“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” George Burns.
Last week Tony Blair came to Kings College on the 120th anniversary of the founding of the Labour Party to seek to bury it.
Four core points stuck out from a word cloud of vaguely progressive sounding phrases that were otherwise as substantial and hard edged as a bowl of blancmanc.
1) That Labour has only been in power for a quarter of its history.
2) That elections are won “on the centre ground” by “broadening the coalition”.
3) There is a need for a “progressive realignment” with the Liberal Democrats – on an entirely undefined political prospectus.
4) That the current membership of the Labour Party is full of people who are an obstacle to this – because of their commitment to “old fashioned” things like public ownership (and peace) and are therefore a problem.
This is the Third Way greatest hits playlist. He even re-heated his old “gotcha” anecdote about a Party member in the early 90s complaining that Blair’s strategy was to get people who voted Tory to vote Labour – but changed the context and the gender of the member in the retelling, thereby making it about as plausible as David Cameron’s “I met a black man once” story. The laughter that greets this story as the penny drops is designed to obscure the content of the complaint (if there ever was one); that he was aiming to make Labour safe for Tory voters by being as much like the Tories as possible; and that is more of a problem than he seems to think.
His notion that somehow Labour should have been in power far more often reveals that he either does not grasp – or seeks to ignore – the fact that Labour was set up 120 years ago to give the working class a voice and has therefore always been more of a cross class coalition than either the Liberals or Conservatives; which have always been unambiguously ruling class parties. Even though the currents that seek to be “statesmanlike” and “credible” and “a reliable Party of government” have usually been in the ascendancy, letting Labour into office is therefore a concession by the powers that be that they would really rather never make. Labour is therefore always playing uphill with the wind in its face – even at the most favourable of times.
The key phrase he used here is “you decide first and unite after”. And what he wants unity on is a significant move rightwards. He skids over what this might consist of and just how far right he wants to move so as not to scare the horses in the middle of a leadership election. A way to imagine it is to recall that he put a lot of effort into courting Rupert Murdoch and had the endorsement of the Sun in 1997. Think about what policies you’d have to adopt to get such an endorsement now and that’s your Blair manifesto for 2024.
This is of course entirely consistent with the practice of the right of the Party during Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. They did not agree with the decision of the members, so they did not unite; and many of them worked “every single day to bring forward the end of his tenure in Office” Peter Mandelson (1). Given the daily quantities of ordure dropped on Jeremy Corbyn from a great height since 2015 – with such significant sections of the Parliamentary Labour Party declaring him “unfit for office” right up to polling day – its quite miraculous we did as well as we did in the December election. Despite these attacks, Corbyn’s leadership and politics led to our two highest popular votes out of the four general elections held since the the 2008 crash and its important to register that, lest we lose ground in future. It should also be noted that Boris Johnson has given Ian Austen and John Woodcock peerages in eternal gratitude. Peter Mandelson already has one.
What is striking about this speech is the things he misses. He misses out the 2008 crash – and the impact this has had on removing the conditions for his sort of economic and political framework – altogether. He mentions the climate crisis but in an extraordinarily complacent way; as though its all in hand and will be taken care of one way or another by the wealthy and intelligent people (like him) who run the planet. He doesn’t mention the completely catastrophic economic and political course being followed by the United States in sabotaging the Paris process and doubling down on fossil fuels in an attempt to stave off the rise of China – scheduled to have an economy much bigger than the US by 2030 at current rates of growth. Nor that if the US succeeds we’re screwed and if they fail (given the scale of the Chinese investment in renewables) – there’s some hope. Its not surprising that he does this given his “pro western” orientation (which is entirely consistent – it seems- with him offering lucrative advice to the President of Kazakhstan).
His comments on antisemitism are very revealing. The problem he says is not so much antisemitism, but “the world view” of people who are pro Palestinian, or the “hard left” in general. That world view is opposition to imperialism; which he sees as not “patriotic” and “anti Western”. The distinction between antisemitism and people having a dim view of Israel passes him by because he wants to elide the two. If they were in fact one and the same, the 54% of people in the UK who have a negative view of Israel would translate into a comparable figure for racist attitudes towards Jewish people. It doesn’t – thankfully. The rate for that is 4%. He ducked a question about military interventions – lest we remember what his abject subordination to the United States led to and how many people died as a result.
