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The Blair Government Reconsidered. Jon Davis, John Rentoul. Review: Blairism Rehabilitated?

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The Blair Government Reconsidered. Heroes or Villains? Jon Davis, John Rentoul  Oxford 2019.

“Will New Labour in retrospect be judged to have failed for the same reasons that Very Old Labour failed in 1929 – 31, namely a refusal to break with current economic orthodoxy?”

Eric Hobsbawm. Marxism Today. November/December 1998. (‘The Death of Neoliberalism’).

In a special one-off, titled Wrong, the Editor of Marxism Today, whose End had been announced in 1991, wrote, “New Labour did not usher in a new era but more properly belongs to the previous one.” Martin Jacques was followed by other heavyweights. Stuart Hall stated that, “Labour has been quietly seduced by the neo-liberal view that, as far as possible, the economy must be treated as a machine; obeying economic ‘laws’ without human intervention”. In words that resonate today about those now asserting the need to attract pro-Brexit voters, and the “Somewhere” people he asserted that Blair’s “key constituency in the run up to the election was ‘Middle England’ – a profoundly traditionalist and backward looking cultural investment.”

In reply Geoff Mulgan defended the “open” debate about the Third Way, synthesising centre-left traditions, and Labour commitment to practical radical reform. Citing Walter Benjamin, the Demos director complained about intellectual “peaceful negativity” – endless carping from the outside. History had moved on, and Blair’s “permanent revisionism” was the future.

Accusations of resurrecting New Labour, of “Blairism” have been anything but part of a serene critique in Labour’s present day leadership contest. Voices outside Labour, relayed within, predict a defeat for the left in the wake of a Keir Starmer Armageddon. Party democracy, in the view of the Socialist Party and the SWP and some claiming to be on the Labour left, has been thwarted; the ‘Blairites’ have not been purged. A historic defeat looms. The time has come again to mobilise outside the Party….

New Labour in Power.

In these conditions is there space for an in-depth account of New Labour in power? Discussion of what ‘Blairism’ actually was, and what remains of it could hardly avoid this. Davis and Rentoul, who teach on “the Blair Years” at King’s College, begin The Blair Government stating, that Tony Blair was “the political colossus in Britain for thirteen years after he became leader of the Labour Party in 1994. He was prime minister for ten years, second only in length of service to Margaret Thatcher (11 and a half).” Yet, as they note in the conclusion, “Much of the difference between Blair and Thatcher is explained by how much they are regarded by supporters of their own party, Where Blair is reviled by many Labour voters, Thatcher is revered by Conservatives.” (Page 300) By contrast, “The purpose of this book is to assess criticisms of him and his government in a dispassionate way…”(Page 2)

The first thing that strikes the considered reader is that The Blair Government is, far too much for the politically committed reader, focused on “government works” and “how Blair run his administration”. The charge that the Prime Minister accepted the ‘Thatcher consensus’ that privatised nationalised industries, utilities and transport, introduced anti-trade union laws, and the modelling of public services after private business practice. There is little on the role of the Labour Party itself. There is nothing on the international difficulties and evolution of social democracy, which some began to compare with New Labour at tis zenith The book focuses on the “conduct of government”, issues such as Prime Ministerial versus Cabinet government, “sofa government”, the Civil Service faced with an increased role of Special Advisers (‘Spads’), that occupy this account of the nuts and bolts of Blair’s time in office. (1)

The relationship between Blair and Gordon Brown is of interest to any biographer. The independence of the Bank of England and its relationship with the Treasury gets in-depth treatment, as does Brown’s partnership with Ed Balls. . The critics’ charge of economic orthodoxy rang and rings true. In this field, PPS, Public private Partnerships, rightly attacked for critics on cost grounds and as a “hallway house to privatisation” is considered in terms of “mobilising private funds for public purposes”. (Page 224). Brown’s project, Davis and Rentoul note, was in line “redistributive market liberalism. A significant role of government is to remedy market failure in areas such as healthcare, not to intervene in the foundations of the economy (Page 227).

 

The Third Way.

