When the magazine Marxism Today closed its doors in December of 1991, Tony Blair was the Labour Member of Parliament representing the seat of Sedgefield. He became Labour Leader in 1994 and the British Prime Minister in 1997.
Marxism Today came to life again in 1998 for a one-off edition with Tony Blair and the word ‘Wrong’ on the cover.
What prompted the magazine to reopen, albeit briefly, was its view that Blair, despite a promising start, had gone in the wrong direction.
Those who have been reading previous blogs will recall that the argument advanced by those who wrote for Marxism Today in the 1980s was that the left was in a more parlous state than it realised. Stuck in a past shaped by the welfare state, the left had lost touch with modernity. Margaret Thatcher, meanwhile, had grasped the significance of the changes taking place and had reshaped the Conservative message accordingly. So successful had Thatcher been, that voters saw her as the future and the left as the past.
Unless the left moved onto the ground of modernity, and thereby fundamentally transformed itself, it was destined for a slow but steady decline. This prognosis seemed accurate given that by 1991, Thatcher had already been Prime Minister for 11 years and the Conservative Party was to continue in power for another 7 years. Through much of the 18 years of Conservative rule the Labour Party was unelectable – and seemed to take a grim pride in that fact.
Tony Blair endured first-hand the repeated election defeats of the Labour Party. He first stood successfully for Labour (he had tried and failed before) in 1987. He reports in his biography that while he had enormous respect for key Labour figures like Michael Foot, Neil Kinnock and John Smith, he did not like losing one election after another, something he put down to the failure of the Party to modernise.
When John Smith died unexpectantly in in 1992, Blair decided it was time to put himself forward as the next leader. He won and over the next five years set about transforming Labour into New Labour. In 1997 he led the Labour Party out of the electoral wilderness into Government promising to create a New Britain.
The secret of his success, he would argue, was that he embraced modernity. Just as Thatcher did, he saw that trends like globalisation, the knowledge economy and individualisation were demanding changes in both the ideology and policy. He forced Labour to change. Significantly, he ensured that Labour broke its historic commitment to Clause 4 of the British Labour Party Constitution: “To secure for the workers by hand or by brain the full fruits of their industry and the most equitable distribution thereof that may be possible upon the basis of the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control of each industry or service”.
This was both an ideological break with the past and a severing of links with the union movement.
Blair saw these changes as essential if Labour was to move to the centre ground of politics and win the votes of the many people who no longer thought of themselves and their politics in terms of class or socialism.
In electoral terms, there is no doubt that his strategy worked. He went on to win three elections (making him the most successful Labour leader in British history) and during his time as Prime Minister he racked up many achievements on both the domestic and international front.
He became the face of Third Way politics – something that almost all centre-left parties across the world adopted in one form or another. He was, without doubt, a towering political figure.
But there is equally no doubt that something significant went wrong during the time of his leadership that meant his embrace of modernity did not lead to the enduring repositioning of centre-left politics that he hoped for. Critics point to his close relationship with President George W. Bush, the invasion of Iraq in search of non-existent weapons of mass destruction (WMDs), his failure to adequately address inequality and his promotion of London as the centre of financial capitalism (something associated with the housing boom, too easy credit and the Global Financial Crisis) as reasons for his failure. Yet, for me, his biggest failure was his misunderstanding of what an accurate response to modernity entailed.
For Blair, the massive changes he saw around him required a response that went beyond the old positions of left and right. He did not see that a response could be inflected towards either greater inequality, deregulation and increased fragmentation or towards greater equity, more social intervention and enhanced social solidarity. By contrast, Thatcher had held the view that there was only one response, a right-wing response. There was, as the saying goes, no alternative. Unfortunately, Blair’s insistence that he was only interested in “what works” led to him accepting much of what Thatcher had put in place. No wonder Thatcher once remarked that she regarded Blair as one of her most important achievements.
It was - Blair tended to think that modernity could be treated as some non-ideological neutral phenomenon rendering terms like left and right as obsolete, superfluous, irrelevant and, perhaps, even dangerous obstacles to progress.
In this he was partially correct. Defined in traditional terms, the concerns of the left and right far from exhausted the political agenda that had emerged in the many decades since the consolidation of the welfare state. But, as we can see today, the difference between them still occupies the core of many of the fundamental choices that confront society.
It can be reasonably argued that because Blair abandoned the idea of Labour as a party of the left or centre-left in favour of terms like radical centre, that his ‘project’ became fuzzy and limited. His embrace of modernity was accordingly reduced to an embrace of modernisation. He saw government as professional management and problem-solving, somewhat along the lines of managing a corporation (this is made abundantly clear in his autobiography when he talks about the way he approached policy).
Here, then, is the missed opportunity. Blair’s task was not just to embrace modernity, it was to offer a different point of view about how it could be understood and addressed. He had the opportunity to mark a fundamental break with the neo-liberal era. Since the 1970s, modernity had been characterised by a loss of control resulting from the free-market globalisation, together with a huge increase in inequality and a decline in the sense of the social. None of this was inevitable, but Blair thought it was and characterised globalisation as fact as natural as the tide going in and out.
But none of what happened through the last decades of the 20th century was an inevitable fact of nature. It was a deliberate creation of the Thatcher/Reagan era. People made it happen (Colin Crouch is excellent on this point – see references below).
