The rise of post-Blairism

A floundering alliance of Blairites is trying to reinvent itself for a Corbynite age. By Tom Costello.

February 22, 2018
9 min read

It’s fair to say that Labour’s parliamentary right is in a tough place in the aftermath of last year’s general election result. As excellently documented in the BBC documentary Labour: the Summer that Changed Everything, the much-maligned Blairite wing of the Labour Party faced humiliation in the wake of Corbyn’s runaway electoral success. The party, following a loss of seats through four separate elections in a row, faced relative victory in the wake of a 9.6% swing in its favour – only 0.1% lower than that of Clement Attlee in 1945. All of this had taken place within the context of their faction arguing tirelessly that a shift even further to the right would save Labour from destruction under Corbyn’s “devious” influence, as Margaret Hodge claimed in June 2016.

Such humiliation leaves this dinosaur faction with two possibilities. Either it can remain openly and honestly Blairite in the face of Corbyn’s popularity surge both in and out of Labour, or it can ‘modernise’ all over again and cloak its message in the language of the left, while continuing in its assault on the growing power of the left within the party. Thus far, a small yet vocal minority of Labour activists have taken the former route and happily placed themselves within the tradition of Blair, on the basis of an honest ideological commitment to the goal of a pro-capitalist Labour Party. Just over three weeks before Corbyn’s initial election as Labour leader in September 2015, right-winger John Woodcock penned an article in The Independent, dismissing Corbyn’s politics as those of the “hard left” and engaging in the usual array of garden variety slanders against the Militant Tendency in Liverpool and Coventry. Luke Akehurst, the now infamous chairman of Labour First, a troublesome ‘party within a party’ for the Blairites, engaged in guilt by association tactics that wouldn’t be out of place in the worst elements of the capitalist press. Corbyn’s manifesto was declared to be reminiscent of “authoritarian Venezuela and Cuba”, whilst staunchly defending the legacy of Blair on the basis of him supposedly “tackling poverty and inequality”.

A sizable portion of the Parliamentary Labour Party and a much smaller portion of Labour’s rank-and-file membership have approached the latter method. These tactics, defined by Blairism re-dressing itself in the rhetoric and language of the left, represents their chronic failure to remain relevant. This phenomenon is best described as ‘post-Blairism’ – defined not so much by an ideological shift as by a complete dishonesty about the nature of its Blairite ideology.

One of the founding documents of Blair’s political project was his Fabian Society pamphlet entitled The Third Way: New Politics for the New Century. The work was published in the entirely different political climate of 1998, in which it was considered mainstream. Labour clung to the utopian fantasy of the socially responsible capitalist economy that Blair promised. Before he failed to deliver on this promise, it was not uncommon within the Labour Party to parrot the rhetoric of Thatcherism in describing the failures of past Labour governments; Blair openly blamed nationalisation and the power of trade unions for the economic crisis of the late 1970s in his pamphlet. By the standards of today’s Labour Party, however, it would be far more likely that if one was to come out with these positions, it could well be met with the dreaded sentence: ‘you sound like Tony Blair’.

Consequently, the rhetoric and language of Blairism has morphed beyond recognition. Yet, in terms of the role it plays in party life, it has remained firmly the same. From day one, if we disregard Blair’s rhetoric about a ‘socially responsible’ Thatcherism, Blairism existed as a force that, almost by design, exists to push the Labour Party to the right. As a movement, Blairism existed as a heavy injection of Thatcherite elements into the party as part of a sort of ‘counter-revolutionary’ insurgency against the presence of both left-reformist and Trotskyist elements within the rank-and-file membership. It is these characteristics that are fundamentally shared by both Blairism and post-Blairism.

Because of this, post-Blairism has a contradictory character. On one hand, it is thoroughly reactionary in attempting to push down the brakes on the growing popularity of socialist ideas. Yet it does so through donning the language of these emerging socialist elements.

Post-Blairism in practise

This discussion of the defining characteristics of post-Blairism begs the question: who exactly are these people and where can they be found? To answer this question, we need to look no further than a number of people in Corbyn’s own shadow cabinet.

For starters, we have a man who could be labelled the absolute pinnacle of post-Blairite posturing: Owen Smith. The man who dealt a significant blow to Labour’s electoral chances by spearheading an attempted coup against Corbyn’s leadership, Smith could be said to epitomise this phenomenon. On one hand, this was a man who represented a clear and concerted effort to push Labour’s political positions to the right. He was happy to distance himself from Corbyn’s “lunatic” left positions, clearly resembling the old gutter press trope of the ‘loony’ left. Yet, on the other hand, Smith was conscious to market himself as a left-winger as a means of pandering to Corbyn’s fanbase – presumably using his training from a very Blairite past as a pharmaceutical company lobbyist with Pfizer. This pandering realized itself in his calls for a fresh “socialist revolution” to smash austerity.

One of Smith’s best known supporters during this period was Sadiq Khan, who, funnily enough, can be just as easily branded a ‘post-Blairite’. Following his election as London Mayor in 2015, Khan promoted himself as an ally to Corbyn both personally and politically. Yet, in the context of the leadership challenge, Khan sided decisively with Smith. In true post-Blairite fashion, however, Khan made no reference to the need for a pro-capitalist Labour Party in the way that traditional Blairism always has. Instead, Khan was hinting at Smith’s supposed status as a figure for the Labour left to admire. In particular, his claim that Smith was a passionate opponent of the Iraq War – a claim later revealed to be a grand lie on Smith’s part.

This tendency for post-Blairites to adopt the phrases and slogans of the left in its crusade to reclaim Labour for the right seems to know few bounds. In particular, the emergence of post-Blairite ‘left’ sloganeering reared its ugly head in parliament during debates over air strikes in Syria in December 2015. Within the debate, the post-Blairite elements of the PLP came out in droves to support Hilary Benn in his proclamation that air strikes ought to take place, This is nothing out of the ordinary, even by the standards of traditional Blairism. Yet, what made this distinctly post-Blairite was Benn’s rather unsavoury reference point for his rhetoric in claiming that an imperialist bombing campaign was in any way analogous to the masses of socialists and class fighters who risked their lives to fight Franco’s dictatorship in Spain in the late 1930s.

Most disturbingly, post-Blairism appears to have the ability to rear its head in almost all facets of political life within the Labour Party. Progress, another right wing ‘party within a party’, published an article in October 2017 that hailed NATO as an “international socialist” organization, almost to the point of attempting to replicate the language of the Trotskyists that they routinely engage in vitriolic red-scares against.

If post-Blairism is to be defined succinctly, it is most helpful to point to its character as a reactionary trend that seeks to cloak its reactionary character in dressing up precisely as that thing that it attempts to destroy. And it is this defining trait that makes post-Blairism a trend to fear almost more than Blairism itself. At least with the original disciples of Blair, Mandelson and Campbell, it was clear what the left was dealing with. With post-Blairism, on the hand, socialists in and out of the Labour Party ought to retain a hyper-awareness of this growing trend if it wants to guarantee a lasting influence. The illusions of post-Blairism as a bona fide ‘left’ current remain stronger than ever during this period of relative calm among the factions of the Labour Party, but the left cannot forget this: post-Blairism is still Blairism by design, and it ought to be treated as such.

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