The Blair Government does not discuss the Third Way, the social-ism, adapted to the “new capitalism” that Tony Blair, or at least his supporters, spun during his years up to government and in power. There was the emphasis on “community” sometimes drawn from communitarian political philosophy, more often from homely speeches about balancing rights and obligations, “mutual responsibility”. One responsibility dominated. People needed to be equipped with skills to compete on the global market; there should be “equality of opportunity” for the aspirational to succeed. The welfare-to-work New Deal, outsourced to private providers, fell short of offering quality training and opportunities to the majority of its clients. If the minimum wage and tax credits helped the low-paid, this – undeniably important help – went with the idea of improving individuals’ market capacity within an “open economy”. (2)

The difficulty was not only that this strategy was bound to skirt around forces pushing rising inequality, a world wide trend left-wing writers link to finance driven ‘neo-liberal’ globalisation. Public services had been kept going, even expanded in some areas, although its higher reaches became subject to stiff fees. When the “dynamism of the economy” faltered, and “boom and bust” reappeared in the 2008-banking crisis, the period of Gordon Brown’s Premiership that followed this study’s focus, these measures teetered on the brink. Eric Hobsbawm’s warning proved right as orthodoxy, with the aid of a bit of bank saving, prevailed, austerity began. The bulk of policy initiatives, or tinkering, proved not to be structural, lasting, reforms. Whatever trace of equality they had sustained vanished quickly with the return of the Conservatives to power. Schemes for sanction-ruled and pared down welfare amidst the expansion of precarious employment have erased their memory. Brexit has set in train a new form of free-market rule, national neoliberalism, backed by Boris Johnson’s national populism. 

Davis and Rentoul are more forthcoming on the Iraq War. Regardless of the merits of the decision to play a full part in the invasion of Iraq, Blair acted out of “deep conviction”. He gave public support to President Bush. The issue of ‘humanitarian intervention’, one that preoccupied many people on the left at the time, is ignored. What counted is that it could be seen as poor policy, “on planning for the aftermath, he failed to consider how badly it could turn and…If a fraction of the intelligence effort devoted to weapons of mass destruction had been devoted to war-gaming the results of toppling Saddam, a better decision might have been reached.” (Page 280) Or it might not…..

The Blair Government Reconsidered  is a fluent, accessible study. That said, if there’s anything that all the candidates for the Labour leadership have noted is this, the Blair years claim that “What matters is what works”. New Labour’s package of policies, though not without electoral victories that should make us pause, did not, as a whole, work.

 

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(1) The Retreat of Social Democracy. John Callaghan. Manchester University Press.  2001

(2) Alex Callinicos. Against the Third Way. Polity 2001.

As Johnson Smashes Workers’ Rights and Environmental Standards Remnants of Brexit Labour and Lexit Left stand with Tories.

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Workers’ Rights Under Attack at Brexit Labour MPs Back Tories’ Plans.

Tariq Ali: Don’t’ Mourn Organise!

Left-winger and one of the editors of New Left Review commented  immediately afterwards  on the election result.

The Labour Party’s refusal to support the implementation of the Brexit referendum results and, for the most part, to ignore its pro-Brexit supporters in the north of the country led to its defeat. Some of us had already pointed out the dangers, but a divided party and leadership (on this point John McDonnell should be blamed for insisting on the commitment to a second referendum). They were  sanctioned by their own constituents. This is the main reason for the defeat. It was a strategic blunder of enormous magnitude.

The failure to fight “anti-Semitism” [as attributed by the media to Corbyn and the Labor Party sectors that support it] was also a mistake, albeit on a smaller scale. The coordinated media assault on Jeremy Corbyn also had an impact. BBC coverage of Labor Party debates may now revert to “centrist” options. Emily Thornberry is the most likely candidate for “unity.”

However, there is a radical social democratic left inside and outside the Labor party. Elections are not everything. An autonomous mobilisation of the new generation must not be excluded and it must be both encouraged and supported. Johnson’s economic policies will accelerate the crisis . Mass mobilisations and strikes will be the only response as the French are currently demonstrating. Scotland will now want its independence and the Irish will want some form of unity so the Conservatives can not do as they please..

From Grande-Bretagne : les raisons d’une défaite (a selection of opinionated articles  by odd ball ‘left’  sovereigntists translated from English in the French left magazine Contretemps, including one from the US Jacobin not one written by anybody who has a genuine history of involvement in the UK Labour Party).

The day of reckoning has now come.

Jeremy Corbyn hit by shadow Cabinet rebellion as Boris Johnson’s Brexit bill clears first Commons hurdle

 

In total 32 either abstained or were paired off, meaning they did not have to actively vote, including Andrew Gwynne, John Healey, Ian Lavery, Jon Trickett and Peter Dowd from the shadow Cabinet.

Speaking after the vote, Mr Healey made clear that he had intentionally abstained – setting up a potential clash with the leadership.

In a statement he said: “In a Brexit referendum and a Brexit election the public have now been clear, and so should Labour: our fight must be about the type of Brexit and the huge difference between Labour and Conservative visions of our economy.

“Any question about whether Brexit goes ahead has been closed. I heard this same sentiment talking with many people on the doorstep and in the street during the Election.”