He uses lots of soothing phrases in a comforting montage of cliches – that all sound good if you like political muzak but have no content. “Modern”. “Future”. “Forward looking”. But on what we’d need to do he has nothing to say apart from negatives. He says the right will respond to the climate crisis and Artificial Intelligence in the wrong way, but doesn’t spell out how, nor what the correct way might be. The left way forward – the colossal state investment in the green transition that’s being done in China, and was being done in Bolivia until the coup – he dismisses as old fashioned stateism that the “public” is bound to reject. The close election result in 2017 passed him by it seems. The problem with this is that if we never elect a government that will do what needs to be done with democratic consent, and popular mobilisation, to do it, we will end up faced with one that does far more authoritarian things as a matter of necessity when the consequences of inaction are crashing life support systems all around us (and many of us will die as a result). As the The Age of Consequences: The Foreign Policy and National Security implications of Global Climate Change report chillingly put it “Governments with resources will be forced to engage in long nightmarish episodes of triage; deciding what and who can be salvaged from engulfment by a disordered environment. The choices will need to be made primarily among the poorest, not just abroad but at home.” (2)
His notion that there should be an re-alignment of “progressive” forces begs a number of questions about what makes a party “progressive”. The Lib Dems went into coalition with the Tories not just because the parliamentary arithmetic stacked up that way but because they were more aligned on economics. Blair would have been aligned that way too – and so would the people who supported his wing of the party – from Alasdair Darling to Chris Lesley. This would not be a “progressive” realignment but a centre right bloc with nowhere to go but austerity and “hard choices” dumping the costs of the crisis on those least able to bear them.
Four key points underline why a Blair is wrong and a “move to the centre” cannot work.
- No “return to normalcy” is on the cards and the future looks more like a trap than a promise
The period we are in is defined by the 2008 crash and its aftermath. The “sweet spot” of the USA’s unipolar moment from 1991 to 2008, with cheap and ever expanding credit, buy now pay (through the nose) later PFI deals, cheap imports allowing governments to be grudgingly tolerated and re-elected with low votes while life slowly got better for most people has gone and won’t come back. People are insecure, pressured, uncertain, more political; but rarely well thought out about it. We are – perhaps – about to hit another economic crash; with very little prospect of the same methods being viable to get out of it. At that point all sorts of unthinkable things will start to happen.
We also have the climate crisis inexorably becoming more apparent. . It is becoming apparent that we can no longer take our environment for granted as a generally safe space. People are waking up – and not just “woke” people.
In such circumstances people tend to polarise – to either cling on hard to certainties that used to make sense, dancing ever more frantically to the old failed nationalist tunes, while snatching gratefully after small mercies – or look for answers beyond borders. On a global scale this can be simplified as a retreat into nationalism (America – or Britain – or wherever – First) and a “New Dark Age” (as the Daily Telegraph enthusiastically put it) or Global Green New Deal.
Parties of the Left have to embrace the latter with policies and campaigns that both pose solutions and develop deeper social roots; so what we are proposals an expression of where our communities are at and overcome the fear of change that freezes them like hedgehogs in headlights waiting to be squashed.
The Green New Deal must be right at the heart of things – but also posed as – “this is what it will mean for our town, city, neighbourhood”. In the run up to the General election, Labour Local Authorities had been asked – for example – to make plans for home insulation so that an incoming Labour government could hit the ground running and get this done. Putting those plans on the leaflets, citing examples of where such plans had began to be implemented, holding meetings about them in the affected communities could have been very effective in making the prospect of positive change real for people who might be sceptical about it.
2. There is no individualist “aspirational” solution.
People want life to be better. We want our children to have decent work and security. This has too often been posed as “aspirational” in the sense of “getting up and out” with “social mobility”. There is virtually no social mobility in the UK. We are the most unequal society in Europe and Brexit will copper bottom that. The individual route up and out is effectively blocked for almost everyone. This will only get worse under Johnson. We either try to organise collective solutions in this pressure cooker situation or people turn on each other with – expertly choreographed – blame games.
3. Neo -liberalism is bust.
Neo-liberalism – in shorthand – is the acceptance of the Thatcherite economic settlement. It encompasses those strains of thought that argue that politics should be subordinated to a free market economics in which deregulation and privatisation are seen as solutions and the best those at the bottom can hope for is that the prosperity that this channels to the top will “trickle down”. This was a foundation stone for Tony Blair’s governments and made them acceptable to the powers that be. Since 2008 it has survived on life support because it functions very well for the 1%. It does nothing for the rest of us. Life expectancy in the UK is now in decline. As a foundation for a Labour government now it would be sand.
In 2010 part of the problem for Labour was that it embraced austerity almost as strongly as the Tories did in a bid to be “credible”. If you track the opinion polls from the 2010 election, the point at which Labour ceased to be gaining ground on the Tories was when Alasdair Darling announced that the cuts Labour would make would be more severe than Thatcher’s. “Credibility” was not credible with the voters.
To add insult to injury, in George Osborne’s first budget, when he announced his eye watering £19 billion in cuts, he was at pains to point out that this was £1 billion less than he had been advised to cut by Alasdair Darling.
Had Labour been in office with such a policy – in the “national interest”- the effect would have been catastrophic; not only for the people affected by the cuts but also the Party.
The fate of the European Social Democratic parties that have imposed such a programme in government, is an eloquent warning for where this leads.
In Ireland it was not the Irish Labour Party that smashed the old sterile centre right duopoly in the General election this month, but Sinn Fein on an anti austerity programme. Irish Labour, having been in a coalition government with Fine Gael imposing austerity between 2011 and 2016 saw its share of the vote drop to 6% – below the Greens.
