I am no fan of Tony Blair. I am no fan of the Labour party. Yet the ongoing and seemingly interminable Labour leadership election has irritated as to its descriptions what Tony Blair was and what his political lesson is for his supposed heirs.
Several themes interlock. First, that Blair tells us that the primary duty of the Labour party is to win power by shaping their policies to the desires of the electorate. Without power, Labour is nothing. This may mean advocating policies that are opposed to their general long term ethical orientation, but realise the short term goal of achieving power to “keep the Tories out”. Second and relatedly, in this manner that Blair’s platform was aimed at pure electability — a claim made by his supporters as often as his opponents. Finally that Blair represented a total refutation of the socialism of the past. A decisive break.
In contrast to this view, I hold that Blair’s policies were advocated because this is what he believed was the best direction for the country. They won, in Blair’s view, because both he and the electorate believed in the same things. Blair’s politics were formulated through an underlying and relatively systematic set of principles. One of Blair’s key strengths both within the party and at the ballot box was articulating what he believed to be a correct reading of the socialist tradition as passed to him. This too was because he genuinely believed this reading of socialism to be correct and that his policies were the best means to pursue this goal. Blair narrated this direction as the only possible means of socialism in the 20th century.
For Blair, New Labour was a reform of the party’s socialism along broadly communitarian lines, a communitarian ethos that he held to be the true core of socialism. This is confirmed by his colleagues. Discussing the reforms he put into place alongside Gordon Brown and Blair, Peter Mandelson comments that Blair’s “vision for Britain was rooted in the Christian socialism he had embraced while at Oxford. It extolled community and family above an all-knowing, interventionist state […] It held that individual rights had to balanced by social responsibilities”.
Writing in his memoir A Journey, Blair describes the formation of this outlook in more detail. Blair names Peter Thomson, an Australian Anglican priest whom he met at the University of Oxford, as “the most influential person in my life”. Thomson influenced Blair to take his faith more seriously as a comprehensive social vision informing his politics. Thomson suggested books by Scottish Christian philosopher John Macmurray. By Blair’s estimation the influence of Macmurray was profound. Asked in an interview by Scotland on Sunday Blair said “If you really want to know what I’m all about you have to take a look at a guy called John Macmurray. It’s all there”. Through Macmurray’s writing and the influence of Thomson, Blair
developed a theory of socialism being about ‘community’ — i.e. people owed obligations to each other and were social beings, not only individuals out for themselves — which pushed me down the path of trying to retrieve Labour’s true values from the jumble of ideological baggage that was piled on top of them, obscuring their meaning…[socialism]wasn’t about particular type of economic organisation, anchored to a particular point in history.
Blair would go on to provide the forward to the collected works of Macmurray. In this forward, Blair’s debt to MacMurray is felt by him to be pervasive. The personalist basis of Blair’s ethics is clear — “I begin with analysis of human beings as my compass; the politics is secondary”.
In his pre-1997 election book of interviews, My Vision for a Young Country, Blair notes the theological basis of this commitment to community. In an essay first published to controversy in the Sunday Telegraph in Easter 1996, ‘Why I am a Christian’. “The problem with Marxist ideology”, Blair opines, “ was that in the end, it suppressed the individual by starting with society. But it is from a sense of individual duty that we connect the greater good and the interests of the community — a principle the Church celebrates in the sacrament of communion”. In his highly embarrassing 2006 speech to the Women’s Institute, Blair stated that:
At the heart of my beliefs is the idea of community. I don’t just mean the local villages, towns and cities in which we live. I mean that our fulfilment as individuals lies in a decent society of others. My argument to you today is that the renewal of community is the answer to the challenges of a changing world.
The vision of New Labour was not intended to be one that liquidates the central values of the Labour party, but re-bases them: “the ‘new’ [in New Labour] was necessary in order to ‘re-new’ the old; that the values — fairness, solidarity, social justice — lost relevance unless applied anew to a changed world. I believe the same of community” and the need for the country to “rebuild these core values of community; but only by renewing them for the modern world; the old and new together”.
Blair’s 1994 Fabian pamphlet Socialism fleshes out this vision of a re-founding of socialism on ethical and communitarian grounds. Blair’s calls for “not a break, but a re-discovery” of the true meaning of socialism, re-grounded in its roots in ethics and community. The history of the 20th century for Blair begins with a wave of collectivism, creating opportunity in the form of the welfare state. While causing widespread prosperity, states become unpopular, not as such but in response to the “manner their power was exercised”, in what people viewed as excessive taxation and regulation. In the aftermath of Thatcherism’s failure to produce both economic well-being and social cohesion, “The public is once again ready to listen to notions associated with the Left — social justice, cohesion, equality of opportunity and community”.
