Two things can be true at once. In our increasingly febrile, fractured, and factional political morass, it is incumbent that we don’t lose sight of this fact. One can be wary of the ramifications of a second referendum, yet still reluctantly accept that it may be the best route out of our internecine impasse. One can support remaining in the European Union, yet hold deep strategic doubts about the viability of a campaign emblazoned with golden stars and blue flags, accompanied by guttural renditions of Ode to Joy blasted from Alastair Campbell’s bagpipes.
And – to address Labour’s most recent Twitter-inflected factional conflagration – one can accept that the New Labour years saw vast improvements in many areas, yet recognise that these gains were fleeting. Accept that criticism is valid and necessary for a government more concerned with ameliorating against bad outcomes than transforming a malfunctioning political economic settlement, yet dispute a rather reductive framing which regards austerity as the legacy of this self-same government.
Two substantive issues arise from the framing proffered by Momentum. The first, put simply, is one of historical erroneousness: by arguing that Blair’s ‘legacy will ultimately be the austerity that followed his failure to stand up to big finance’, what is posited is a bizarre cause and effect certain to be deleterious to any left or centre-left government – that the policy responses of an incoming Conservative government will inexorably become the legacy of departing Labour governments.
‘Things can only get better’ is thankfully a remnant of a bygone era, a saccharine accompaniment to the great moderation that never was, yet viewing austerity as Blair’s legacy divests Osborne, Cameron, Clegg et. al of political agency; and – perhaps more pertinently – appears to gesture instead to a repeating refrain of ‘things can never get better’: as long as the Conservatives are able, at some point, to marshal a majority, their policies will simply invalidate those of the preceding Labour government.
One could understand this critique from the extra-parliamentary left – but it seems all the more curious that this line of critique is emerging from Momentum – a prolific, valuable, and dynamic campaigning force pushing for a left Labour government. There is a strange, unhelpful logic underpinning this claim, which Will Davies has effectively unravelled:
‘If we play that game, Harold Wilson destroyed UK manufacturing by overseeing inflation that Thatcher attacked with monetarism in 1980-82. But who benefits from that analysis? The Tories.’
To return to the issue at hand, austerity – and the contours and contradictions inherent thereof – was fundamentally a political choice. Recognising this leads us to the second – and far more crucial – point, which, it seems to me, is being underdiscussed.
The video released by the Tony Blair Institute voices a number of achievements: the largest peacetime investment in public services; falls in NHS waiting times; a million pensioners and a million children removed from poverty; and progressive redistribution as a result of fiscal policy.
All of this is good. And, as we well know, all of this is now gone. As I have written elsewhere:
‘Looking back on the Blair years, one can’t help but think of Shelley’s poem ‘Ozymandias’: for all of the talk from some quarters about the good that was done by New Labour, the fact of the matter is that ‘nothing besides remains.’’
We don’t need to search far and wide to find evidence of this – this past Sunday, The Observer ran a report outlining the huge cuts in the numbers of children accessing Sure Start centres, especially in deprived areas. This trend applies to all the positives listed in Blair’s video: investment in public services is down; NHS waiting times are up; poverty – especially child poverty – is up; and our fiscal policy (not least that offered by many candidates for the Conservative leadership) is increasingly regressive.
Rather than erroneously blaming Blair for austerity, the real issue we should be grappling with is this: what can we learn from a political economic settlement whose virtuous aspects, almost without exception, lasted only as long as those pursuing them remained in power?
For all of their bluster – despite their contemporary collapse into farce – the Conservatives have traditionally had a strong sense of strategy, coupled with a ruthless streak which has frequently left those on the left – echoing Jesse in Breaking Bad – exclaiming that ‘[they] can’t keep getting away with it!’
And yet they do. This has been a common refrain for decades. When Britain unilaterally left the Gold Standard in the early 1930s – Labour had been struggling desperately to keep the country aligned with it in the preceding decade – a shocked Sidney Webb complained that ‘Nobody told us we could do that!’
When, in the grim depths of Thatcherism, municipal socialism was on the rise – not least in the form of the Greater London Council – Thatcher simply legislated these councils out of existence. Conservative councillors argued that ‘the proposals were so outrageous and so contrary to all the Conservative traditions of government that they must call into question Mrs. Thatcher’s capacity to form a balanced judgement on important issues of public policy’. Whether they were right or wrong proved, ultimately, irrelevant. The councils were abolished, nevertheless.
This is the ruthless side. When it comes to strategy, the Ridley Plan, which set out the plan to dismantle nationalised industry, is perhaps the prototypical example reached for: as Alex Callinicos and Mike Simons note in The Great Strike, ‘Thatcher’s six years in office have followed with eerie precision the pattern laid out in the Ridley report.’ Much more besides, however, has been done by the Conservatives whilst in office with the intention of locking-in place a particular political economic settlement.
A smattering of recent examples helps demonstrate this point. Much was made of the recent renationalisation of the East Coast mainline. Comparatively little attention was paid to the fact that, quietly, in the run-up to the 2015 election, David Cameron’s government actually privatised the nationalised rail operator of last resort!
Let’s turn to buses. The Bus Services Act of 2017 included a clause specifically forbidding the municipalisation of bus services. This doesn’t abolish the 8 or so remaining municipal bus companies dotted across the country – but ensures no more can be created.
Look, too, to the fiscal regime affecting councils across the country. Council tax rises are capped, at a rate set at the ministerial level in Westminster. The only way to increase local taxes beyond this threshold is to win a local referendum – thus far, there has been only one referendum, triggered by the Bedfordshire Police and Crime Commissioner in 2015: 69.5% of voters opposed it. This is, plain and simple, a way to retain centralised control of local government, and in turn to limit the tax freedoms thereof.
Much of this is cynical – but it is also undeniably effective. Putting the blame for austerity at Blair’s feet is simply a bizarre way of letting them, so to speak, get away with it yet again. New Labour did much – at home and abroad – that was immoral, abhorrent, counterproductive, and worse besides. The positive changes that were implemented have been almost effortlessly unravelled and reversed.
It strikes me as more productive – both as a critique and a point of intellectual departure – to hone in on this point. We know Labour’s current policies are popular, and we are increasingly blessed with an emerging intellectual infrastructure committed to both developing and disseminating ideas and strategy. The existence of this website – alongside New Socialist – speaks to the efforts expended in creating forums for this kind of discussion; the newly-formed think-tank Common Wealth is only the latest organisation working towards the policy prescriptions required by a newly energised left.
Attacking Blair for austerity is thus to miss the woods for the trees – he did not implement this policy, but instead presided over a series of improvements so meek, weak, and fleeting that it took little besides the offer of an AV referendum and a couple of Osborne budgets to dismantle them.
The Labour left stands on the precipice of state power – a desire to go further than New Labour needs to be coupled with a strategy to go deeper; embedding political and economic democratisation deeply and irreversibly into the fabric of our society.
The big question we should be asking is how to avoid the fate which befell Blair’s managerial improvements – how to lock-in, in other words, a political economic transformation which cannot be cut, privatised, abolished, or regulated out of existence. A government can expect five years to make its mark – and in these febrile times, perhaps significantly less. A programmatic shift to rival those achieved by Attlee and Thatcher needs to develop a more nuanced understanding of not only what led the relatively short-lived redistribution of Blair to be so easily and effectively unravelled – but how we can ensure that far greater radicalism isn’t similarly extinguished.