In Germany, the SPD, in a terribly responsible middle of the road coalition with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, are currently polling at 14%.
In France, the Parti Socialiste never recovered from Francois Holland’s lacklustre pro austerity Presidency. It now has just 25 of 577 members of the National Assembly, its membership collapsed from 173 000 in 2012 to 40 000 in 2017 and is now polling at just 11%. The realignment of the “progressive centre” advocated by Blair and personified by Emmanuel Macron – which took a substantial slice of SP voters and members with – it has now collided brutally with the French trade unions in a series of bruising general strikes and is shedding both MPs and popular support. His Party, La Republique en Marche, is now polling at 18% with Macron himself having a 30% disapproval rating. (4)
The danger in all this is that opposition to the status quo is ceded to ethno-nationalist currents who blame immigrants – from the Alternative fur Deutschland to the Rassemblement Nationale (or the Brexit Party).
This is where Blair’s course leads.
We should compare this experience that of the Socialist Parties in Portugal and Spain which have opposed austerity in government and have formed governing coalitions with “Hard left” Parties like Podemos or the Portuguese Left bloc for a way ahead that we need to stick to. We have such a coalition already inside the Labour Party. Tony Blair would like to suicidally split it by driving out the left.
4. There are no “national” solutions and the Pax Americana guarantees war
There is an established view of what might be called the “national mission” which is replete with symbols and imagery from WW2 and Empire which holds us back into a nostalgia and fantasies of a “special relationship” with the United States. This has more hold with the old than the young, many of whom can see through it, but going beyond it – which we will need to do – requires us to not so much live up to our past but live it down, and make up for it too – as something we are not just doing for ourselves but the world.
This is a crucial issue because the glue that holds the right of the Labour Party together is not so much Europhilia as Atlanticism. Blair has – for now – abandoned any idea of rejoining the EU. This from the man that wanted to join the Euro. Quite what the glue would be to combine Labour with the Lib Dems in this context is unclear, but Atlanticism would be part of it. This is a tricky act to pull off in the age of Trump, who makes no concessions to the vanity of his auxiliaries; and its rather difficult to argue that we should be forever Robin to America’s Batman when Batman is behaving more and more overtly like the Joker: but it won’t stop them trying.
Being “pro Western”, in the way the Labour right supports, means being signed up to a Pax Americana that’s in crisis. It is not a “safe” option. Not only because the US’s global thrashing around to hold on to its dominance in the face of a level of Chinese growth that will make the Chinese economy half as big again as its own within the decade, nor the prospect of being pulled in Trump’s wake into the international axis for climate change denial, but because of the domestic consequences flowing from Johnson’s projected post Brexit US trade deal. This poses ever deepening national subordination and humiliation at the hands of the Americans as their pharmaceutical companies latch on to the NHS and UK labour regulations are degraded to US levels. To pick two examples. the US is the only developed economy in which there is no guaranteed right to paid maternity leave and US holiday entitlements are half the European average. This will hit the people who voted for Brexit – thinking that it would return them to a period of decent jobs with decent terms and conditions and less pressured public services – very hard indeed. They don’t know what’s going to hit them. Blair’s commitment to “get up the arse of the White House and stay there” (5) means that Labour would have no realistic framework to resist this.
The US is now smashing up many of the multilateral institutions that have previously mediated its dominance into a series of bilateral relationships that its easier for it to dominate – they are even blocking the selection of new judges for the World Trade Organisation Court because they don’t want to be held accountable to it. So there is no doubt that part of the price of the deal Johnson is lining up with Trump will be ever enthusiastic participation in US interventions, not just being a cheerleader for its destabilisation efforts across the world. The rapidity with which Dominic Raab flipped from calling for de-escalation to dropping right into line on Iran is the shape of things to come with this government. Not following suit is vital for Labour.
All this explains why Blair’s speech had to cover the consequences of following his line with such an easy listening soundtrack of soothing political muzak. He was very clear that a move slightly towards the centre – as with Keir Starmer – would not be enough for the forces he represents. The ruthless logic of recognising that Labour will no longer be tolerated as a safe alternative government by the ruling class so long as it retains a programme that challenges it, a mass membership that supports it, and institutional links to mass working class self organisation in the form of trade unions, leads inexorably in the direction of a Macron type formation jettisoning the left, or a US style Democrat Party without the Sanders/AOC wing. Those who start out on that road thinking that it need not lead so far or require the abandonment of so much have been warned and should take stock. This is a search for office without power. The challenge to us posed by the December result – on the contrary – is to organise to shift power at every level, utilising whatever levers and handles there are to struggle inside and through every level of what Gramsci described as the outworks of the state; so that an election victory represents genuine mobilised support throughout society out of the deep seated resistances to the tumultuous attacks we are about to face.
- NLR 120 Nov/Dec 2019. Snipers in the kitchen – State Theory and Latin America’s Left cycle. Juan Carlos Monodero