Blair’s task was not to accommodate or, in the words of Will Hutton, capitulate to the neoliberal world, it was to offer an alternative.
I want to pause here to reiterate that I am not in the camp that sees Blair as simply wrong. His was a competent and compassionate government. He was in a different league as a politician to his many predecessors and contemporaries. The scale and number of his achievements mean he should be remembered as having made a significant progressive contribution.
But Blair claimed he was going beyond what is to be expected of a normal administration. He claimed to have a project that would create a New Britain, breaking not just with Labour’s history but with the world as it was known.
This is a heroic claim which makes being able to paint the Big Picture critical. Blair always said he had the Big Picture in front of him, but in the hurly burly of government perhaps he forgot. Or more accurately, he took it for granted that he and everyone around him new what that picture was. Comfortable in that knowledge he could get on with the day to day business of rolling out specific policy.
In his biography he talks about the enormous pressures of running a modern government. He laments that where Winston Churchill could think before deciding, a modern Prime Minister has to make instant decisions to fit the news cycle. He talks about modern leaders spending less and less time on doing their core job because of the demands of communicating, holding meetings and being seen in public. The result is that the destination aimed for fades as the demand to deal with urgent matters becomes overwhelming.
Yet, if something new is to be created, both a picture of the future and specific policies are needed.
What this means is that we can fairly ask if Blair broke with the neo-liberal era, or was he still operating within its parameters.
This a question all governments of the past few decades who have professed to be different to the neo-liberal change makers of the past need to answer. In the New Zealand case, Roger Douglas, the Minister of Finance Minister in the fourth Labour Government that drove the deregulation agenda can claim even today that no one has made a serious change to the policy framework he put in place – he is right.
And it is largely true of Blair. For all the talk of a new era, it is the continuities that mark his time in office not the ruptures.
Perhaps we should not judge Blair too harshly (especially those of us who also have to accept we did not change the basic paradigm) because the neoliberal framework has proven to be remarkably resilient. Financial crash after financial crash over recent decades has not resulted in any serious effort to dismantle the neoliberal framework.
Although time will tell if the current populist revolt toward a nationalist, protectionist, nativist world is going to effect that change.
What we do know is that New Labour did not in fact mean a New Britain. For the most part, Blair accepted the cards he had been dealt and did not much more than rearrange them.
Yet the challenge continues. We have been shown time and again that markets do not self-balance, that they can wreck economies and lives – that they need controlling. Having not addressed this problem, it can be argued that Blair and governments like his laid the pathway for the populist movements that scar the political landscape today (this is the view of Chantal Mouffe).
All of this is hard to credit when it is remembered where Blair began. It seemed when he was elected that all things were possible. Blair seemed to be the most adept politician of his age, handling each challenge with ease. This was the time of Cool Britannia and Britain as the way of the future. But it did not turn out that way. (Note that all of this has a familiar ring to it for those who were around to witness the arrival of the Fourth Labour Government in 1984).
As we are talking about Britain, we must remember too that what Blair had to say went global. Third Wayism swept across the world. Clinton’s Secretary of Labour Robert Reich declared, “We are all Third Wayers Now”.
It would be churlish to deny Blair his victories. But there is no getting around fact that he did little to disturb the fundamental architecture of neoliberalism.
But is this the way it must be? In recent years a sense of new possibilities has re-emerged among governments and voters. But it has, unfortunately, emerged mostly on the populist right and left who promise supporters things that they simply cannot deliver. Nor should we want them to when they seek always to divide people against each other.
What we need is for the kind of aspirant, generous, progressive politics that Blair represented to offer a coherent, credible, possible future. A future that does not assume the future is preordained, but rather it is open to being shaped in ways promise a better world for the many and not just the few.
In recent years, in the shadow of populists, Blair has declared that he no longer understands politics. But that has not stopped him continuing the claim that new politics must transcend the old left right boundaries. He now uses the words open (meaning global) versus closed (meaning national and local) to describe the new terrain of politics. There is merit in the argument, although Blair does undermine himself by suggesting that those who claim to be open are morally superior to those he calls closed.
Let me end on an optimistic note. For all the bluster of the populist right and left, they are not making the progress they hope for. Among voters in all democracies there are doubters. They can see that false hope is being offered. They are ready to listen to politicians who understand that their job is not just to embrace modernity but to offer a real alternative.
Next: New Zealand Labour and the Third Way.
Crouch, C. (2018) Can Neoliberalism be Saved from Itself? Social Europe Edition.
Beckett, A. (2018) ‘The death of consensus politics: How conflict came back into politics’ The Guardian 20 Sept.
Blair, T. (1996) New Britain: My vision for a young country Fourth Estate: London.
Blair, T. (2011) A Journey Arrow Books: London.
Blair, T (1998) New politics for a new century’ The Independent September 21
Giddens, A. (2010) ‘The rise and fall of New Labour’ New Statesman 17 May
Hearse, P. ‘Shipwreck on the Third Way: Tony Blair, New Labour and Inequality’. https:prruk.org/shipwreck-on-the-third-way-tony-blair-new-labour-and-inequality
Hutton, W. (2010) Them and Us: Changing Britain – Why We Need a Fair Society Little, Brown London.
Hobsbawn, E. et al. (1998) Marxism Today Nov/Dec.
Reich, R. (1999) ‘We are all Third Wayers now’ The Atlantic March-April.