20 years since Blair was elected Labour leader: neither to laugh or to cry but to understand
20 years ago I was a socialist and I still am so it goes without saying that I was not an enthusiast when Blair was elected Labour leader on 21 July 1994 and I am even less of a fan, if that’s possible now.
But while most will remember Blair for his disastrous war in Iraq and his highly doubtful activities since he left Office, there remains a balance sheet to be drawn from his time as Prime Minister. John Rentoul, a Blair fan, has made the first attempt in the Independent on Sunday [20th July]. Rentoul believes that Blair won’t end up being remembered most of all for Iraq. Hmmm.
20 years ago Blair beat John Prescott and Margaret Beckett for the Labour leadership after the death of John Smith. He won a majority of MPs, trade unionists [no block votes were used] and individual members.
Blair was an Election winner- in 1997, 2001 and 2005- although it can be argued with some justification that after the mess Norman Lamont made of the economy in and after 1992, more or less any Labour leader would have won in 1997.
The agenda of Blair and New Labour was to avoid some of the pitfalls of previous Labour Governments. In particular that meant not having a punch up with the City of London in the first period of office. One of the first acts of the Blair Government was to make the Bank of England independent of Government control.
As Rentoul makes clear, and could have made clearer, even against this agenda of not saying boo to capitalism, the Blair Governments did achieve some positive change. There was some change and improvement to trade union laws and rights at work compared to Thatcher; the equality agenda was advanced; the minimum wage-then hotly contested- was implemented; modest improvements in public services and living standards took place.
The problem with this very mildly positive record is that on two occasions in 1997 and 2001 Blair had massive majorities over the Tories. He was in a position to make strong progress on Harold Wilson’s agenda of making Labour the natural party of Government and marginalising the electoral fortunes of the Tory Party.
Blair failed. I think the failure was related to the softly softly approach to capitalism. What, given a long period of Labour opposition, might have been forgiven as a short term tactic became in fact the dominant strategy.
So early plans to lessen shareholder value as the key legal requirement of businesses- which would have promoted social and corporate responsibility- were not pursued. Had they been, 2008 might have turned out a little differently.
Secondly the love affair with big business means a dalliance with the market- a neo-liberal agenda, that saw an increasing influence of the supposedly super efficient private sector into the public sphere.
Thirdly it meant a bowing of the knee to the rich and powerful who could not be offended- people like Rupert Murdoch and George W Bush.
In short Blair had some notion of making Britain a moderately better society- which is a lot more than can be said for the current administration- but was de-railed not in the first instance by war with Iraq, but by an inability and unwillingness to grasp that at root the activities of capitalism in many instances were not a friend but an enemy of ordinary people, that would have to be not embraced but controlled and on occasion fought.
Of course the left and socialists would go much further than that but I am looking here at the gap between what Blair and New Labour claimed they were up to and what actually transpired and trying to suggest why that was.
Still 20 years is a little early to pass judgement on Blair, unless of course a war crimes tribunal were to appear in the Hague. That however is not exactly what this post is about