New Statesman & Society, 17 June 1994

Can Tony Blair define a new Zeitgeist? Will he be the most extreme right-wing Labour leader ever? Or is he just promising more of the same, asks Paul Anderson

In a week of enthusiastic endorsements of Tony Blair, quite the most gushing came from Martin Jacques, the former editor of the Communist Party magazine Marxism Today, writing in the Sunday Times.

The Labour Party leadership election, he wrote, “has the potential to transform Britain’s political landscape . . . The Conservatives have lost their way and Labour seems about to elect a leader in Blair who marks a break with the past… The desire for change has been in the air for several years now. The problem was that Labour did not offer a convincing alternative. The result was a blocked political system. Blair could be the man to unblock it… He could turn out to be one of those rare politicians who, like Margaret Thatcher and Harold Wilson, succeed in defining a new Zeitgeist, in ushering in a new political era.”

For Jacques, Blair is a Labour politician “possessed of a deep hostility towards labourism —towards the culture of class, the block vote, con¬servatism, certainty and insularity — which is now, at last, in headlong retreat. .. Blair will be the first leader of either of our two major parties who is an authentic creature of the 1960s and its aftermath, of the era of weak ideology and postmodernism.”

Over the top and pretentious? Certainly, and Jacques’s underlying assumption that class no longer matters in British politics is nonsense. But the notion that Blair marks a radical break with Labour’s past is widespread. According to Ken Livingstone, MP for Brent East, Blair would be “the most extreme right-wing leader” the party has ever had. “He more than anyone else represents the desire to turn the Labour Party into something much more like the American Democratic Party.” Even the normally guarded political editor of the Financial Times sees the election of Blair as somehow changing Labour’s ideological identity once and for all. “By the end of July, we should have a clear idea of whether his party is ready to see social democracy sup¬plant socialism,” he wrote in a profile last weekend.

But will Blair make that much difference? Perhaps — but it is more likely that the effect of his elevation to the Labour leadership will simply be more of the same with a slightly modified gloss. Blair undoubtedly has a very different style from any Labour leader since Harold Wilson. Like Wilson in 1964, he appears classless, he’s young, he’s a good television performer. And in Labour’s row last year on its links with the trade unions (more accurately, its system for leadership elections) he did stick his neck out in favour of one member, one vote, which lost him some union friends.

This, however, is all image, apart from the union link — and no one is suggesting that further reforms of the Labour constitution are on the cards this side of a general election. Even the most cursory consideration of the stream of interviews and speeches he has made in the past week shows that, for all his rhetoric of “change” and “renewal”, he is determined to keep Labour firmly on the course set by John Smith and Neil Kinnock. And although he told the Guardian‘s Patrick Wintour that “we are not going to win through the politics of caution … It is never enough for a left-of-centre party to wait for government to be delivered to it”, this means setting caution at the centre of Labour strategy.

Take, for a start, the hardy old perennial of pacts with the Lib Dems, up for discussion yet again at this weekend’s Guardian-Fabian Society “Whatever Next?” conference in London (needless to say, the event was planned before the Lib Dems’ disappointing performance in the Euro-elections). For some reason, word had got around that Blair might be open to a pre-election deal with Paddy Ashdown over seats. So he killed the story, telling the Financial Times: “I don’t believe in pacts and I don’t believe that they work… What I have always said is that at the level of ideas we should be prepared to open up. The Social Justice Commission is the beginning of that.” In the Guardian he declared that “if Labour is not electable, then doing a deal is not going to make it electable”, then went on to attack the Lib Dems’ record in Tower Hamlets.

Like it or loathe it, the position is identical to Smith’s. It was Smith who invited Lib Dems on to the Commission for Social Justice, Smith who authorised the assault on Lib Dem local govern¬ment spearheaded by Jack Straw in the six months before this year’s council elections. The idea is to go for a majority Labour gov¬ernment, but to keep the Lib Dems reasonably sweet in case they’re needed for a coalition or to prop up a minority Labour administration. In days gone by, Jacques would have denounced this as old-fashioned labourist “winner-takes-all” politics, deeply antipathetic to pluralism and blind to the fact that, in the postmodern world, traditional parties are passe.

In line with this, Blair’s position is also at one with Smith’s on proportional repre¬sentation for the House of Commons — kicked into touch last year with the promise of a referendum. “The party policy is to give people a referendum on PR,” Blair told the FT. “I personally am not persuaded by PR but the party policy I think is the right one.”

