Latest Issue

Follow the leader

The "Blairism" strategy of the centre-left has brought ten years of power, thanks to a centralised leadership system attuned to the interests of middle Britain. Without Blair this system will no longer work. So will Labour now turn to electoral reform?

By David Soskice   May 2007

The tenth anniversary of Labour’s 1997 victory is a good moment to take stock of “Blairism” as a political strategy for the centre-left. When Gordon Brown takes over, he will face most of the same constraints imposed by Britain’s political and economic structures as Tony Blair did in 1997, but his response will have to be different from Blair’s. Blairism—with all its strengths and weaknesses—will not outlive the departure of the leader who made it possible. Labour after Blair needs to rethink how the centre-left will win and hold power—and it is likely that some form of proportional representation will be central to that thinking.

So what are the constraints of the British system? The first is electoral. Historically, majoritarian first-past-the-post systems have been biased against centre-left parties. In the second half of the 20th century, in advanced countries with a majoritarian system, centre-left governments have on average been in power for only one quarter of the time. By contrast, proportional representation has had an almost equal bias in favour of the centre-left, as seems confirmed by recent experience in New Zealand.

Why this strong bias? Divide the electorate into low, middle and higher income groups. With a majoritarian system, there are typically two main parties: centre-left and centre-right. To win, one of the two main parties has to capture enough of the middle-income vote—so, as is well-known, the competitive focus is on this middle class. (These categories are fuzzy, and correspond only vaguely to actual income bands. After adjusting for taxes and benefits, the poorest fifth of British households, where benefits make up 60 per cent of gross income, have an average income of £12,000; the richest fifth, including all higher-rate income tax-payers, have an average household income of £48,000. Between these two extremes we have the varied middle group, with average household income of £26,000.)

But here lies a fundamental problem in majoritarian systems. From the middle-class voter’s perspective, neither of the major parties represents just middle-class voters. Centre-left party activists often still seem hostile to middle-class aspiration, and unions play a big part in fundraising and policymaking; equally, centre-right parties tend to have close relations with wealthy donors, with business and with the ideological right. And even though the parties focus electorally on the middle-class voter, there is no legal commitment device that ensures that once elected it will be middle-class interests that the party has at heart. The role of the party leader is crucial in persuading middle-class voters that, if elected, he or she will govern in their interests.

It is here that, at least on average and over time, centre-left parties have faced a particular disadvantage. If the middle-class voter is equally unsure of whether, once elected, the centre-left party may veer left or the centre-right party veer right, then the centre-right party is a safer choice. Why? The worst that a centre-right government is likely to do if it moves to the right is to lower taxes and cut public spending. While middle-class voters may prefer effective schools and health provision, lower taxes at least allow them to increase private expenditure. But if a centre-left government moves left, the danger is that it will raise taxes and increase redistribution to lower income groups. While there are many reasons for voting aside from economic self-interest—ideals, concern with competence and so on—the middle-class vote en masse will have a strong bias to play safe and vote centre-right.

The leader of a centre-left party thus needs to convince the electorate that his own preferences are middle-class preferences, and that he is tough enough to impose them on his party. This is the basis of Blairism. Blair has understood perfectly the need to persuade middle-class voters that he has their interests and anxieties at heart. He signalled this to electors early in his leadership in many ways, including by sending some of his children not to the local state school but to the grant-maintained Oratory.

So a big party in a modern majoritarian system needs to be a “leadership” party, in which the leader and those around him ultimately decide important things. The middle-class electorate can then see that the ideological wings of the party have no significant influence in policymaking. This is more necessary for a Labour than a Conservative leader, but it applies to both. Blair has been brilliant at carrying this off. David Cameron’s apparent willingness to turn his back on many of the core beliefs of Tory activists suggests he has a flair for it too. Gordon Brown, a more “tribal” Labour figure, is unlikely to be so convincing, regardless of his actual beliefs.

Blair has been criticised for multiple failings: his centralisation of decision-making in Downing Street, his use of spin, and the general impression of policymaking on the hoof, especially in the key areas of health, education and law and order. Whatever one’s reactions to this style of government, it is important to understand the logic behind it. It is not just a Blair strategy; it has been emblematic of successful government parties in advanced countries with majoritarian voting. This goes as much for Thatcher, Reagan and Clinton as for John Howard in Australia and David Lange in New Zealand.

The constraint implied by the electoral system interlocks with a second constraint—the nature of Anglo-Saxon capitalism. Almost all advanced countries with Anglo-Saxon or liberal market economies have majoritarian electoral systems, and recent developments in those economies have reinforced the “leadership” requirement of such systems.

