Politically homeless "centrists" call for a return to the pragmatism of the New Labour era. But until they see Blair as the ideologue he was, nothing will changeby Chaminda Jayanetti / September 6, 2018 / Leave a comment
Walk my path, wear my shoes: Tony Blair visiting a school before the 1997 General Election. Photo: PA If only they’d built more council housing. Having once been kings of the castle, centrists now find themselves politically homeless. With politics polarising between the rival populisms of Steve Bannon and Jeremy Corbyn, they define their identity less by what they support than what they oppose. In particular, they openly abhor the populists’ perceived tendency to favour ideology over pragmatism—a supposed departure from the New Labour era they openly long for. Centrists may no longer know what they want, but they know that when they find it, it will be by carefully sifting through evidence. They are the grimly methodical Sarah Lunds of politics. Centrists’ patron saint The patron saint of centrists is still Tony Blair. Whilst his legacy is less divisive than Margaret Thatcher’s—unlike Thatcher, most people hate him—few political reputations have swung as wildly as the former Labour prime minister’s. Originally an overwhelmingly popular political saviour, he became known as a crafty pragmatist, then a messianic warmonger, and finally a money-grabbing, out-of-touch liar. Unsurprisingly, his supporters eschew those latter characterisations. Instead, they argue his pragmatism was the foundation of his initial overwhelming popularity—and proceed to argue that a similarly pragmatic Labour leader would now be 20 points clear of the Tories in the polls. In reality, post-Brexit polarisation makes 20-point leads almost impossible to achieve. Even Theresa May at her strongest never sustained such leads over Corbyn at his weakest. Nor does a captivating Blair-style leader actually exist. Andy Burnham can’t make up his mind. Yvette Cooper couldn’t beat Corbyn. David Miliband can’t hold a banana. How Labour won in 97 Whether Blair’s perceived pragmatism is what drove his electoral success is more of an unknown. It’s easy to forget just how utterly reviled John Major’s government was by the 1997 election. Would John Smith have won a landslide in 1997? We will never know. But if governments lose elections rather than oppositions winning them, the Tories were heading for defeat against whoever. What does need unpacking, however, is the idea of Blair as a pragmatist. This is based on his reputation for triangulation—proposing centre-left policies but tweaked and marketed so as to appeal to the centre-right. This assumes that Blair was a centre-left social democrat who strategically drove his tanks onto Tory lawns to win over Middle England. But most of Blair’s centre-left reforms were done by 2001: the minimum wage, New Deal, Sure Start, higher spending on schools and hospitals. Working tax credits were introduced in 2003, and health and education spending continued to rise, but from 2001-2007, there was little new for social democrats to get excited about. What continued unabated was the marketisation of public services: foundation hospitals, the NHS ‘choice’ agenda, academy schools, PFI. Government rhetoric grew hostile towards asylum seekers, and increasingly hardline policies were adopted on law and order and counter-terrorism. This was hardly classic social democrat turf. Blair did little to expand trade unionism, or to rebalance the relationship between workers and employers—aside from a fairly low minimum wage—leaving the welfare system and private borrowing to prop up living standards. Triangulating to the left Perhaps Blair grew more right wing over time. But why? It is easy to see how the relative success of his foreign policy interventions in Kosovo and Sierra Leone gave him an unassailable messiah complex post-9/11. But on the domestic front, there is little reason for him to have shifted mid-government. “Blair was not a pragmatist but an ideologue” His early policies were popular, delivering a second landslide in 2001. They did not lead to anything approaching economic disaster. There were no transformative moments that might have fundamentally shifted his politics. Instead, we should question the assumption that Early Blair triangulated to the right. Policies such as the windfall tax on privatised utilities—a headline-grabber from the 97 manifesto—were never replicated, in letter or in spirit. The red line through the Blair years was not redistributive reform but marketisation, with public spending financed increasingly by borrowing rather than progressive taxation. Rather than triangulating to the right, Early Blair arguably triangulated to the left, proffering up policies he didn’t wholeheartedly believe in to satisfy his party. Even the ban on fox hunting, passed in 2003 after years of government prevarication, was reportedly offered up to buy off a left-wing rebellion against foundation hospitals. He never supported the ban himself. Blair was an ideologue As time went on, Blair doubled down on his own ideological positions, whilst Brown and departmental ministers focused on public spending. In that sense, Blair was not a pragmatist but an ideologue, resting on ideological assumptions as much as Thatcher did or Corbyn does, but founded on a less radical ideology than theirs. Blair’s ideology was not drawn from years of studying political philosophy, but from basic assumptions that reflected what he was—an upper-middle-class man who wanted to help the ‘good’ poor but also fancied the idea of the taxpayer subsidising his private healthcare. When the unions accused his government of adopting a “private good, public bad” mentality towards public service ownership, it became clear that the Blair government was not coming from a position of practicality. Rather, it indulged in “policy-based evidence-making” to support its ready-made ideological assumptions. Learning from the past Does any of this matter? It does, because where Blairism failed, it was due to its ideology. Prisons were not better run because they were private, nor were hospitals better because they had foundation status. Nothing benefited from PFI beyond shareholders’ dividends and Brown’s borrowing figures. Public services improved because more money was spent on them, not because men in suits from Carillion showed up. Blair assumed rising house prices would underpin financial security for the elderly, even as their unsustainable growth dragged both housing and security beyond the reach of the young. His complacent reliance on welfare, not trade unions, to deliver rising living standards, and on borrowing, not redistribution, to fund public spending, meant these improvements were wholly dependent on a growing economy. His government infamously—and ideologically—trusted the financial sector to take care of itself. Labour leaders talked as if the economy would grow forever. We know what happened next. Still lacking solutions Today’s centrists have convinced themselves that Blairism equalled enlightened pragmatism, not faith-based ideology. This means they fail to understand where Labour went wrong and what needed to change. Over the years, they have reacted to the financial crisis by adopting Tory talking points, wasted the Ed Miliband years denouncing him as a radical left-winger, and even now, ten years after the crisis, are largely devoid of answers to the country’s problems. You cannot solve what you do not understand.