Ten years on, Blair’s epitaph looks like being longevity in office – and Iraq

Tomorrow will be the tenth anniversary of the day Tony Blair became Labour leader. The Labour party was in a state of desperation. It had just lost John Smith, two years after its defeat in an election that it had half-expected to win. By 1994, Labour had been out of office for 15 years, during which time Margaret Thatcher had changed the face of Britain. The depth of its crisis was why the party was prepared to turn to an outsider like Tony Blair.
He was not of the Labour tradition and never had been: he wore his relationship with the party lightly. The most formative influence on him was not Labour, but Thatcherism.

Shortly after his election he “renamed” the Labour party New Labour: this was not a rebranding exercise, but a deliberate effort to distance the party from the Labour tradition. It soon became evident that New Labour was a very different animal from the Labour party.

From the outset, Blair sought to demonstrate his strength as a leader by attacking the left – an easy target by then. In contrast, New Labour wore the clothes of Thatcherism effortlessly. There were continuities with the past – New Labour remains more committed to the state and public provision – but it operates on similar ground to Thatcherism, uses the same parameters and takes the the neo-liberal revolution for granted.
You may remember that New Labour was fond of the word “project”. This was always a misnomer. New Labour never had a project, other than the reconstruction of the party as one committed to neo-liberalism rather than social-democracy. As far as society was concerned, there was no project. That is why it has depended so heavily on manipulation and spin.

It has often been argued that New Labour should abandon spin. But this is to misunderstand the nature of New Labour: it is vacuous. Of course, that could never be admitted. It was born, after all, in the era of Thatcherism, which had taught that politics was about profound change, rather than simply managing it. New Labour’s election victory in 1997, moreover, had generated huge expectations. So New Labour had to talk big and radical: it was a Blair motif.

Radical hyperbole may have been integral to New Labour. But that is all it was: hyperbole. While Thatcherism was an original project, New Labour was essentially adaptive and imitative. At its core was a deep pessimism: there was no alternative to Thatcherism, except a milder version of the same. This was obvious when it was declared, after the 1997 election, that the main objective was to secure a second term: staying in office was the summit of New Labour’s ambition.

The lack of any project to transform society explains the intellectual banality of New Labour. Again the contrast with Thatcherism could hardly be more striking. A radical vision requires big ideas that can inform and shape a bold strategy. Bereft of a project, New Labour did not need any big ideas: Blair made it clear from the outset that he didn’t believe in ideology. Instead, New Labour’s notion of ideas was as window-dressing rather than as part of a strategic perspective. It was Thatcherism’s huge political ambition that informed and drove its thinktanks: in contrast, New Labour’s thinktanks have been more like catherine wheels, transient, insubstantial and largely ineffectual.

With a hole at its centre, spin and control have assumed enormous importance for New Labour. The advisers that Blair placed throughout Whitehall were not policy experts but spin-doctors: this was not 1945 but 1984. We now live in a world of make-believe. New Labour has, more than any other government, been responsible for dissembling and dishonouring the notion of the truth, corroding the quality of our public life and contributing to the growing cynicism towards politics.

The contrast with Thatcherism is again striking. If you want to change the world, you must change the way people think: Thatcher understood this brilliantly. She transformed Britain by arguing openly and combatively, taking on the conventional wisdom, transforming the ideas in our heads.

To New Labour, this way of doing politics is an anathema. Even the defence of the public sector – the most obvious line of continuity between New Labour and the Labour party – has been articulated in the most limited way possible. Though large and welcome sums of public money have been invested in the public services in the second term, Blair has always emphasised that they were dependent upon “reform”, where reform, used interchangeably with “modernisation”, is synonymous with privatisation.

Indeed, New Labour has presided over a scale of privatisation of the public services that Thatcher could not politically have attempted. New Labour never argues any intrinsic case for provision being public rather than private, for the importance of the public realm: the argument is always reduced to one of efficiency, efficacy and method. Nothing more eloquently sums up the extent of its ideological retreat. In the same vein, even the laudable attempts to help the poorer sections of the population, emanating largely from Gordon Brown, have never been argued in terms of the merits of redistribution, but rather disguised in a welter of administrative measures.

There is, of course, one exception to much of the foregoing: Iraq. On this Blair abandoned his normal timid ity and caution, ignored the focus groups, took on his opponents and argued his case. It is the only occasion that Blair has behaved like Thatcher as a political leader. And she would, of course, have taken exactly the same position. Indeed, Iraq is a reminder of how rightwing Blair is: the yearning to be a wartime leader, the echoes of our imperial past, the fawning attitude towards the United States. His only resort to political boldness, though, could not have been a bigger miscalculation: Iraq will stand as his epitaph.

But what will become of New Labour? Sooner or later, the electoral tide will turn: perhaps it already has. And New Labour could well face electoral oblivion just as the Tories have. Blair and Thatcher both led their parties away from their traditions and their historical moorings. When Thatcherism became unpopular, the party had nowhere to go and it has paid a huge political price as a consequence. The same fate may well befall the Labour party. Its route back to traditional Labourism is now surely blocked, its membership is withering and its links with the trade unions fraying.

Sooner or later, the electoral wilderness beckons, perhaps for a very long time. The price of New Labour – and Blair’s leadership – could be very high indeed.