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Things only got bitter — 25 years on from the New Labour government

Keir Starmer is learning all the wrong lessons from Tony Blair's time in office
Issue 2084
Tony Blair on Eve of 1997 General Election. Alamy

Tony Blair on eve of 1997 General Election (Picture: Alamy)

Keir Starmer doesn’t want to wear New Labour’s mantle so much as dig up its corpse and parade around in its skin. That’s why he exhumed the haunted visage of Tony Blair to appear on video and stare, dead-eyed, into the camera for a pre-election endorsement the other week.

After reciting what he says were New Labour’s achievements after its 1997 election, 25 years ago this month, Blair says Starmer is on the same path. “Today after four defeats, just as in 1997, we have a new leadership and a new sense of purpose and mission,” he said. “Keir Starmer has shown strength, determination and intelligence in setting Labour back on a winning path.”

Shifting to the right—or the centre ground as Labour politicians would put it—is about being “disciplined to win” and “dedicated to winning power.” In Labour mythology, burying the left and adopting the right wing politics of business, patriotism and “security” was key to victory in 1997.

That delusion is certainly something Blair and Starmer have in common. As their version of events goes, Blair won because of the support of a new, “aspirational” middle class that had grown during the Tory governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major.

In reality, the years before Labour’s election had been ones of class warfare. Ordinary people had suffered assault after assault and, in some cases, fought back. Workers had recently fought big battles against the Tories over mine closures and the poll tax.

Public sector workers were fighting attacks on their pay—the latest in 18 years of job cuts and pay cuts faced by all workers. Public services had become worse and more expensive after privatisation. There was anger at the police and racism too. The Tories passed a bill in 1994 to give more stop and search powers to the police, which they used to target mainly young black people. The Nazi British National Party had grown in the early 90s, and cops had sometimes violently attacked anti-Nazi marches.

By 1997, Major’s government was hated. The collapse of the pound and soaring interest rates on Black Wednesday in September 1992 shattered any shred of belief in its economic competence. There was widespread rejection of the results of the neoliberal assaults. This mood was so strong that almost any Labour leader would have won and the “social liberalism” peddled by Blair could triumph.

Blair and his supporters ignored all this. Their reinvention of Labour wasn’t really about adapting to what ordinary people wanted—but to the needs of big business. Until Blair, Labour had always promised to try and run society in the interests of workers. But Labour in government always has to face up to those with real power—the bankers, the bosses and the big business owners.

Labour governments before Blair found this out to their cost. Harold Wilson was first elected on a raft of left wing promises. He gave them up pretty quickly when the governor of the Bank of England demanded wage freezes and cuts to social services. The next Labour prime minister, James Callaghan, tried to cap workers’ wages to make them pay for an economic crisis—and provoked a massive wave of strikes.

By 1997 bosses were demanding a government that would continue Tory Margaret Thatcher’s job of privatising industry and driving down wages. Blair’s answer was to reinvent Labour completely—as New Labour. New Labour accepted Thatcher’s idea that competition and the market were better than planning and regulation, then tacked on vague promises about “social justice”.

Two of its biggest champions Peter Mandelson and Roger Liddle wrote at the time that New Labour’s job was “to move forward from where Margaret Thatcher left off”. There would be no more old Labour “tax and spend”—but staying faithful to the Tories’ own budget promises. There would be an end to state-run industries and public services, and an enthusiasm for privatisation. And the party’s decades-long link to the union leaders would be weakened if not severed.

Mandelson and Liddle complained unions had “impeded industry”. And in 1997 Blair insisted, “We will not be held to ransom by the unions. We will not cave into unrealistic pay demands from anybody. We will stand up to strikes.” In the hope of a Labour government, most union leaders enthusiastically backed the project anyway.

Blair symbolically ditched Labour’s “Clause 4” commitment to public ownership of industry in favour of a more woolly “community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few”. As his Labour Party got closer to government, it dropped even its vague promises about redistribution of wealth. It turned out “social justice” meant giving police more powers and attacking benefits.

Blair and Brown’s Labour governments pushed through privatisation in schools and hospitals, and massively expanded the disastrous Public Finance Initiative and academy schools. They slashed public sector wages and jobs. They built fewer council homes during their entire time in government than Thatcher did in one year. Meanwhile average wages fell. They also refused to get rid of the anti-union laws Thatcher introduced.

Today Labour Party members sometimes talk of all the “achievements” of the Blair government. But Sure Start was about a “good start” in learning, but was also about interventions into “dysfunctional” families and enabling more women to do part time work. And the minimum wage didn’t stop the gap between rich and poor from being wider after a decade of New Labour than at any point under Margaret Thatcher. And when they boast of how it won three elections under Blair, remind them of how he also oversaw the collapse of its support.

Blair gambled that Labour could oversee all this without losing its working class voters, simply because there was no one else to vote for. Instead Labour haemorrhaged votes almost immediately. Labour got less votes in its landslide in 1997—13.5 million—than the Tories’ 14 million in 1992.  By 2001, it was down to ten million—fewer than the votes Neil Kinnock lost with in 1992. This was made immensely worse by the war on Iraq, which eventually saw the end of Blair’s leadership in 2006. By 2005 Labour’s was down to 9.5 million, and in 2010 it was booted out with just over 8.5 million.

This process is at the heart of Labour’s crisis today. Except for the general election in 2017—when Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership appeared a genuine alternative—Labour’s decline continued. That’s because Labour not only failed to halt decades of assaults on working class living standards—but for many of those years oversaw them.

Keir Starmer’s answer is more of the same. Unlike Blair he wants to win back the support of business not by reinventing Labour, but by proving bosses he can make the pro-business zombie live again. The lesson of the Blair years is that, even if successful, that type of Labour government will bring horror to working class people. It’s the sort of party no socialist should be seen dead in.

Expectation versus reality

There was a gaping chasm between what people expected of a Labour government and what Blair offered. Blair promised to cut benefits for instance. Yet in the 1996 British Social Attitudes Survey, 55 percent of people believed that “unemployment benefit is too low and causes hardship”. The survey—and other polls like it—didn’t just show that ordinary people’s opinions were generally to the left of Labour’s. Blair declared the era of class—and class struggle—was over. As he told Labour’s conference in 1996, “There are no longer bosses and workers, them and us,” in Britain.

The 1991 British Social Attitudes Survey found 46 percent described themselves as working class. Another 18 percent said they were “upper working class” while another 4 percent simply said they were “poor”. Not only that, in 1996 between 66 and 75 percent of people—depending on what area of the country they lived in—agreed that “there is one law for the rich and one for the poor”.While Blair championed big business as the agent of progress, between 56 and 66 percent agreed that “big business benefits owners at the expense of workers.” And—most bluntly of all—a Gallup poll that year found that 76 people thought there was a class struggle in Britain.

Today, the Social Attitudes Survey once more shows people’s opinions generally to the left of Labour—and again that they feel a class divide. Some 67 percent of people in 2021 agreed “there is one law for the rich and another for the poor,” and 64 percent that “ordinary people do not get their fair share of the nation’s wealth.”

This time it doesn’t ask whether they believe there’s a class war. But the answer—and the alternative to Labour—is that there should be.


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