In another one of his regular ‘rare interventions’, Tony Blair recently waded into Labour’s crisis. Writing in the New Statesman, the former prime minister’s lengthy contribution argues that technological change is the real theatre of human agency in the modern world, launching an attack on the Labour Left for its commitments to the state – something he considers ‘outdated’ and the product of a ‘confusion of abiding values with outdated mechanisms.’
Blair considers commitments to public ownership, free university tuition, and state economic regulation ‘traditional’ solutions, and ones with no serious material bearing on the lives of most people, saying that ‘you can’t organise the future with a playbook from the past’. Revealingly, his article finishes with a criticism of Labour ‘from its inception’, stating that Labour has been ‘unable to fulfil its historic mission’ due to its ‘estrangement from Britain’s great Liberal tradition – Gladstone, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge’.
These statements should raise alarm amongst Labour’s ranks, timed—as they are—to coincide with a push from allies of Keir Starmer’s office to fundamentally alter the character and mission of Labour. Indeed, Peter Mandelson—a key architect in Starmer’s disastrous leadership operation—has recently discussed his own vision for Labour’s transformation, hinting at member disenfranchisement, a diminishing of the union link, and the recasting of Labour as a small body of political insiders administering what remains of the party’s emaciated structures.
These reforms are presumably intended to correct what Blair assesses as the historic mistake of Labour’s separation from the Liberal tradition – and to justify these manoeuvres, he is appealing to the legitimacy of ‘abiding values’ in the Labour movement. But his political stance can in no way be squared with the underlying values of either the Left or even the historic right-wing of Labour.
Routes and Destinations
Throughout the course of Labour’s history, there has always been a tension between what may be broadly called the party’s Left and Right. The theoretical roots of this split can probably be traced back to the writings of Eduard Bernstein, who distinguished himself from Marx and Engels in the early twentieth century over the question of gradual reform versus revolution.
Advocating for an extended period of reforms incorporating a mixed economy involving public, cooperative, and private enterprises as a route to socialism, Bernstein’s ultimate destination was no different from the radicals he distinguished himself from – the creation of an economy not driven by the market. The central difference between the wings was one of strategy and tactics – not underlying principle.
Bernstein’s route became the destination for many in European social democracy, but certain underlying principles were always maintained. Anthony Crosland, the right-wing Labour theorist, would famously argue that Britain’s post-war economy had already achieved ‘socialism’ in the post-war era. He was among the first to articulate criticisms of Clause IV, Labour’s historic commitment to nationalisation, in favour of a move towards the rhetoric of social justice and equity.
But even for Crosland, opposition to having public ownership of industry as a founding principle of Labour’s constitution never prevented him from being a strong advocate of nationalisation and public ownership in practice. To his dying day, he remained an advocate for nationalisation under certain circumstances, claiming that a ‘mixed economy is essential to social democracy’ – and a great defender of ‘public services’, which he probably never dreamed would be considered fit for privatisation.
Labour has always been—and currently remains—a ‘socialist party’ in its constitution. And even stretching the definition of socialism to its extremes, incorporating competing interpretations of the phrase, socialism may be defined as the rule of society through collective institutions such as government, trade unions, and civil society. This is opposed to capitalism, where capital—profit, property, and the accumulation of wealth—is king.
Within that wide-ranging definition, Labour’s broad church accommodates varying degrees of opinion – but support for public ownership is a common strand which runs through all of them. To protect the power of society over capital, it is essential that society retains at least some spaces independent of capital’s influence. The extent to which public ownership is emphasised is what traditionally defines an individual’s place on the left-right axis of Labour Party politics.
As does the style: some favour co-operative or mutual models of ‘devolved’ collective ownership, while others prefer state-owned models. Neo-corporatism also exists within this framework, such as the Nordic social democratic states. Equally, new models of state ownership blending commercial objectives with public ownership now exist in countries like China through ‘state-owned enterprises’, adding a new perspective on the traditional route of nationalisation. The particular models may be disputed, but only the underlying principle of society, through its institutions imposing its will and interests over the power of capital, is a fixed concept in them.
But for Blair’s Third Way politics, public ownership is irrelevant at best and reactionary dogma at worst. In power, Blair’s ‘third way’ fundamentally accepted all the main tenets of neoliberalism – namely, the use of market forces and profit in every area of society to drive innovation and change. New Labour did more than any previous administration—including that of Margaret Thatcher—to privatise and deregulate the public sector institutions which once held British society together. From selling off the NHS, demolishing council houses, and part-privatising institutions such as local schools and the Royal Mail, New Labour paved the way for the destruction of Britain’s social infrastructure and the dawn of austerity.
