“Even before the introduction of tuition fees by Blair’s government in 1999, the writing was on the wall. Brown had promised to stick to Tory public spending limits so public services that had been decimated by over a decade of Thatcherism continued to be in desperate need of investment.”
By Rachel Garnham, Vice Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD)
There are three key elements of Blairism which are worth highlighting as parts of history that are not desirable to replicate.
Firstly, Blair is best remembered for his international policy. Blairism is characterised by interventionism, starting with the NATO war drive on Yugoslavia followed by the imperialist onslaught of Blair and Bush in the Middle East, which has obviously led to hundreds and thousands of deaths, much greater instability and essentially set the scene 20 years ago for the crisis that continues to unfold in Afghanistan.
Return to that so-called liberal interventionism must continue to meet mass opposition as it did at the time.
Secondly there is home policy. While obviously there were some very positive outcomes from the 1997 Labour government, it is clear that the good stuff was a result of Labour Party policy fought for over many years. If you read accounts of the time, such as Alastair Campbell’s diaries, you can clearly see that for some of the most basic social democratic reforms, Blair himself was an obstacle who had to be got round – who can forget Peter Mandelson’s assertion that he was ‘intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich’?
I joined the Labour Party in 1994, just after Blair was elected as Labour Leader. As Chair of my university Labour Club in 1997, I worked to mobilise students to go out campaigning in the key seats and make sure we got a Labour government elected. There was huge enthusiasm for the new Labour government amongst students at that time. But meanwhile the elected representatives of students in the Labour Party, and our Labour Students representatives in the National Union of Students, were getting ready to sell students out and usher in, through the introduction of tuition fees, the marketisation and the consumerism in higher education that continues to cause us so many problems to this day, and has essentially led to the conditions causing the current UCU strike.
Even before the introduction of tuition fees by Blair’s government in 1999, the writing was on the wall. Brown had promised to stick to Tory public spending limits so public services that had been decimated by over a decade of Thatcherism continued to be in desperate need of investment. As early as 1997, the Socialist Campaign Group was having to lead rebellions on issues that should have been nowhere near Labour policy – for cuts to lone parent benefit. Attacks on those who can least afford it, and scapegoating of people on benefits, is similarly writ large in the current leadership with Rachel Reeves’ comments that Labour will be tougher on people on benefits than the Tories. This is not an approach to which we want to return.
Another element of Blairism where we are still counting the cost to this day is the framework promoted by Blair and Brown of ‘public bad, private good’ which led to expensive and unaccountable Private Finance Initiatives for schools and hospitals and the public-private partnership for London Underground – all of which proved disastrous. It was good old fashioned public investment and accountability that was needed. The academisation of schools is another area where we are still counting the cost to this day. Even under Jeremy’s leadership, in Angela Rayner we had a shadow education secretary who was unwilling to commit to the reversal of academisation and reintroduction of local authority control.
The third element of Blairisim to which we do not want to return is in relation to Labour Party democracy and Party reform, which started well before Blair took power.
Disillusioned with the Labour governments of the 60s and 70s, and following the 1979 election and a long campaign by the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy, the rank and file were determined to prevent the PLP ever again ignoring Labour policies. In 1979, Labour’s Conference voted for Mandatory Reselection. At the January 1981 Special Conference, CLPs and affiliated organisations won the right to vote in leadership elections – hitherto the sole prerogative of MPs.
The fightback against the left in response to these victories played to a familiar tune – fights over the rights of women and black members to organise within the Party, over trigger ballots to undermine members’ rights to select their own candidates, and over the threshold needed for potential Leadership candidates to get on the ballot paper. Under Kinnock there was the expulsion of Militant and the register of non-affiliated organisations. Under John Smith, trade union influence was reduced, in particular at Annual Conference, cementing the move away from collectivist representative democracy to individualism.
Following the election of Blair as Party leader, the state of the Party got even worse. Blair’s first great move was around Clause IV – essentially giving up a commitment to public ownership. In 1997 Blair introduced Partnership in Power which deprived the NEC of its policy-making powers and introduced the National Policy Forum which successfully took policy-making as far away from grassroots members as possible
There were significant changes to the National Executive Committee’s composition: the proportion of the NEC elected by affiliated and individual members was substantially reduced by the inclusion of new ‘stakeholders’ – the representatives of the Government, the Parliamentary Labour Party and Labour councillors. To this day, this makes it almost impossible for the NEC to hold the leadership to account. The women’s structures were essentially demolished at the same time and we are only just beginning to rebuild.
CLPD noted at the time: ‘The basic premise of the Blair ideology is nothing new. It is that the capitalist structure of our society, and the social inequalities it generates, cannot be changed. Attempts to do so are utopian, outdated and undesirable. Class interests can be reconciled provided they are properly managed by allowing those disadvantaged by their class position some share in society’s growing wealth – albeit a proportionately small one. New Labour’s political strategy rests on this belief.’ For Blair then, you could read Starmer now.
Despite the difficulties, and lots of members leaving, others of us stayed. We organised in left organisations such as CLPD, and with MPs such as Jeremy Corbyn in the Socialist Campaign Group, and with left trade unions to try and hold back the tide. Trade unions did manage to use their weight in the Party to exert some limited checks and balances on Blair’s policy agenda. And the weight of outrage at democratic stitch ups lost Labour seats – in Blaenau Gwent, in Falkirk East and of course most famously in London where Ken Livingstone, the members’ choice for Mayor, won as an independent.
Despite Blair’s agenda, left members stuck around long enough to see Jeremy Corbyn not just hold back the tide, but provide a whole new wave – a social movement that essentially took Labour back to its roots, which would genuinely stand up for the many not the few, and a democratic socialist party – ironically as outlined in Blair’s new Clause IV.
In 2017 that movement came within a whisker of power and therefore had to be smashed down by any means necessary by the establishment, using smears and lies and bias, which we faced not just from the Tories and the mainstream media but from within the Parliamentary Labour Party – whose personnel has been detrimentally affected by Blair’s stringent selection policies, which did not give CLPs the right to select the candidate of their choice in too many cases.
We are now back to having a Labour Leader who does not stand for significant structural change in economic power and resources, and who is cracking down on the left in ways in which even Blair did not attempt. We face a health crisis that is masking a massive transfer of wealth from poor to rich and a climate emergency that provides an existential threat to the planet.
A recent report from the New Economics Foundation (NEF) show that incomes for the bottom half of earners has fallen over the last two years while those at the upper end have soared. Pay settlements are running close to 2%, while RPI inflation is 6%, causing a deep cut in real wages. In the same period there has been a big increase in incomes for the top 5% of earners. While public spending rose under Blair, inequality also rose and we can see nothing from Starmer that suggests he favours any serious redistribution.
But we still have a solid core of our movement within the Party and many more outside who can see how deeply unjust and inadequate our political establishment is. I take heart, for example, from the 61% of women under the age of 35 who voted Labour in 2019 and that Labour had a 43-point lead amongst voters aged 18-24 in 2019.
We need to learn from and not rewrite history. Neither Blairism nor Starmerism have any answers to the crises we face and we must fight these tendencies in our movement so that we can properly fight the Tories and defend Labour as a democratic socialist party.
- Rachel Garnham is the Vice-Chair of the Campaign for Labour Party Democracy (CLPD), this article is a published version of a speech given at the Labour Outlook forum “No to Blair’s Knighthood – No Return to Blairism” on February 10th. You can watch the forum in full here.
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