With the Labour leadership contest nearing to an end, Frank Hillman addresses the often forgotten positives of Blair’s New Labour
The word ‘Blairite’ has never had such toxic implications as it does at present. A legacy destroyed by the Iraq war and financial crisis, to be labelled a ‘Blairite’ in 2016 is an insult rivalled by little else, comparable to being a branded a Tory and tantamount to a total betrayal of the principles of the labour movement.
The toxicity of the term is so potent within the Labour Party that even moderate, centre-left voices associated with New Labour for the last two decades have been forced to distance themselves from the ‘Blairite’ tag. Those proud of the achievements of the Blair years, and staunchly anti-Corbyn -such as Angela Eagle- have uttered the familiar words of denial: “I am not a Blairite”. With Jeremy Corbyn looking certain to retain the leadership with a comfortable win over Owen Smith in the upcoming election, it seems this narrative within the party is only set to continue.
To assess the success of Blairism and New Labour as a project, however, it is vital to look beyond insults and slurs. A look at the accomplishments of New Labour in education, health, and living standards portrays a very different narrative; one that acknowledges that, despite its notable failures, the venture brought noticeable progress to British society. This article is not a defence of the Iraq war, it is not a defence of Tony Blair as a character, and it is not even a direct attack on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. It is, however, fair recognition of the successes that New Labour achieved in British Society, and an attempt to demonstrate that the Blair years were undeniably more than simply ‘Tory Lite’.
A common criticism levelled at Blairism is that it abandoned traditional labour principles to achieve electoral success. For many on the left, moving towards the centre ground in an attempt to win over Conservative voters was an immoral compromise, a watering down of the Socialist principles on which the party was founded. But far from the betrayal commonly depicted, electoral compromise was the central triumph of New Labour; appealing to a wider base of voters on a centrist platform was what paved the way for its successes.
Winning, not the ‘end in itself’ that it is often considered, was a means to be able to implement the programme that New Labour rightly thought would improve the state of Britain. The importance of winning elections is that it allows one to affect change; winning is a means to an end, but change is an end in itself. In a trade off between staying pure to Socialist principles in opposition and offering a compromise in power, New Labour took the correct path.
The argument in favour of New Labour takes further weight when considering the familiar fact that, other than under Blair, Labour has not won a parliamentary majority since 1974. For all his perceived sin in moving away from the traditional Labour principles, Tony Blair is Labour’s most electorally successful leader. Compared with those who remained on the left, and thus tended to remain in opposition, New Labour benefitted the working people of Britain infinitely more. Socialist or not, in order to affect change, one has to win.
Which brings us to the most important aspect of New Labour and Blairism; the progressive change that it created. In health, waiting times in the NHS were halved, and close to 120,000 new staff were introduced. In education, the government facilitated the introduction of 100,000 extra teaching assistants and 30,000 more teachers, also achieving record levels of literacy and numeracy in schools. In employment New Labour created 175,000 new apprenticeships, introduced a minimum wage to protect those who needed it most, all whilst simultaneously cutting long term youth unemployment by 75%. Lifting 600,000 children out of relative poverty and huge spending increases on child tax credits benefitted the most vulnerable young people in Great Britain.
These achievements, amongst countless others, unequivocally changed Britain for the better; improving living standards and transforming the public sector in an extraordinary way. Other than the 2007 financial collapse, an event caused by the collapse of the US sub-prime housing market that was effectively out the hands of the UK government, this change was also implemented whilst, for the most part, sustaining economic growth and low inflation.
Though not the far left set of policies that some expect from Labour governments, the list of achievements were widespread and extraordinary; rivalled by few, if any, other Labour governments. To stylise this venture as the “same old neoliberal nonsense” is worse than just political opinion, it is bad analysis. Condemn New Labour all you want, but as JK Rowling announced on Twitter “call me back when your list of achievements matches [theirs]”.
New Labour made undeniable mistakes, that some may not be able to forgive them for; Iraq, managing the crash, and housing to name the most prominent. But its successes far outweigh these errors, and it is time for those left of the party to acknowledge this. Some call it Tory Lite, some call it betrayal. I call it progress.