Blairism killed Labour, it cannot revive it

As the Labour right-wing searches to rationalise last week's election defeat, the future of the party is at stake. 

Ross Speer Jen Izaakson
11 May 2015

Image: Flickr/ Clair Graubner

Blairism is the sickness infecting Labour. The strategy of triangulation that fueled its electoral success was based on shifting the Party to appeal to wealthier home counties residents through an ideology of progressive individualism, whilst assuming its working class base would have nowhere else to go. 

Things did not turn out the way they were supposed to. Since 2001, Labour’s core voters have increasingly just stayed at home. As much was evident again in 2015: voting turnout in northern working class constituencies was generally below those of Tory supporting areas. But, since 2010, those voters have once again come to the ballot box to vote UKIP – who are unafraid to talk the language of class – and the Green Party – who defy the Blairites assessment of the situation to pick up votes in the southern counties on a left-wing platform. Turnout in the former Labour heartlands of Scotland bucked the trend, as voters were finally coaxed back into action by the SNP’s leftwards anti-austerity pitch. Blairism waged war on the Labour Party’s own base in order to attract Tory voters. Now it is reaping what it sowed.

If the left is to rise again it must correctly identify the ills of society. Blair failed to do just that. He gave in to the basic themes of Thatcherism: the state is the main problem, the unrestrained market the solution. Industry is gone, the service sector will deliver the goods. It did not turn out like that. The transfer of wealth from poor to rich continued unabated, driven by a buoyant property market and stagnant real wages. Austerity was merely the culmination of a long trend; itself possibly amongst the biggest single upward transfers of wealth in history.

Blair’s defenders point to the minimum wage and Sure Start as unambiguous successes. But would it not have been possible to do those things without, say, pulverizing Iraq, PFI schemes, attacking civil liberties, allowing the expansion of inequality and tax dodging, and the fattening of an unrestrained financial sector? And let’s not forget the failure to build new council housing, permitting massive rent rises, letting the Murdoch media run wild, maintaining the anti-union laws, introducing tuition fees, giving up on nuclear disarmament and keeping major infrastructure in private hands. Were those really the price of victory, or were they gratuitous concessions to the right? It is certainly not obvious that the historic capitulation of Britain's premier left party to the dictates of big business was worth £6.50 an hour. The Blairites like to talk about aspiration, and they’re right to do so: we aspire to do better than what they offer.

What the left needs is a vision, a narrative that starts out from policies and positions that are already popular. Fortunately, we have plenty to work with here. From nationalisation of the railways and energy companies, to higher taxes on the rich, to pegging the minimum wage to the living wage, there are numerous ways the public is to the left of anything being proposed by the Labour Party. And that is before the case has even seriously been put, for no major force in England currently makes these arguments.

Miliband tried to sprinkle a few vaguely left policies on top of Tory austerity, infused with a dash of UKIP-style immigration policy. The result pleased no-one. Labour did not lose because the Tories rallied many more people to their crusade than in 2010 – they increased their vote share by a measly 0.5% compared to Labour’s 1.5% - but because the Miliband Compromise between the Party’s left and right failed to sufficiently inspire its natural voters. All the elements exist for a Blairite-free program of the left; we only now lack a cohesive story about what Britain is and could be in the 21 century to bring them all together. 

A battle for the soul of Labour is underway. If the catastrophe of Jim Murphy’s election to the Scottish leadership has sunk Labour north of the border, there remains a chance in England. The Blairities have, as usual, been first to the draw. They are eagerly spinning a tale of how Miliband’s illusory left-turn lost them the election. If they succeed, they will turn the Labour Party into the Tory surrogate that they so sorely desire. Their final crime may well be the rise of UKIP, who will eagerly seize upon the working class voters that they are abandoning. Mandelson has already begun a renewed assault on the trade unions. The silver lining may be, if McCluskey & co. finally decide the game is up, a new social democratic party could be set up in Britain. If that comes to pass, then the Blairites can keep their hollowed out brand.

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