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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.