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Should the Labour Party revert to Blairism?

December 14, 2019

In the wake of Labour’s worst performance at a General Election (in terms of seats won) since 1935, there is a strong current of opinion both within and outside the Party that it needs to return to Blairite strategy and policies. I’ll summarise this argument, before posing some questions and problems which Blairites would need to answer for their argument to be convincing.

 

The Blairite argument points to the fact that Tony Blair won three general elections by placing the Labour Party in the centre ground, with moderate policies on the economy, law and order, and defence and security which are designed to appeal not just to the Labour membership, but to floating voters who may often feel drawn to, or actually vote for, the Conservatives, or other parties to the right of Labour. Blairites point to the fact that, without this strategy, Labour has really struggled to win general elections: any leader who has drifted too far from the centre ground by being too left-wing on economic and other issues, such as Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock, Ed Miliband, and now Jeremy Corbyn, has failed to win. Even if more radical left-wing policies would be morally and practically justified, the Blairite can say, there is no point proposing these policies if the Party cannot win the power necessary to implement them. So the best bet from any point of view is to set up stalls as a moderate party, win an election, and at least be able to help *some* of the poor and disenfranchised with that moderate, but still progressive, manifesto.

 

One part of Labour’s recent electoral history may not seem to sit comfortably with the Blairite argument: Gordon Brown’s 2010 loss, which after all was a Blairite loss. However, this doesn’t seem to threaten the Blairite argument too much. Consider that the 2010 election came in the context of the financial crisis, which made it difficult for incumbents to hold their seats. Also, everyone agrees that the Blairite strategy doesn’t *guarantee* victory. It just makes it possible.

 

The Blairite argument might seem formidable, based on incontestable historical evidence as it is. After the pain of the last few days, Labour members might feel lurching back to Blairism is the only sensible option.

 

I am not convinced. I think a Blairite strategy at this time would face serious problems. These problems might be surmountable, but I think advocates of Blairism need to engage with them seriously, if they hope to persuade the party that their way is the only practical one. So when I pose these problems, I do so in the spirit of kick-starting a debate.

 

If I had to sum it up in one sentence, my concern about Blairism is that being a Blairite in 2019 seems to be to continue politics as though the financial crisis and the subsequent economic and political fallout never happened.

 

Problem 1: The Financial Crisis and Economic Policy Today

 

I mentioned that, from the Blairite point of view, Brown’s 2010 loss is an exception to the rule, which came in extreme circumstances, created not least by the 2008 financial crisis.

 

The trouble is that *every* election since 2008 has been shaped by the extreme circumstances of the 2008 financial crisis and its fallout. When the economy was steadily growing, people generally felt their lot in life was improving, and we generally perceived the scourges of poverty and inequality to be in decline, having a moderate, centrist economic policy seemed perfectly sensible, pragmatic, and likely to be popular. I don’t dispute that New Labour’s spending on health and education benefitted many people.

 

The economic circumstances we face today are just utterly different, and it’s not clear that moderate policies are going to cut it any more, either in terms of practical impact or electoral popularity. Inequality is rapidly rising, poverty (including in-work poverty) and homelessness are through the roof, public services like the NHS are massively strained in a way they were not 15 years ago, and economic growth has been patchy and low.

 

The danger for Labour if we follow a Blairite route on the economy is that we will be seen as a status-quo party. (If you want an example of how toxic it can be for a party to be perceived this way, consider Hillary Clinton’s fortunes in 2016). Many people are really suffering from the economic fallout of the financial crisis and the austerity which followed it, and Labour cannot afford to be seen as a Party which will neglect such citizens by settling for modest reforms and modest increases in spending on crucial public services, which arguably avoids getting at the root of the problems.

 

You might be thinking, “Hang on! If this is all true, why aren’t the Conservatives suffering at the ballot box for not promising to help these people more?” Two reasons: first, Johnson actually promised quite significant increases in public spending in this campaign (unusually for the Tories). Second, the Tories have avoided being seen as a status-quo party by promising to clamp down on immigration, through Brexit and by offering a more austere Australian-style points-based immigration system. Many voters, particularly in the areas lost by Labour in this election, see immigration as a threat to their own economic status and a drain on public services.

