New Labour was born of defeat and has displayed a profound lack of ambition in power. But the party can still recover its purpose

One of the extraordinary features of the Blair government has been its slavish support for the central tenets of Bush’s foreign policy, above all the war in Iraq. During the cold war, the Wilson government resisted the suggestion that it should send troops to Vietnam. Globally, such supine support for the Americans has been pretty rare: the Australian prime minister John Howard, the Japanese, arguably some central European regimes. Blair has been in remarkably select company. And now that the American voters have hobbled Bush, Blair’s position looks even more isolated. So why has he been prepared to be such a puppet of such a rightwing American administration?

Blair’s legacy will be indelibly linked with his support for the Iraq war: foreign-policy disasters don’t come much bigger than this, and look how history remembers Anthony Eden. “New politics”, “neither left nor right”, “the third way” and the rest – all these ideas now seem like so many footnotes. But Blair’s support for the Americans should not be seen as an aberration; on the contrary, it is closely linked to the main contours of New Labour policy. This has been a government that has majored on hyperbole, but in fact from the outset it was hugely timid and cravenly orthodox.

Although New Labour enjoyed a huge majority, it defined its goals, in stark contrast to the 1945 Labour government, in terms of its own re-election rather than political change. It was characterised by a profound lack of ambition, concealed by spin, forever a government of gesture rather than substance. And even when it has done good, it has frequently preferred to obscure those good works – for example, its policies to help alleviate poverty – in mind-boggling complexity, thereby failing to articulate them as part of a broader political narrative.

The origins of New Labour lie in the multiple defeats of the left from the late 70s through to the early 90s. By the time of Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994, a deep pessimism about its political future gripped the party; that is why it was so willing to turn to a figure like Blair, who quite obviously wore his political allegiance to Labour lightly. It had lost the political struggle with Thatcherism; now it turned to a leader who was willing to embrace this ideology and treat it as his own. New Labour cannot be reduced to Thatcherism, but Thatcherism defined most of the coordinates of New Labour’s philosophy.

Neoliberalism, however, was only one aspect of the left’s defeat. The other main plank was the collapse of communism in 1989. Labour was always aligned with the US during the cold war, but the ignominious implosion of communism reinforced the belief that no alternative to the prevailing common sense was possible. It also helped to cut the left off from any sense of its historical moorings, leaving it adrift and rudderless. There was a new kind of willingness on the part of many on the left to see the role of the US in a different light. Blair’s position combined the pro-Americanism of the right – not least, again, Thatcher – with a born-again, macho conversion to the cause of the US resulting from the collapse of communism.

The pessimism of New Labour – and its intellectual coterie, including Blair’s favoured thinktank of the time, Demos – on the possibility, or even desirability, of major political change, was reflected in a retreat from the idea that society involved profound social conflicts, into a make-believe world where anything seemed to be possible – it just required a different kind of mindset, to “think the unthinkable” as the slogan of the time went. In practice, that almost invariably meant what had been unthinkable for Labour, not what was unthinkable on the right, for whom such ideas were thoroughly familiar. The mantra of radicalism has never implied the full repertoire of possibilities but rather a narrow range of market-based or market-mimicking solutions. Instinctively, Blair has known only one direction throughout his premiership, namely rightwards, be it on domestic or foreign policy.

New Labour, thus, has embodied an unwillingness – its grandiose rhetoric notwithstanding – to confront the big picture, to understand the deeper forces that shape society, to confront the fact that serious political change involves taking on powerful vested interests, standing on the side of the weak against the strong, a commitment to some kind of egalitarianism in an increasingly unequal society. At all times New Labour has studiously avoided any such commitments or conflicts. It has sought to ingratiate itself with those in a position of power and privilege rather than take them on. Blair has consistently wooed and celebrated wealth, whether to fund the Labour party, to finance city academies or to add glitz to himself and New Labour. The language of choice, understood as the allocation of scarce resources between different groups, is wholly absent from the New Labour lexicon. It has been left to Ken Livingstone – who personifies what a Labour government might have been, displaying courage in confronting a formidable vested interest, namely the car lobby, and shrewd judgment as to the shape of the future – to introduce the most radical measure seen during all of New Labour’s tenure, the central-London congestion charge.

New Labour marked a profound retreat from politics into an apolitical world that meekly accepted the neoliberal interpretation of society and the Thatcherite settlement. The fact that the party sought to reinvent itself as a source of radicalism but in reality was in headlong retreat from a notion of society involving real choices and real conflicts led it to place a disproportionate emphasis on the importance of public relations. For New Labour, politics became a matter of appearance rather than reality, spin rather than substance. The thinktanks were no exception: for them politics was a succession of wheezes and headlines rather than a consistent attempt to advance a project aimed at a fundamental restructuring of society, taking back territory lost under Thatcherism.

The collapse and disintegration of the Iraqi project marks the demise of Blair. Yet this too has been determined on the other side of the Atlantic. It is to New Labour’s eternal dishonour that a figure who has become so discredited has been allowed to continue in office for the sake of his vanity and legacy. In any proper system of accountability he would long ago have been ejected – or impeached. But Labour, alas, seemed to lose its sense of dignity, rectitude and conviction around the time of the death of John Smith.

It seems unlikely that Brown could be quite as abjectly conformist and rightwing as Blair. But the issue is broader and will last longer. What will happen after New Labour (for its passing, whatever Blair may desire, seems certain)? Will the pessimism, conservatism, timidity and vacuity that have defined New Labour persist into a new era, or can Labour recover some of the values that in the past made it a decent and worthwhile organisation? For sure, this generation of Labour leaders and intellectuals, born of a deep sense of defeatism, have failed miserably, but that does not mean that a future generation cannot recover a sense of balance and purpose.