In the postwar period until the 1970s, the Anglo-Saxon economies were characterised by relatively strong unions, weak vocational training and large-scale “Fordist” manufacturing. The failure of British employers and unions to co-ordinate and establish long-term, high-trust relations ruled out restructuring labour markets in Nordic or Germanic directions. So in the 1980s, labour market deregulation and free trade was the more or less universal Anglo-Saxon response to the failure of these Fordist systems to compete in world markets. This had several significant political consequences.

First, before the collapse of Fordism and its demand for semi-skilled labour, around 60 per cent of young people left school at 16, and the large majority moved directly into employment. By contrast, the last quarter century has seen a dramatic increase in staying-on rates (only about 25 per cent now leave school at 16), as performance in general education has become the criterion for successful employment. Those who leave school early now risk entering a world with very limited prospects. For them, in the last 25 years, the transition from low-attaining education to relatively secure employment has been broken. This displaced group has made law and order a serious preoccupation in all income groups—those on low incomes (the bulk of the victims of crime), as much as the middle classes and the wealthy.

Second, although most of the recent increase in public spending has been on the big universal services of health and education, part of the middle class now associates the welfare state with transfers from them to the large group of lower-paid workers and the economically inactive from the old heavy industries. This heightens concern about welfare bills and makes a centre-right government look a safe haven.

Third, the greater emphasis on general education qualifications has created extra middle-class anxiety about the condition of state secondary education and its ability to deliver the relevant qualifications, including university entry, for its children.

Fourth, labour market and service sector deregulation, along with public sector reform (designed to deliver better services to all taxpayers), has loosened the party allegiances of the middle classes, both on the public sector “left” and the private sector and self-employed “right.”

It is this framework—in which a majoritarian voting system interacts with the middle-class anxieties produced by a deregulated system of Anglo-Saxon capitalism—that now so constrains the leadership strategy of centre-left parties, while simultaneously making strong leadership so important. It is important to distinguish between “battlefield” areas, “comparative Labour advantage” areas and “no-go” areas. In key “battlefield” areas, the two parties compete directly for the middle-class vote. The areas in which Labour needs to build a strong comparative advantage are those which benefit both middle and lower income groups. These areas include health and education, but also daycare provision and nursery schools, and the whole question of work-life balance. These should be natural Labour areas, but David Cameron has made encroachments by appearing so sensitive to middle-class discomfort with aspects of today’s market economy. (He has also stolen a march on the new battlefield of the environment.)

Then there are no-go areas for Labour: policies that benefit low-income groups at the cost of higher taxes or of shifting expenditure from the middle classes, or that boost the power of unions. For it is this that middle-class voters fear: that Labour in power will redistribute from them to the poor. (This is one reason tax credits, which have significantly boosted the incomes of poorer workers, have been marketed so assiduously as credits rather than top-up pay benefits.) Labour also needs to neutralise policy areas that are salient but that it doesn’t “own,” like crime and immigration.

These battlefield areas resemble fiercely competitive markets, with two highly resourced large companies competing against each other by developing new products while subjecting the products of the other to sharp criticism. It is easier, of course, to criticise the government’s products than those of the opposition, since ammunition is everywhere to hand—in the malperformance of any school or hospital. Moreover, the “advertising” of both sides is readily carried out by the press, since these are precisely areas of great public interest and anxiety.

How, under these conditions of heightened adversarialism, is government most effectively organised? For a company to be able to react rapidly in a highly competitive environment while projecting a coherent marketing image, tight control from the top over both new product development and marketing is necessary. Most of the “Blairite” consequences follow simply from this: the development of new policies and of information flows need to be controlled by Downing Street; special advisers with ideas and loyalty clearly aligned with the prime minister act as a fount and conduit of policy developments; civil servants and other professionals with substantial knowledge of policy areas can act as conservative constraints on this process, hence the semi-exclusion of professional bodies from policymaking; target-setting takes the place of professional responsibility as the government needs both to ensure compliance and to have a record of success that the press can then use. The cabinet has a reduced role in this system. For Downing Street to be able to respond rapidly to situations, or to catch the opposition unawares, it makes no sense for a prime minister to be constantly seeking cabinet approval. The popular press, in particular that read by the lower middle classes, plays a leading function in this model of government: it is the central “advertising” channel in these competitive markets.

The Blair strategy may concede too large a veto to “Daily Mail” interests. But it has a profound logic. It responds to the sharp constraints that made it impossible for Labour—even with “one more heave”—to get elected in the 1980s and much of the 1990s. It has led to Labour being in power for a decade. And only elitists could describe as anti-democratic this direct competition with the centre-right in meeting the anxieties of the middle class.

