How Blairism Failed the Working Class

Despite pursuing a number of redistributive policies, Blair's Labour government left the fundamental architecture of Thatcher's economy in place – and failed to break the cycle of deepening inequality.

Illustration by Cynthia Kittler

It would be fair to say that Tony Blair casts a long shadow over early twenty-first-century politics. Always a slick media operator with an instinctive understanding of PR, Blair remains a prominent figure whose opinion is sought whenever anything of note takes place. At the start of the 2020s his role appears to be a sort of undead management guru for the British media establishment. Whether the topic of debate is the Labour leadership, Brexit, Covid-19, or Scottish independence, Blair is the go-to pundit for moments that require nothing in particular to be said in the most authoritative terms.

An afterlife as an elder statesman is standard fare for most former prime ministers. However, there is something remarkable about both the extent of Blair’s lingering celebrity and his ability to endure reputational catastrophes which would have destroyed almost any other major public figure.

In 2011, Blair became godfather to one of Rupert Murdoch’s daughters. In doing so, he cemented a long-running friendship with the world’s most powerful right-wing ideologue — curious form for the ex-leader of a democratic socialist party. In 2018, it was revealed that the Tony Blair Institute had received a £9 million advisory fee from the Saudi Arabian government, making him the indirect beneficiary of a murderous regime condemned by Amnesty International and the UN for its human rights abuses.

Most heinous of all were the findings of the 2016 Chilcot Report into the (still ongoing) Iraq War. This offered conclusive legal proof that Blair had deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in 2003, as a pretext for starting a needless conflict which has since claimed over a million lives according to some estimates. When the report was published, Blair became an international disgrace, and it was difficult to see how he would ever win back any credibility. Yet somehow, he soon returned to public eye as a respected political analyst.

In the context of the Labour Party’s internal power struggles, too, Blair has managed to survive multiple displays of his conservative loyalties and personal improprieties. He remains a hero figure for much of the party’s right wing, now resurgent under Keir Starmer, another boomer ex-barrister who seems to believe that the triangulation and moral hedging of the Blair years are Labour’s only means of getting back into power.

However, Blair’s Labour legacy is a complex matter. While Blair’s personal reputation should have long since passed beyond the pale, it is far more logical that, in the wake of four successive election defeats, those who wish to see a Labour government before 2100 should look to his wider political project for clues about how to re-establish the party as a vehicle of power as well as principles.

But as well as paying heed to New Labour’s successes at the ballot box, we must also try to work out whether there is anything worth salvaging from the record of the Blair government in office.

Was Blairism utterly devoid of socialism? Or did it, as its defenders like to argue, smuggle socialist (or at least social democratic) policies through the back door? Was it the best we can hope for in a country as congenitally hostile to radical change as the United Kingdom? Above all, whatever we think of Tony Blair, we must try to answer the most urgent question at stake in all of this: did Blairism actually work?

A Blairite Byzantium

An honest appraisal of Blairism’s legacy must begin by acknowledging the areas where it worked spectacularly well. And if you want to get a sense of the high watermark of the New Labour years, you could do a lot worse than look at what was going on in Blair’s childhood home, the North East of England, circa 2005.

This part of the world had recently — in a referendum of November 2004 — firmly rejected proposals for a devolved regional assembly (a pet project of the Blair government, though Blair himself thought the idea ‘stupid’). But in many ways the North East was clearly growing into a self-confident New Labour success story as the noughties reached their peak.

The landscape of areas like the Newcastle quayside had been energetically transformed following the post-industrial nadir of the 1980s. Regeneration projects begun in the Thatcher and Major years (the Baltic art gallery, the Sage concert hall, the Gateshead Millennium Bridge) were finally completed in the first years of the century, after getting a turbo-boost from the ‘urban renaissance’ initiated by Blair’s deputy John Prescott in 1998. Dynamic retro-futurist bands schooled in the region’s state-funded youth clubs and universities (The Futureheads, Maxïmo Park, Field Music) were in the thick of a herpetic revival of indie guitar pop which dominated British youth culture.

Perhaps most meaningfully, in a region with a high proportion of low-income groups, the social and economic policies introduced by the Blair government since its landslide election victory in 1997 had by 2005 led to a marked improvement in living standards for large numbers of people in the North East.

Substantial increases in benefit payments and tax credits led to a steep fall in child poverty rates. Meanwhile, the introduction of the minimum wage and Sure Start strengthened the social safety net for millions, especially in struggling areas like Newcastle’s West End and the former mining villages of County Durham.

Taken as a whole, the example of the North East in the mid-noughties which forms a radical contrast with the region’s troubled post-2010 incarnation — offers irrefutable proof that Blairism was, at the very least, better than any imaginable Conservative alternative.

Softboi Neoliberalism

Compared to the untrammelled Thatcherism that preceded it, and to the radical austerity policies of the 2010s which quickly reversed almost all of its social achievements, the New Labour project which peaked in places like the North East of England in the early years of the millennium must be judged a partial, short-term success by anyone of a faintly leftist hue.