And he added: “For this reason, I took a different stance to the official Labour Party position and did not oppose the introduction of the Government’s Brexit bill today.”

The Clarion says,

Written by Andrew Coates

December 21, 2019 at 1:25 pm

The Liberal Democrats’ Electoral Challenge, Brexit, and the Internationalist Left.

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Said to be the Best Liberal Democrats Poll Ever (read small print).

A few days ago the leader of the Liberal Democrats declared,

Jo Swinson: Liberal Democrats close to winning hundreds of seats

Our polling shows that are within a small swing of winning hundreds of seats; because the political landscape is so totally changed by what has happened in our country.

Neither Boris Johnson nor Jeremy Corbyn is fit to be Prime Minister. Our country deserves a better choice and I am standing as a candidate to be Prime Minister and I would just say to you Martha, it is not up to anybody to tell people what they can or can’t choose – what is or isn’t possible – this will be decided by members of the public, people listening to this show, in the streets up and down the country.

The Liberal Democrats have a positive, alternative vision of the future, that is what I am going to be fighting for at this election.

Followed by this today,

The Liberal Democrats, and their predecessors the Liberal Party, have since their mid-sixties (old millenium) revival relied on the dynamics of elections to present themselves as new, rising, force.

Canvassers and activists of other parties have long experience of last-minute Liberal leaflets claiming that their party is about to win.

Traditionally a last minute poll would appear through letter-boxes announcing that their candidate is the only one capable of beating the Tories/Labour Party.

Once they took over a building in the street just next to mine, where a frenzied campaign could be seen at work.

They never won an Ipswich MP but at one time (just before and after their national agreement with the Conservatives) they ran the Borough Council in coalition with the Tories….

The Ipswich Liberals recruited former Labour councillors, including one who is now a leading light in the Brexit Party.

The strategy of appealing to Labour supporters with the claim to be “more left wing”than the party of New Labour worked in other places too.

Famously Tariq Ali, now a hardline pro-Brexiteer and  would-ne Corbyn’s best friend,  then the public face of a group of leftists in Haringey, called to vote Liberal Democrat in 2005 on the issue of the Iraq War (TARIQ ALI URGES A VOTE FOR LIB DEMS).

In fact it was at the time that the Liberals took their own turn to the right.

The ‘Orange  Book’ (2004) liberalism of ” choice and competition” was an important moment in their recent history. The Lib Dems claimed to reconcile “freedom of choice and competition” that is, free-market ideas and social policies , with an appeal to social justice.

It proved a pathway to an alliance with the Conservatives after the 2010 election.

The market-minded emphasis of David Laws, who proposed a social insurance model for the NHS in his essay, and of Paul Marshall, the Lib Dem donor and chair of the charity Ark Schools which runs several academies, prefigured the informal contacts that prepared the way for coalition negotiations ahead of the inconclusive election result. Ideas about liberation through the small state, that may have shocked many Lib Dems in the boom years, moved into the mainstream in the age of austerity.

Ten years after the economic liberals tried to capture the party, it is still divided

 

Today the Liberal Democrats are striking out on the issue of Brexit, claiming to be the best fighters against the hard right Johnson plans.

They equally attack what they claim are illiberal positions of the Labour Party.

Given that Donald Trump’s two best friends, Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage represent a danger to democratic values, to internationalism, that is the common ground that Liberals and liberals share with democratic socialists, few people on the left will  concentrate their attacks on the Lib Dems and Jo Swinson. The national populists are our principal enemy.

Those claiming to be on the left who consider that “human rights” and liberal tolerance of different beliefs are part and parcel of “globalism” and back brexit, are part of the red-brown front, not the Labour camp.

As in here:

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But we should remind Liberal Democrats that we too, that is the radical internationalist wing of Labour, stand for these principles.

Perhaps one of the best ways to look at this is through the ideas of the writer, Étienne Balibar.

Balibar stands for what he calls “Equaliberty“. This brings together freedom, equality, and democracy (which he sees as an expanding ‘limitless’ idea).  His writings bring together modern social movements, class based politics, democratic (anti-Stalinist) Marxism, and the revolutionary tradition of human rights,

Equaliberty means that politics is founded on the recognition that neither freedom nor equality can exist without the other, that is, that the suppression or even the limitation of one necessarily leads to the suppression or limitation of the other.

What is a Politics of the Rights of Man?

These are some of the ideas which many people in Labour stand for, principles of hope for a better future.

Our stand, the internationalist left’s stand, is to fight against Brexit, the strategy of the hard right, by making this part of a campaign for greater social justice.

The Liberal Democrats may support liberty, but just how far do they back the Labour programme for equality?