The most obvious critique of the Blair strategy is that it has led to bad policymaking. This is not the place for an assessment of the effects of Labour policies in the central areas to which the Blair strategy applies—law and order, education and health. Certainly they are likely to have been better than the policies which the Tories might have developed. Yet the big increase in the prison population, city academies as the flagships of a reformed secondary education system and foundation hospitals are not compelling domestic policy legacies (not to mention the foreign policy debacle of Iraq). And two key moments in the recent history of the NHS provide classic examples of, respectively, “on the hoof” and “sofa” government: Blair’s unexpected commitment on Breakfast with Frost in 2000 to match the average European per capita spending on health; and the meeting, in 2001, of Blair and a few Downing Street insiders, which decided to reverse the status quo and opt for an even more radical version of the Tory market-type reforms of the NHS.

Over time, we may arrive at a more balanced appreciation. Some of the evidence on education outcomes and reductions in both poverty and NHS waiting lists is impressive, thanks to record increases in public spending. But the emphasis on presenting statistics in the best light has made it difficult to take government data at face value. Moreover, there has been a lack of emphasis on what are Labour’s natural policies—policies which benefit lower income groups as well as the middle classes.

So is there an alternative way of policymaking within the constraints posed by the majoritarian electoral system and our Anglo-Saxon economy? Gordon Brown is deeply interested in policy. And he is responsible for some of New Labour’s greatest successes—the preservation of macroeconomic stability and the big reductions in pensioner and child poverty.

There are two approaches to long-term policymaking with which Brown is particularly associated. First, he has gone a long way to turning the treasury from a ministry that simply controlled the expenditure of the spending ministries into a serious policymaking institution. Its public expenditure sections now engage deeply in policy development as part of the whole process of monitoring departments. (This has been more successful in some areas than others, and has clashed with the Downing Street approach, hence the many wars of attrition.)

Second, Brown transferred policymaking on interest rates from the treasury to the Bank of England. Interest rates—governing the cost of mortgages and of borrowing to finance everything from holidays and home extensions to purchases of cars and second homes—are a classic area of middle-class anxiety. The transfer of policymaking to an independent body over which the government has no direct control has removed a critical area of interparty competition for middle-class votes. And, in theory, by giving up control of one area of public policy it increases government legitimacy in others.

The problem is that the independent central bank model is not one that can be easily copied. In the case of the bank, there was considerable agreement both on the basic goals and about the technical methods and models involved in policy implementation. And the Tory leadership has been happy not to challenge the bank. None of this applies to other areas, such as the NHS. The idea of an independent committee of experts running the NHS free from political control is fraught with difficulty. If Brown is neither able to break out of the “leadership” model through a more rational approach to policy, nor able to manage the system in the way that Blair could, the centre-left will need to look elsewhere for long-term salvation.

Proportional representation is one possible path. The example of New Zealand is instructive here. The majoritarian system in operation from 1947 to 1996 overwhelmingly favoured the centre-right National party, which won 13 out of 17 elections. But since the first PR election in 1996, a Labour-led government has emerged in three out of four elections. Is there an underlying logic that can explain why PR systems appear to produce centre-left governments? A simple explanation is this: PR systems encourage a range of parties, so no party will win an overall majority. Centre parties are then often put in the position of choosing between a centre-left or centre-right partner. There is often a strong case for choosing the centre-left partner: this is because, crudely, a centre/centre-left government can find resources by taxing the excluded higher income right, while a centre/centre-right government has fewer resources to take from the excluded lower income left. Moreover, centrist parties can help to solve the commitment problem that in majoritarian systems can send middle-class voters into the arms of the centre-right.

One more fundamental reason why the New Zealand model may be transferable to Britain (though not, say, to Germany) is that both countries have centre parties that lean to the left, the Liberal Democrats in Britain’s case. British Labour strategists should certainly note not only Labour’s electoral success in New Zealand, but also the way in which breaking the majoritarian “leadership” system has led to more progressive policies and a more pluralistic form of government.

If a tired Labour government in Britain were to cling on to power for a fourth term by introducing a big change to the voting system, it would look like a cynical gerrymander. On the other hand, if Labour promised reform in its next manifesto (perhaps the alternative vote system rather than full-blooded PR) and was still the largest party after the next election, it would have the legitimacy to promise a referendum on PR followed by another election—under whatever system was chosen. Little is known about Brown’s position on PR, and Labour MPs are divided on the issue, many fearing that it makes their seats more vulnerable. But it may be the only way that the centre-left can realise the promise of ruling for a generation without being bound by the constraints of a leadership system that Tony Blair managed with great skill but with mixed policy results.

We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to

More From Prospect