 

To sum up, it’s unclear whether the economic strategy which worked for Labour pre-2008 will work post-2008. Would a moderate platform do enough to answer the much greater economic anxieties and problems people now face in this country compared to Blair’s days? Also, would a Blairite economic policy lead Labour to be perceived as a party of the status quo which offers nothing different?

 

Problem 2: Brexit and Immigration

 

Plainly, Brexit was a big issue in this election, and one of the main reasons people voted for Brexit in 2016 and voted for the Tories last Thursday is because they have concerns about immigration. What would a Blairite Labour leader have to say on these crucial issues?

 

Blair himself is a staunch Remainer and supported a second referendum on Europe, like Corbyn did in the end. The majority of Blairites in the party are, it seems to me, also Remainers and liberal on immigration. So one option would be to elect a Blairite leader who is liberal on immigration and campaigned against Brexit. The problem is that it is highly unclear whether such a leader would go down any better with Leave voters and anti-immigration voters who used to vote Labour than Corbyn did. Perhaps the contrast in Labour’s fortunes between 2017 and 2019 can be explained, at least in part, because Corbyn endorsed a second referendum in the latter, but not the former, election. If so, a Remainer Blairite leader would not help matters.

 

Again, the 2008 crisis has changed the playing field. Immigration is now a burning issue for the electorate, as it never was in the Blair years.

 

You might be thinking that this issue will go away after Brexit is resolved. I am sceptical about that: the issues of multiculturalism and immigration transcend Brexit. Brexit will not stop migration altogether, and even if it did, we are seeing across Europe that far-right policies, like banning the burqa, are gaining popularity. The issues Brexit raises are not going away any time soon. The EU referendum brought a spotlight to how deeply the country already was on the issues surrounding multiculturalism and immigration. Those tensions pre-date Brexit and will persist after it.

 

A Blairite Labour leader would, then, have to take a stand on these issues. The traditional Blairite liberal stance, though, whatever its merits, seems unlikely to help win the crucial votes Labour lost in this election. On the other hand, even if a Leave-supporting Blairite can be found to lead the party (and it’s not obvious who this would be), one concern would be that it might get hard to distinguish such a leader’s views and policies from the Conservatives’. On top of that, such a Labour leader would alienate vast swathes of existing Labour support, including myself (I am a staunch socialist, but cannot support an anti-immigration nationalist party).

 

You might suggest a Blairite leader should try to stay quiet on these issues. Well, that sounds a lot like repeating Corbyn’s 2019 strategy of staying neutral on Brexit. Since that didn’t work, we should think very carefully before doing the same again.

 

To sum up, on the crucial issues of Brexit and immigration, it’s just not clear that reverting to Blairism would help in any way. Since the financial crisis changed the playing field and brought the issue of immigration to the fore, it’s not easy to see how to adapt Blairism to meet this challenge in a way that avoids major problems.

 

In many ways, Corbynism seems to have a better answer to economic anxieties and concerns about immigration than Blairism. In response to concerns about immigration, the Corbynist can say: actually, your problems are not caused by migration or migrants, but by a rigged economic system which is producing horrible inequality, and needs fundamental reform. (This is why I continue to think that Sanders has the best chance against Trump of any potential Democratic candidate). By contrast, the Blairite does not want ambitious economic reform, and they probably don’t want to radically change tack on immigration and multiculturalism either. So it’s not obvious to me how Blairism promises to engage with the kind of voters Labour needs to win back.

 

Of course, if the basic left-wing tenets of Corbynism are retained, we must make changes in other areas to do better next time. I have two suggestions here. First, the next leader needs to take major action to cleanse the party of anti-Semitism by introducing a zero-tolerance policy to all forms of racism, which actually rids the party of those guilty of racism in a swift, but fair, manner. This is the right thing to do and should ensure that the next leader is viewed more favourably by the public. Second, I think the next leader should have less radical views than Corbyn on foreign policy. Plainly, Corbyn’s history of friendly or semi-friendly stances towards what most voters regard as hostile groups, like the IRA and Hamas, goes down terribly on many doorsteps.

 

If we make changes on these important issues, perhaps a leader on the left of the party could still make headway at the ballot box. In any case, it’s far from clear that Blairism would help, for the reasons I outlined above. I invite other Labour members, though, to answer my concerns about the prospects of Blairism. Ultimately, we’ve got to find the best strategy for getting a Labour government, and if I can be convinced that *is* Blairism, I’ll happily jump on board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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