On other constitutional matters: “We must revi¬talise our aged and decrepit constitution—de¬volving power to the nations and regions of our country, rebuilding our local democracy, removing unaccountable quangos and bure¬aucracy, taking on vested interests, granting our people the constitutional rights and free¬dom other nations have long taken for granted and guaranteeing equal rights in society and fair treatment at work for all our citizens.”

That is Blair a week ago, speaking in his constituency: leaving aside that he said nothing about the undemocratic nature of the House of Lords, it is virtually indistinguishable from Smith’s pronouncements on the constitution at a Charter 88 meeting last year. It is fine as far as it goes but it doesn’t go very far.

As for the economy, “the key to whether Brtiain succeeds lies first of all in developing its potential through eduction and skills” – just as Gordon Brown has been saying for the past two years and just as John Smith said as shadow chancellor from the late 1980s. In similar vein, Blair has made it clear since declaring his candidacy that Labour will not be in the business of taxing and spending for the sake of it; nor will its industrial policy “pick winners”.

He has backed “full employment” (although “I don’t think anyone would suggest that this is something we can achieve overnight”) and a minimum wage (“implemented in a way that is sensible and practical”). And he has endorsed partnership between the private and public sectors to rebuild Britain’s economy.

He won’t declare on the future of tax and benefit systems until after the Commission on Social Justice publishes its report in mid-October — a report that no one now expects to recommend more than minor adjustments to the post-1945 welfare state settlement. Not one of Blair’s pronouncements has provided the slightest indication that he has given a moment’s thought to the green critique of social democracy’s enthusiasm for economic growth or to the deleterious effects of military expenditure.

Once again, all completely in line with the past.

It is, of course, easy to find a difference in nuance on economic policy between Blair and his main challenger for the leadership, John Prescott. Prescott has made much of the crucial importance of full employment for the best part of a decade and has spent the past nine months as employment spokesperson developing policies for job creation. Last weekend, he said that Labour ought to set a target for job creation “because I don’t think people are going to be satisfied by rhetoric”.

But he has also declared that no timescale should be attached to this, which rather spoils his point. And, in policy terms, Prescott is suggesting nothing that everyone else on the Labour front bench hasn’t already endorsed.

Along with Margaret Beckett, Prescott is also far more sceptical than Blair about the prospects for European monetary union. But neither Beckett nor Prescott is prepared to state publicly that the only way for a Labour government to act is to let EMU go hang and go it alone for job-creating growth.

Unlike Bryan Gould, who resigned from the shadow cabinet in disgust in 1992, after Gordon Brown refused to endorse devaluation even in the wake of Black Wednesday, both have given unswerving public backing to Labour’s ERM-based economic policy ever since Kinnock and Smith introduced it in the late 1980s.

There is no sign that Blair has had even private doubts.

As NSS pointed out in its leader last week, there is still plenty on which Blair has never said anything, from the Common Agricultural Policy to the future of Northern Ireland. He might yet surprise us. But on the key policy questions, there is no sign that he has any intention of deviating from the cautious game-plan con¬ceived by Kinnock in the wake of the 1987 election defeat and made still more cautious by Smith after 1992.

The aim remains to play safe — to reassure voters, particularly affluent workers and the middle class, of Labour’s trustworthiness, by distancing the party from its controversial past and avoiding commitments on tax and spending until immediately before the next general election. Far from representing a radical change in Labour’s direction, Blair is straitjacketed by the austerity social democracy established as Labour’s ideology by Kinnock in the late 1980s.

In the week of Labour’s landslide in the Euro-elections, it is tempting to see this continuity as a strength — particularly in the context of Blair’s apparent attractiveness to voters. But the dangers of caution should not be forgotten. It has, after all, lost one general election already after a stunning mid-term Euro-election success, and it could do so again.

It is quite possible that a Blair-led Labour Party will succeed where Kinnock’s failed, picking up substantial support from the affluent working and middle class to romp home with a large Commons majority. But that is by no means guaranteed.

On one hand, the affluent voters might just stick with the Tories, particularly if they ditch John Major and the economy really does pick up. On the other, there is the real possibility that wooing affluent voters by minimising policy commitments, particularly on employment, will en¬courage abstention by Labour’s core traditional working-class supporters.

Unsurprisingly, there is no great enthusiasm for the strategy of social democratic caution among Labour politicians and activists. They’re prepared to live with it, not least because the only coherent alternative on offer, the devaluationist anti-European Keynesianism most cogently advanced by Bryan Gould, seems worse.

And if they’re enthusiastic about Blair, it is not because they feel the need suddenly to turn their backs on labourism or to opt for social democracy: they did that years ago. It’s simply that they think him the best available salesman. He has an unenviable job.

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