Why Tony Blair isn't relevant anymore

James Bloodworth
Tony Blair Labour election 1997

To be indifferent to Tony Blair leaves a person feeling like a bit of a political outcast these days. One is supposed to be either a) calling for his immediate summoning before the Hague for war crimes or b) wistfully harking back to 1997 when a 'new dawn had risen, had it not?'

To be simply on the fence is the equivalent of saying you do not care whether England win the World Cup – a mob is immediately in your face; or two rival, and implacably hostile, tribes in this case.

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It would be far better if the conversation was simply dropped. It won't be though, not least because the man himself appears to feed off the publicity his every re-emergence generates. This time he says he wants to "take an active part in trying to shape the policy debate".

If this all sounds loaded and pejorative on my part, it isn't intended to. Blairism, or the "third way" as it was more wonkishly called, had its time but that has passed. After 18 years in opposition, the Labour Party of the 1980s and early 1990s did need to shake off its image as the party of inflation, disarmament and Arthur Scargill. At least if it wanted to, once again, win elections and change the country.

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To some, this way of thinking will always be heresy. The New Labour project followed an older tradition of Labour Party revisionism that was treated by true believers almost as deviation from scripture. Importantly, though, what revisionism did, as the political scientist WH Greenleaf put it, was recognise that it was "no good continuing to apply automatically perceptions based on the old analysis but necessary rather to think out a new programme relevant to the radically changed circumstances". Capitalism was constantly changing and a left that wanted to stay relevant to the times had to adapt with it.

This was necessary in 1997, not just on the back of four electoral defeats at the hands of the Conservatives. The world that had changed dramatically since Labour had previously been in office. For much of the 20th century, both democratic socialists and communists shared certain economic assumptions. Until the Berlin Wall came down in 1989, one of these was that economic planning could rationalise production for the benefit of the whole of society, rather than just the handful of wealthy capitalists who benefited from the market. Once the communist bloc had fallen, planning – and by extension nationalisation – was no longer taken seriously as an economic alternative.

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Of course, absolute planning had always been a somewhat fantastic proposition because it effectively required the impossible: that the state could have perfect knowledge of society's resources, technical capabilities and the needs and wants of the people. But during the 1990s, even social democrats broadly accepted the idea that, beyond the provision of public services, it was the market that delivered the goods. Systems which relied heavily on planning and nationalisation had "strong thumbs and no fingers" – they could compete in terms of large-scale activities such as steel production, but were hopeless in a technically-sophisticated consumer economy.

There were also the specific challenges of redistributing wealth during a period of rapid globalisation. In contrast to an earlier era, when a Labour government could tax the rich until the 'pips squeaked', as Denis Healey was misreported as saying, by the internet age it had become much harder to tax the well-off past a certain point without them simply upping sticks and fleeing. Being "incredibly relaxed" about the filthy rich, in Peter Mandelson's ill-judged words, was in reality another way of admitting that governments were unable to do a great deal about them.

Peter Mandelson

Thus you do not have to want to resurrect Blair to see that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Labour Party needed to radically revise its policy prescriptions – if not its first principles – in order to win power (the only proven way to bring about a shift in the so-called Overton Window).

It is also a luxury afforded to those basking in privilege to rubbish the subsequent achievements of New Labour in office: pensioner poverty nearly eradicated, child poverty massively reduced, NHS waiting times cut to a fraction of what they were.

Yet the challenges of today are not necessarily those of 1997. Blair's concept of politics in 2017 as "open versus closed" mirrors that of an affluent, London-based commentariat, and connects very little beyond the M25. 2016 was the year of the populist revolt, but what Blair and his imitators – David Cameron, Nick Clegg, Davos man – fail to grasp is that, outside of Westminster, there really is much to be in revolt about.

New Labour may have been born in the shadow of the 1990s and the fall of the Berlin Wall. But while the pragmatic left adapted to the changes of that era, the nineties also set in train a particularly pernicious strain of free-market capitalism. A pessimist might even argue that some of the social democratic gains of the 20th century depended upon on the existence of a class of semi-slaves hidden away behind the Iron Curtain. Once the threat of communism had lifted, hubristic free-marketeers believed they could do near enough as they pleased.

And so in our world of tax avoidance, zero-hour contracts and precarious work, the challenge for Labour is not for it to drop even more of its social democratic character, but to renew itself again for the coming decades.

The true reformers of the future will be neither wistful Blairites nor rigid Corbynistas.

James Bloodworth is the former editor of Left Foot Forward, one of the UK's top political blogs, and the author of The Myth of Meritocracy.

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