For Blair, two dominant forms of thought informed socialism in the 20th century: Marxist influenced forms of ‘scientific socialism’ and ethical socialism tied to social democracy in Europe. In the aftermath of the collapse of communism the Marxist strand was no longer credible. The ethical strand is the only “serious view” of the Left, but one that must be given “clarity and content”. Marx’s supposed emphasis on the centralised state controlling industry was false and that the the state and public sector were “vested interests capable of oppression” as much as capital. Inflexible Marxist views of class were too simplistic to have any diagnostic, let alone visionary power. The basis of socialism is found in “certain key values and beliefs” and “ethical and subjective judgement[s]” that “individuals are socially interdependent human beings” that “cannot be divorced from the society to which they belong” — two ideas that could have found their basis in Macmurry’s relational ethics. Socialism is a “social-ism”, where “collective power of all used for individual good of each”. The ethical impulse of “enlightened view of self-interest” is tied to the interests of society as a whole.
Socialism is then a set of principles not bound to one particular conception of class or structure of the political world. Vitally, it does not confuse means with ends. The ends of nationalisation, productivity and fairness were just, but the means limited their possibility. Rather than “fit the world to the ideology”, socialists must understand the real world of a competitive global economy where knowledge and the development of skills are a key factor. Blair writes: “society, through government but in many other ways, is acting to promote the public good” significantly further than “a Tory economy with a bit of social compassion”. Thus socialism has no specific economic or political programmes, but is rather “having a central vision based around principle but liberated from particular policy prescriptions that became confused with principle”. The ultimate aim is “A strong united society which fives each citizen a chance to develop their potential to the full” and “not power at the expense of principle, but power through principle and for the purpose of the common good.”. Simply “The ethical basis of socialism is the only one that has stood the test of time”.
Blair’s recreation of the Labour party’s Clause Four orientated it to ‘community’ or ‘society’. Blair’s re-wrote of the clause personally adding the words “democractic socialist” into the Labour party consistution for the first time but allying it to a distinctively communitarian flavour. Labour seeks “to create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many, not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe”. The content of commitment to a socialist politics was a commitment to a particular type of community inasmuch as community enriches and increases the power of the individual. This forms the locus of Blair’s politics and his parallel commitment to values such as “aspiration” adn “opportunity” alongside opposition to politics based on traditional points of reference for socialism like class. Speaking at the 1998 Blackpool Labour party conference, shortly after New Labour’s landslide election victory, Blair’s reiterated that:
The challenge we face has to be met by us together: one nation; one community; social justice; partnership; co-operation; the equal worth of all; the belief that the best route to individual advancement and happiness lies in a thriving society of others. These were words and concepts derided in the 1980s; these are the values of today, not just here but round the world. At long last, ‘It’s up to me’ is being replaced by ‘It’s up to us.’ That crude individualism of the 1980s is the mood no longer. The spirit of the times today is community. Consider the Tories in their 18 years. How was it that a Tory party that in 1979 came to power as the party of law and order, of attacking welfare scroungers, of the family, ended up presiding over a crime rate that doubled, welfare spending that tripled and the family in greater decline than ever before? Because they really did think there was no such thing as society. That is why.
Writing against Corbyn in The Guardian as recently as last week, Blair holds that the policies of the “old Left” of the 1980s(i.e. nationalisation et al) were rejected by the electorate because they, like him, had realised they simply wouldn’t achieve their stated aims:
These are policies from the past that were rejected not because they were too principled, but because a majority of the British people thought they didn’t work.
The ends were sound, but the means were lacking — as was the case for Blair with Clause Four. I see almost nothing of power first then values here. Or Polly Toynbee’s line that it would be nice to be further left, but the nasty public won’t let us in if we are. Blair believed his policies were right, not simply that they would get him elected. He believed that his instincts aligned with wider social forces and other political actors were incapable of bringing about this coordination as he was able to do. He did not believe he was taking policies to the public that were simply what they wanted to hear as a route into power against the Tories.
Contemporary Blairites are correct that their politics is primarily about “values”. But in contrast to Blair, where his values and politics seem to be the products of a genuine process of thought and analysis and are articulated vividly and with passion, their values seem superficial, unreflective. It appears they cannot even articulate why the ends of their values would not be technically achieved by Corbyn’s Keynesian policies. They are not able to articulate themselves within the broader traditions of their party in any meaningful sense — a key success of Blair in building internal alliances with those to his left. Corbyn, while significantly to the left of Blair, is even able to draw on the same communitarian language that made “early Blair” (the Blair rated by Blue Labourites such as Jon Cruddas) successful.
Perhaps most vitally though, unlike Blair, contemporary Blairites seem systematically unable to read the wider social forces and note how politics has been changed by them. In this sense, in aligning with a wider public anti-austerity mood, Corbyn is a superior “heir to Blair” than his own self-appointed followers who think the world is unchanged since 2008 and think it barely changed since 1997.