This was a long interlude of ‘soft neoliberalism’, a boom time during which at least a part of capital’s largesse filtered down to the people who needed it in areas ravaged by the pro-market reforms introduced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s.

To be sure, Blair swept to power in 1997 with the aid of an explicitly centrist agenda. His pitch to the late-nineties electorate was based on a rejection of Labour’s socialist history, an acceptance of the basic tenets of neoliberal ideology, and a semi-official rebranding of the party as a wholly ‘New’ entity.

Yet for all the curfews and privatisation onslaughts of New Labour’s Y2K phase, it also incorporated a revival of what might be termed classic social democracy — as well as some genuinely radical reforms. Blair was partly personally responsible for the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, a historic breakthrough in the Northern Ireland peace process. In a similar vein, Labour’s enabling of Scottish and Welsh devolution in the heady months after the 1997 landslide paved the way for a partial deconstruction of the UK’s shabby constitution — as did the removal of hereditary peerages from the House of Lords in 1999.

There were also numerous smaller-scale improvements which drastically reined in the Thatcherite assault on working-class livelihoods. As well as all-important reforms to benefits, tax credits, and the minimum wage, which moderated the punitive dole culture of the Thatcher and Major years, public spending in the key areas of health and education rocketed under New Labour. Between 1997 and 2010 spending on education increased by an incredible 83 per cent in real terms, while health spending more than doubled—from £64 billion to £136 billion—in the same period.

An important caveat to these figures is that spending as a proportion of GDP was more modest. Like all long-running prime ministers, Blair had luck on his side — in his case in the form of an unusually strong and stable economy prior to the Global Financial Crisis of 2007-8 (by which point Blair had been replaced by his dolorous frenemy Gordon Brown). While the economy grew and grew, it was relatively easy for a willing Labour government to siphon off a generous portion of the spoils for spending projects.

But while we will never know how Blairism would have fared in a long period of economic downturn (Alistair Darling’s promise in the final New Labour budget of 2010 that Labour spending cuts would be ‘deeper and tougher’ than Thatcher’s was never put into practice), there is simply no way a hypothetical Conservative government would have matched New Labour’s public sector generosity.

From the new schools, art galleries, and hospital buildings which sprouted across the country in the millennium years, to the wildly successful Education Maintenance Allowance which did so much to increase youth participation in further education, New Labour’s record when it came to pumping money into public amenities was truly commendable.

Hang a Hoodie

There were, however, a number of fatal flaws in the New Labour experiment, which would serve to work against and ultimately destroy its legacy — especially, but not exclusively, when it came to children and young people.

The charge sheet against the Blair government is by now fairly well known (though judging by recent comments, too many centrist Labour MPs have forgotten notable villainies like Blair’s man-crush on right-wing US president George W. Bush).

While Labour’s approach to public spending was clearly distinct from that of Conservative neoliberals, its social agenda was, for the most part, explicitly neo-conservative. Aided by a succession of tough-talking Home Secretaries, the Blair government was responsible for a slew of racist pronouncements and anti-refugee policies, many of which were more or less indistinguishable from those of preceding and succeeding Tory governments.

Blair’s first Home Secretary Jack Straw suggested that Muslim women should stop wearing veils, while his successor David Blunkett relentlessly attacked asylum seekers and told British Asians they should speak English in their own homes. Blair himself blamed knife crime on the ‘black community’, and was especially energised by attacks on working-class young people designed to appease the right-wing tabloids.

Blair supported a ban on hoodies and baseball caps in shopping malls, tried to introduce 9 p.m. curfews for under-16s, claimed that teenage single mothers were ‘piling up problems’ for society, and argued that disabled people on benefits should ‘justify’ why they were ‘taking money from the state’.

While the infamous Anti-Social Behaviour Orders (ASBOs) Blair introduced in 1998 were abolished by Theresa May in 2014, electronic tagging is a more durable, symbolic reminder of New Labour’s needlessly harsh approach to law and order. In far too many instances, Blairism punished and put shackles on people who really should be set free by a democratic socialist party.

Selected Ambient Works

Taken alone, these examples of triangulation tipping over into hard-line social conservatism—to say nothing of the de facto war crime of Iraq—are bad enough. But they highlight a much deeper, more serious defect of Blairism: namely that it saw government as an essentially ambient process, geared around the need to maintain popularity by fostering both the ‘feel-good factor’ (boom-time spending giveaways) and the ‘feel-bad factor’ (racist and anti-working-class rhetoric) in the British electoral psyche.

The after-effects of the shallow, jingoistic side of Blairism have impacted on the post-2010 political landscape in all sorts of unfortunate ways. On the other hand, what was glaringly absent from the Blairite project was any dedicated attempt to change the structures of British society.

In this long-term sense, despite its social-democratic nuances, Blairism was fundamentally a continuation of Thatcherism rather than a much-needed rejection of it. This, of course, was fully in keeping with Blair’s claim in 2013 that his job as PM had been to ‘build on some of the things [Thatcher] had done rather than reverse them’.

