It is undoubtedly true that Tony Blair’s leadership took Labour well to the right. Some of what happened was an essential re-shaping of the democratic left agenda for the 21st century: a move away from statism to a new understanding of the relationship between individualism and collectivism; an embracing of entrepreneurialism alongside social justice; and a vision of society rather more in tune with the times, and with the needs of ordinary people.
But some of what happened went much further: the dogmatic belief that the private sector’s engagement will always improve public services, for example; or the adoption (alongside Bush and the neo-cons) of a democratic-imperialist approach to foreign policy and intervention.
Let’s look for a moment at the record. Some of it is good.
Some of the big things that have been done (especially in the early years) have been wholly welcome: the introduction of the minimum wage, the legislation for devolution, the sustained improvements in child support, especially through child benefit, the major increases in public investment in health and education, the commitment to overseas aid and development, the peace process in Northern Ireland. And some of the smaller things, too, have represented the radicalism many of us had hoped for: civil partnerships, free museums, a right to roam, or the Scottish Land Fund, helping crofters to buy out their landlords.
Not everything on the balance sheet is as good. Set alongside the items on the progressive side of the equation are the following: the unquestioning adoption of PFI, the growing gap between rich and poor, the replacement of Trident, and above all the tragic, ghastly blunder of the war in Iraq. There’s been real achievement but there have been mistakes and disappointments aplenty.
Meanwhile, the party at large yearns not for a return to statism but for a greater degree of radicalism in the approach to many of these issues. And where have been the voices making this case, where have been the noises of dissent? They’ve been there, from time to time, not so much arguing for turning the clock back, but for a different kind of turning-forward.
Let’s not forget, either, that 130 Labour MPs went into the division lobby against their own government to vote against the war in Iraq, the biggest rebellion in the Commons within a government’s own ranks for more than a century; and if it hadn’t been for Tory support we wouldn’t have gone to war. There has certainly been dissent, on some issues and at some times, but for most of the time it has tended to be moderated (rightly) by a sense of loyalty.
With Gordon Brown’s election as leader we have a chance to shape a new agenda. Gordon is of course much more deeply rooted in the party and its values than Tony was. He feels more passionately about poverty and individual attainment with collective support. The mood music is good. My guess is that there’ll be less need for dissent, and less cause for frustration, in the next few years. But we’ll need to continue to press for that radical edge that has lately been too much missed.
#229 No Return to ‘Normal’ ● Sir David King blasts the government ● State power, policing and civil rights under Covid-19 ● Hope and determination in grassroots resistance ● Black liberation and Palestine ● The future of ‘live’ ● Pubs, patriotism and precarity ● Latest book reviews ● And much more!
And you choose how much to pay for your subscription...
Following major defeats, the left on both sides of the Atlantic must urgently get stuck into community organising, movement building and political education, argues Joe Guinan
The sale of Robin Hood Energy doesn’t mean public ownership doesn’t work, but that we need to be more ambitious, argues Edward Dingwall
The role Labour plays in maintaining the capitalist state makes it a crucial site for socialists to organise within, argues Luke Evans
Sabrina Huck kicks off the debate on Labour and the left with a re-reading of Dutschke, with an introduction by Hilary Wainwright
Democracy isn’t a distraction, says Deborah Hermanns - it’s the only way to transform Momentum and the Labour Party and effectively build power in our communities.
Aisling Gallagher explains why Liz Truss’ recent rhetoric on proposed reforms to the Gender Recognition Act signals a worrying shift.