It is no surprise, then, that lifelong Labour right-wingers such as Roy Hattersley condemned New Labour in power as ‘no longer my party’. Blair’s hostility to the concept of public ownership is itself a dogma, enforced in the face of all evidence and reason, and placed in opposition to perhaps the one universally definable value of the labour movement that there is. As Hattersley once wrote, Blair’s apparent hostility to ‘ideology’ and commitment to eighteenth-century liberal economic theories reminded him of John Maynard Keynes’ observation that ‘plain men, who pride themselves on rejecting airy-fairy theories, are usually unwitting adherents to ideas which were outdated and discredited before they were born’. A union saying feels apt too: ‘if you don’t stand for something, you’ll fall for anything’.
The Meaning of Labour
This is more than just a theoretical debate. Labour is currently in an existential crisis over the loss of its traditional voting communities – the populations of the industrial belt areas from whence the Labour Party was born. The emergence of the movement in these areas shaped and influenced the outlook of residents in these parts of the world. Founded by the trade union movement, Labour represented at its core a human reaction against the poverty and indignity to which working people were subject because of the erratic demands of a market economy.
It was a life which forced their children up chimneys and down mines from the age of six or seven, working 14-hour days, six days a week, on poverty pay, accruing industrial illnesses and being worked into early graves and treated effectively as slaves for the profit margins of their employers. The Labour Party and the Labour movement was created to challenge these ravages of profiteering, where people’s lives and life chances were destroyed in the pursuit of financial gain.
As proved time and time again in opinion polling, the principle of public ownership is hard-wired into the mindsets of people in these areas of the country. These are people who are collectivist in their approach to politics and life; people who see the economy as a tool to provide everyone with a decent quality of life, and the state as the mechanism to keep it in check.
In the fourth episode of Adam Curtis’ most recent documentary series Can’t Get You Out of My Head, Curtis astutely observes the huge damage caused to Labour’s reputation in the North of England following the 1998 dot-com crash, after the newly privatised Bank of England decimated British manufacturing by raising interest rates. Curtis obtained documentary footage of two interviews with North East Labour voters – both devastated by the government’s lack of proactive intervention against the forces of the global market economy.
The first, a woman in her kitchen, exclaims: ‘He [Blair] can say it’s the world economy, say “oh world economy world economy”, people in the North East are suffering… But why’s he given all that power to the Bank of England? Why? Why you know, why is that? Passing the buck, what’s he doing? So he can’t be blamed for things like this that going wrong, he can say “Oh well it’s the Bank of England’s interest rates and all the rest of it? I don’t know.’
The second, a former factory worker, continued: ‘Get up there and get things sorted. You vote a Labour government in, you vote for them all your life, and this is the crap you get off them. Give us more support, step in, put a shoulder behind us, show a bit more muscle. Just, let them know that they cannae do this.’
Blair and his acolytes prefer to diagnose Labour’s loss of support amongst these communities as a contemporary phenomenon, a reaction against the Party’s adoption of socially liberal, ‘woke’ causes among culturally conservative voters. This diagnosis is the reason that towards the end of Blair’s tenure, as Labour slid into mass unpopularity, serious time was spent attacking Muslims, benefit claimants, asylum seekers, and the civil liberties that protected ‘them’.
But the reality is Labour’s standing in these communities has been damaged over a much longer period of time than this theory would allow. The rejection by Blair and his acolytes of economic collectivism was central to this betrayal and has undermined trust in the most deep-rooted values of the Labour movement and its most longstanding voting base.
Resisting Irreversible Shifts
For all of Blair’s focus on technological change, it is bizarre to see the gaping hole in his analysis of power and freedom in the modern world. As the industrial revolution itself showed, technological change leads only to hyper-exploitation and misery for the vast majority of the world’s population if it is not harnessed to peoples’ interests. The private ownership of the mass of services, assets and industry in society implicitly means that the goals of those institutions are geared toward private gain, and not the collective public good.
But what is truly bizarre is the fact that the current incarnation of the Conservative Party appear to recognise this fundamental perspective among Labour’s traditional voters more than Labour themselves. Using collective political forces like nationalism and national pride, the Tories are rejecting nineties individualism in favour of a vision where the entire nation works to build a post-Brexit country.
The great risk here is that, in one great generational heave, communities who have historically fought for collective betterment against a system administered by Etonian toffs will come to associate that same ruling elite as their only avenue to tackle the technocratic liberal elitism that Blair and New Labour represent. Hartlepool won’t be the last shock defeat for Labour if it continues this way – if the party wants to be anything more than a red-rosed Liberal Democrats, it must unite to expose the alien imposition of Blair’s values over it.