might otherwise have been the case.  

The capitulation before the market was hardwired into the New Labour project from its earliest days.  Swiftly after his election as Leader, Blair moved – despite prior denials – to replace Clause IV, the party’s traditional commitment to extending public ownership and control over the economy, with a constitution which praised “the dynamics of the market” and “the rigours of competition”.     Blair would brag about the UK having the most restrictive trade union laws anywhere in Europe – which McTernan also welcomed.   Thatcher’s privatisation of public services were left in place, and even extended – with Air Traffic Control flogged off, in contravention of a manifesto pledge.    

Ultimately, Blair’s vision of ‘public service reform’ – resisted to an extent by Brown – meant levering the interests of private capital into the heart of public services and defeating the trade unions to undermine pay and conditions of workers and developing internal market structures so that profit rather than public interest would shape resource allocation.  Unions trying to defend the interests of working class people were painted as “forces of conservatism” resisting progress.  The reliance on the Private Finance Initiative meant that the public was left locked into paying over the odds for often shoddily built schools and hospital premises for decades to come.   Meanwhile, New Labour introduced the hated university tuition fees, abandoning the principle of Free Education from which Blair, Brown and their peers (many now Peers!) had benefited.

For his part, McTernan attempted to explain away these kinds of concern as “ideological” – as though the neoliberal agenda of Blair and Brown was somehow ideologically neutral.   Socialist economics had failed with the fall of Communism, he claimed, and the voters don’t want it.   Ironically, many key New Labour operators, such as Mandelson, Jack Straw and John Reid, were themselves originally old-style communists who, unable to appreciate that socialism meant democratic control and ownership of the economy, flipped over into defenders of the market.   But the economic alternative presented by John McDonnell between 2015-2019 hardly aimed to recreate the conditions of East Germany!   So this is a total red herring.  As for the popularity of socialist measures, polling shows that even Tory-voting commuters in the home counties believe that rail, for example, would be better if run in the public interest rather than for the profits of shareholders.  

Ultimately, the challenges of the 2020s cannot be met with the policy outlook from the 1990s. Of course, Labour has to win elections and to calibrate its policies and its communications accordingly.   But with centrist social democracy in the doldrums across Western Europe, will the old methods of focus-grouping and triangulation be sufficient to enthuse and mobilise millions of voters, facing multiple challenges including housing, precarious work and a climate crisis?  By all means, let’s debate the decidedly chequered legacy of New Labour – it’s certainly healthier than just resorting to factional abuse.  But let’s not mistake it for a roadmap going forwards.

Michael Calderbank is Political Education Officer for Tottenham CLP and works in Parliament for trade unions.   He is a member of the Labour Hub editorial team.

Image: Tony Blair. Source: https://www.kmu.gov.ua/en/mediagallery/premyer-ministr-ukrayini-volodimir-grojsman-zustrivsya-z-eks-glavoyu-uryadu-velikobritaniyi-toni-blerom. Author: https://www.kmu.gov.ua/, licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license.

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