On the morning of Labour’s greatest electoral triumph, 1st May 1997, Tony Blair famously declared that a new dawn had broken. With an air of expectancy and a thumping majority, Labour could finally achieve Harold Wilson’s goal of becoming the natural party of government. Yet twenty years later, Labour heads into an election staring at what could be its heaviest defeat since 1935, despite having already spent seven years in opposition. How did it come to this?
New Labour enjoyed undoubted achievements. The minimum wage, low unemployment, well-funded public services, and the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland to name a few. But these accomplishments tend to be overlooked in the light of the other legacies of the governments led by Blair and Gordon Brown, which have dogged it since it left office. For the left, those legacies were the Iraq War and the marketisation of public services. Iraq turned Blair into a toxic figure. His alliance with a right-wing US president in pursuit of what some regard as the worst foreign-policy disaster since Suez destroyed his reputation and continues to fix perceptions of him. He was never forgiven by the Labour left or the liberal commentariat.
Meanwhile, Labour’s affiliated unions resented Blair’s reforms of public services, which they saw as an attack on their prerogatives. The rise of a generation of left-wing union leaders denouncing “privatisation”—however loosely defined—was another of Blair’s legacies.
It was this alliance of the left and the unions that propelled Ed Miliband to the Labour leadership in 2010. In disavowing New Labour but having nothing to put in its place, Miliband was merely promising his party a better yesterday. However, his victory set Labour on a left-wing path that would lead eventually, if unexpectedly, to Jeremy Corbyn. The rise of the Labour left was an internal reaction to New Labour, which many left-wingers regarded as an alien creed. The Blair era suggests there is an ideological point beyond which a centre-left party cannot travel without endangering its social-democratic identity among its supporters.
While the left’s critique of New Labour was internally influential, a rival assessment from the right chimed with many voters. The right views New Labour’s legacy as boom-and-bust, a public-sector client state, and mass immigration. Labour has not recovered the reputation for economic competence it lost after the…