Tony Blair consistently draws a distinction between the ‘politics of protest’ and the ‘politics of governance’. His politics mean he’s the ‘guy on the placard’ rather than the person holding it. Yet how Blair and New Labour ended is not how it began, and therefore isn’t the whole story – nor the only identity Labour ‘moderates’ today can show an affinity for.
Indeed, Blair in the past was quite different. A sense of detachment from the Labour party, which has followed Labour’s moderates around for some time, is neither inevitable nor preferable. And it certainly hasn’t always been this way.
The powerful appeal of the Labour left
In 1982, following his defeat as a Labour by-election candidate, Tony Blair visited Australia and delivered a lecture on Labour politics. He began by attacking the Social Democratic party – then perceived as posing an existential threat to Labour following the breakaway of some of its MPs. Blair showed no sympathy with those who had left. The SDP was draining voters away from Labour but it appealed to those who “cluster around anything new” and “profess to be non-political”.
Blair went on to critique the right of the party who had remained within Labour. Under their stewardship, the party had become too timid and predictable. Any Labour government would come into “sharp conflict with the power of capital, particularly multinational capital”. A failure to listen had seen Labour’s establishment become “managers of a conservative country”.
For its part, the left of the Labour party was culpable because of its dogmatic commitment to outdated ideologies (read Marxism) and its naive view that it could win the next election on the back of the votes of the working-class and liberal metropolitans alone. At the same time, Blair recognised that the 1979 defeat and the influx of new activists had changed the party ‘irreversibly’.
This was, Blair argued, no bad thing in so far as it had invigorated campaigns and stimulated new thinking. He said the ‘powerful appeal of the left to the fundamental socialist instincts of the Party,’ along with an election defeat, had ‘overwhelmed the tired excuses of pragmatism from the Labour right’. Moreover, these left-wing activists, dismissed out-of-hand by the right of the party as sectarian and divisive, had brought to the party a genuine interest in issues like the environment and social equality which were both important and potentially appealing to non-core voters. What was needed, Blair concluded, was a Labour party which drew on elements of, but nevertheless transcended, left and right.
Lessons for today’s Labour party
The Labour party has not won an election for nearly fifteen years. Have the party’s ‘moderates’ taken the right lessons from Labour’s past? We see five lessons, which observers of the current contest may recognize in the campaigns of some of the candidates.
1. Opposition is very different to governing
Opposition is very different to governing. Fights need to be picked and risks taken. This seems obvious, but such was the mentality that a generation of Labour politicians left office with in 2010, we think it is an essential point.
2. Bring people together
While all Labour people rewrite the past, doing so in a way which transcends divisions can bring the party together. Blair criticised Labour’s left and right, and lauded Labour’s left and right. Recognising the strengths and weaknesses of the different factions within the Labour party is, to put it mildly, no longer a regular occurrence. Yet those who can recognise the weakness of their ‘wing’ can more credibly lay claim to the strengths of the whole movement.
3. Emphasise ethos
The Labour politicians and strategists of today must recognise and remember the importance of the party’s ethos as well as its policies. In a classic account of the Labour party, Henry Drucker defined ethos as the traditions, beliefs, procedures and feelings which “animate” Labour. These demonstrate a blend of motivations, aspirations and objectives, all present – quite legitimately – in the competing traditions of Labour’s ethos through the party’s history.
4. Attract the centre
You don’t have to have purely ‘centre ground policies’ to be perceived as attractive to voters located at the political centre. The Blair who worked for years to convince his party of a different kind of socialism, or social democracy, was very different to the Blair who left office focused on ‘policies that work’.
Often – and the ‘Independent Group’ of MPs were an example of this – ideology is confused with dogmatism. ‘Values’ are considered to be acceptable, but there is little in the way of a coherent political philosophy to steer and guide one’s politics. Instead, a ‘centre’, informed by public attitudes and responses to different policies or objectives, is identified. Such an approach to politics is inherently technocratic, because it is not based on ideas. It forgets, or wilfully ignores for the sake of expedience, that the electorate believing a particular policy to be ‘centre ground’ will itself be a constructed belief.
5. Move with the times
Our fifth and final point goes to the generational and cultural aspect of politics. Opposition politicians must not be caught out of time, fighting a battle that a younger generation has moved on from. This includes recognising that new generations of political actors and activists bring new ways of conducting politics, and new priorities to the table. For Labour to not disintegrate over the next decade, its past and present leaders must be more honest and less divisive.