For Blair, building on Thatcherism meant building very little where the social and economic architecture of British life was concerned. Meanwhile, New Labour left the radical neoliberal reforms of Thatcher’s premiership largely intact — perhaps most significantly, her trade union laws, which hamstrung any attempt to stall the decline of the broader working-class movement.

Drawing for a moment on personal experience, I can remember the dismay of my late mother (a teacher and Labour voter) when Blair came to power in 1997 and announced that Chris Woodhead — the reactionary head of teaching watchdog Ofsted under John Major — would remain in post. Then I remember how the brutal neoliberal education regime of league tables and targets, combined with tabloid-pleasing attacks by the likes of Alastair Campbell on ‘bog-standard comprehensive schools’ continued to make her professional life miserable throughout the New Labour years — for all that Blair’s education secretaries were flashing their chequebooks when it came to staffing and building projects.

Of course, building new schools and increasing public spending were hugely worthwhile things to do, and they had a profound positive impact. But cutting against New Labour’s strong record on spending was the passive manner in which it simply accepted the philosophy of Thatcherism, and either failed to resist neoliberal encroachments into the key areas of education, health, transport, and housing, or casually continued processes of marketisation begun under Thatcher — largely out of a deep-seated insecurity that doing otherwise might damage the Blairite brand.

NHS CrossCountry

In 2005 I turned 21. As someone from the North East of England, I couldn’t help but be excited by the cultural developments that had transformed the region, turning its capital Newcastle into a buzzing, modern party town, and creating a sense that this predominantly working-class city was headed for better times. But though the surface mood was largely positive, its deeper social structures were in certain crucial areas coming apart at the seams.

When my dad was terminally ill in late 2005, my sister and I had to travel for nearly three hours on various decrepit forms of public transport to visit him in a hospital in the Blyth Valley constituency on the other side of the North East. This was a very personal tragedy, of course, but it highlights certain fundamental ways in which Blairism clearly wasn’t working for many people, even at the height of its powers, and even in parts of the country where it was seemingly at its most effective.

The type of radical energy needed to rebuild British society after the destructive anti-statism of the preceding Conservative government played very little part in the cautious, focus-group populism of the Blair government.

After having ditched a commitment to rail renationalisation prior to the 1997 election, the New Labour government set about doing almost nothing to modernise Britain’s transport infrastructure while in power. As a result — as my sister and I found out to our cost — the transport system in many parts of the country in 2005 had not notably improved since the 1970s. ‘Red Wall’ areas in the North and Midlands like Blyth Valley, which predictably shifted Tory in the 2010s, were especially badly served by this Blairite loss of nerve.

Instead of thinking imaginatively about how to reform British society, the Blair government was mainly content to add footnotes to political grand narratives written by the Tory governments of the eighties and nineties. In the case of public amenities like the transport system, this meant continuing to cede organisational control to billionaire capitalists like Richard Branson, whose cramped, costly Virgin CrossCountry trains offer a dismally poetic metaphor for an entire era.

If it had only been transport that suffered from Blair’s privatisation reflex, this would have been a pardonable misstep. But New Labour adopted exactly the same automatic, pro-market approach when reforming — or failing to reform — healthcare, education, financial services, and housing.

An often forgotten subplot of the Y2K years is that the Blair government actually received extensive input from Richard Branson in attempting to ‘improve customer service’ in the NHS in 2000. His main recommendation—that private companies should have a central role in health provision — played into a wider Blairite deconstruction of the NHS, the expansion of Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs), and acceleration of the market’s corrosive influence on public healthcare.

If you want a single image that sums up the sheer, crooked fecklessness of New Labour’s approach to public-sector reform between 1997 and 2010, the symbolic joining of hands between Blair and Branson tells you all you need to know.

The Cost of Labour

From the young people saddled with mountains of debt following New Labour’s introduction of university tuition fees in 1998 (and its trebling of them in 2004), to the increasing numbers of renters exploited by private landlords in a housing system left almost completely untouched after Thatcher’s Right to Buy revolution, every major area of British life tells an almost identical story.

Where it did bother to tamper with the fundamentals of the British state rather than simply bankrolling new buildings and staff increases, Blairism did everything it could to delegate responsibility for the running of the country into the hands of private companies and individuals.

In spite of the nigh-on dictatorial demeanour of Blair himself, perhaps the defining characteristic of Blairism in the final analysis is therefore just how extravagantly cowardly and work-shy it was when it came to changing the course of British social and political history. In this literal sense, as well as the more general one, Blairism hardly worked at all. It understood government largely in terms of short-term presentation, and saw money as a pure social good instead of a means of reorganising society in ways that would last.

Emphatically defeated in two popular-vote massacres (2010 and 2015), and almost wholly undone by the austerity of the 2010s, Blairism has very little to teach us now. It does, however, offer a stark warning about how easily and definitively political movements with no long-term ideological vision can melt into thin air.