I am prompted to write this after reading the statement of Ellie Gellard, aka Bevanite Ellie, whom I follow on Twitter, that she is proud to be a supporter and member of the Labour Party and proud of all that they achieved during their 13 years in power.
I, however, think that those thirteen years were a colossal betrayal of the ideals of the progressive left – particularly Bevanite ideals – and the only explanation I can give of Ms Gellard’s position is that she is blinded by tribal loyalty. This, of course, is not unusual in politics, on any side of the spectrum, and it is one reason I choose not to join a political party. For most of us on the progressive left, the single greatest betrayal was the war in Iraq, but I think that even without that ghastly error, the Blair-Brown years represent the biggest lost opportunity for the left in my lifetime.
Ancient History: the Clause IV moment
Mr Blair’s path to power was carefully planned. Labour had been in disarray since its defeat in 1979, and had slowly tried to pull itself together since the disastrous election of 1983, exorcising the far Left whose rhetoric looked increasingly irrelevant as the socialist dictatorships of the Soviet bloc unravelled into economic stagnation. Neil Kinnock and John Smith laid much of the groundwork, but the awkward Clause IV(4) of the constitution remained.
Whether Clause IV(4) really was the barrier to power that it was portrayed to be is a matter of debate, but its replacement of a clear principle (“the common ownership of the means of production”) with the meaningless fudge of the new clause should have set the alarm bells ringing.
Mr Blair and those around him were very smart political operators, and they recognised that in the television age they needed to present Labour as something radically different to the failed socialist parties of the Eastern bloc and of its own, somewhat chequered past (chequered, at least, in the eyes of the media and the electorate). But it was a matter of presentation, not of substance, which led to the New Labour brand. This branding paralleled developments in the commercial world, where “designer labels” had become divorced from the underlying quality on which their reputations had been built and licensed to apply to any old tat. The brand, without substance, seemed to work in the commercial world, and it worked too for New Labour, which was a political brand without substance, other than the fact that it was different from the tired old Conservatives. There was no clear underlying aim or principle in the Labour Party at the time, other than gaining power.
It had long been the habit of Conservative Chancellors of the Exchequer to “mess with the money” in the months before a General Election, particularly an election they seemed unlikely to win. Before 1997, the Bank of England was under Treasury control; the Bank Rate was decided by the Chancellor, and Nigel Lawson (in 1986-7) and Norman Lamont (in 1991-2) both loosened monetary conditions to create a “feelgood factor”, for which the price would later have to be paid. To his great credit, Kenneth Clarke in 1996-7 did not do so, because he was committed to taking Britain into the Euro as soon as politically practical and he was trying to keep the monetary and economic conditions favourable. This had the effect of leaving the incoming government with a much sounder economy than might otherwise have been the case.
New Labour came to power in 1997 with the mandate radically to change Britain; and it had the finances and the economy to do so. My charge is that it shamefully squandered that opportunity, because it really had no idea what it wanted to do. The abandonment of principle in the pursuit of power left a vacuum at the centre.
Soundbites and hollow branding are much easier than building quality from the bottom up. An early example of hollow branding, as meaningless as New Labour, was Mr Blair’s call for a “stakeholder society”, a soundbite Mr Cameron has all but duplicated in his call for a “Big Society”. In fact, the creation of a stakeholder society would have been in keeping with the aims of the progressive left and could have been a lasting achievement, but very little had been done to take on board the underlying ideas that it represented – including, in fact, some of the broader principles of the old Clause IV, with common ownership implemented not through nationalisation but through cooperatives and wide share ownership. But without this, it was just another soundbite, rejected as soon as the media realised how hollow it was.
Failure to tackle the City
Perhaps the biggest missed opportunity was Mr Brown’s failure to recognise the harm that the City of London was doing to the economy. The City was an important driver for growth, but it was not difficult to see that its high profitability must have been caused by inefficiencies. It is basic economics: consistently high profits indicate a failure of competition. If the market were competitive, returns would tend to level out. Consistently high profits should be investigated, not celebrated. Instead, Mr Brown diverted ever more public resources to the City through Private Finance Initiatives and Public-Private Partnerships. Rigged in favour of private investors, as these unravel they place yet greater burdens on the public purse, costing in the long term far more than a simple bond issue under public management. The Thatcherite dogma, that private management is intrinsically better than public, should have been thrown out in 1997; but it was adopted by Blair and Brown.
Wrong-headed attempts to reform the Public Services
The public services were (and still are) in need of reform; but the “reforms” pushed by Blair and Brown were essentially Thatcherite dogma in a different guise. The “private good, public bad” dogma undermines any sense of duty in public service, as public employees are made to seem inferior to private enterprise every step of the way. It denigrates, rather than celebrates, public service; and it is a credit to most public servants that they continue to perform their duties so well.
Even though the reform agenda failed, additional resources were put into the public services. After eighteen years of malign neglect, they were much needed, and it is not a bad thing that most of the extra money in the health service went on salaries: I would much rather be cared for by a well-paid nurse and doctor than a tired, overworked and resentful one. Yet I do not think that this can be counted as an “achievement”, particularly in the light of the public deficit that ensued. Were those resources coming from a fiscal surplus, or had the improved morale and the commitment of the staff been achieved by meaningful and appropriate institutional reform, it would be otherwise. Spending a lot of money you do not have is not really an achievement.
Perhaps the biggest failure of the New Labour project (other than the wars, of course) lies in the education sector. Education can and should provide a route to social mobility; yet the so-called “sink schools” remain, under-resourced with their committed staff largely unrecognised. Instead, New Labour imposed micro-management of teaching from the centre, failed to discard the Tory system of league tables that does not recognise the achievements of teaching challenging intakes, and diverted precious resources to faith schools whose very existence divides communities.
New Labour swallowed the idea that education is for employers, its role being to create a supply of willing wage-slaves. In higher education, participation targets and the continuation of the Conservative policy abolishing the “binary divide” led to the erosion of rigour and a generation of mickey-mouse graduates with no sense of independent curiosity, good only for the most basic clerical positions.
So what were the achievements?
I could go on at much greater length listing Labour’s missed opportunities: to reform tax and benefits, to open government properly, to reform the voting system; but it would be churlish to claim that Labour achieved nothing in its thirteen years. There are some positives, though very, very few. Mr Brown’s first act, creating an independent Bank of England, must count as one; but it was the last good thing that he did. Devolution in Scotland and Wales, and the creation of the London mayoralty have been successes. And despite the disasters in Iraq and Afghanistan, there is now, mostly, peace in Northern Ireland – though the credit for that must be shared with Mr Major.