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Tony Blair: What I got right – and Labour now is getting wrong

Politics is about applying values with an open mind, not about using ideology to avoid hard questions

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

12 December 2015

9:00 AM

All wings of the Labour party which support the notion of Labour as a party aspiring to govern — rather than as a fringe protest movement — agree on the tragedy of the Labour party’s current position. But even within that governing tendency, there is disagreement about the last Labour government; what it stood for and what it should be proud of.

The moral dimension of Labour tradition has always been very strong, encapsulated in the phrase that the Labour party owed more to Methodism than to Marx. When I became the opposition spokesman on law and order in 1992, following our fourth election defeat, I consciously moved us away from a ‘civil liberties’ paramount approach to one that started with the rights of the victim, their pain, their suffering, and put first our moral responsibility to stand with them. Of course the two shouldn’t be in conflict. But nonetheless — tonally at least — I shifted our position and did it for moral as well as political reasons.

I also revitalised the notion of community, of the importance of family ties, things which in the 1960s had become more associated with the Tories, but which actually had strong roots in Labour working-class communities. When we rewrote the party’s constitution, we put as the central tenet: ‘By our common endeavour we achieve more together than we do alone.’ We retained the ‘social’ part of socialism, but effectively discarded the ideological one. We distinguished between state and social action.

So the values of New Labour were very well articulated. Even today, many of those who did not agree with the later actions of the Labour government like this moral stance — even if they came to believe that over time we lost that imperative. So having asserted the importance of public services, we then — they say — became obsessed with introducing the market to them, thus diluting their values. That in wanting to prove our ‘business’ credentials, we believed the private sector could do no wrong. That in supporting America post-9/11, especially under a Republican president, we became fellow travellers of the ‘neocons’, rather than champions of peace. I have never written about this in this way before; but let me explain how my thinking developed and why.

Until 1997, the Labour party had been in existence roughly a hundred years. But during that time, it had rarely been in government. In fact, at that point, it had never won two full terms of power, let alone three; not even with the Attlee government. This was because we could win power by dint of the unpopularity over time of a Conservative government; by appealing to the need for change; and by burnishing our values as better and in a sense more moral than those of the Tories.

But the problem was that once in government, where hard choices had to be made, and where supporters had to be disappointed as well as indulged, we fell short. In particular, significant elements of the party saw the process of governing with all its compromises, pragmatism and embrace of changing times as implicit betrayal of our principles.

We were sometimes more defenders of the status quo than changers of it; and where we made change, it could be less driven by practicality and more by ideology. At Labour’s best — as with the creation of the NHS — idealism and realism came together perfectly. But elsewhere, as with our adherence to the nationalisation of industries long after it was clear it was inefficient, or the refusal to countenance a legal framework for unions, we confused defending interests with defending values. In this way, we fought for the traditional methods of doing things — even though it was clear on hard-headed analysis that those methods stood in the path of progress for those we claimed to represent. As a result, the public liked what we stood for in broad terms, but distrusted us as a party of government.

I wanted this to change profoundly. I could see that the chief characteristic of the modern world was the scope, scale and speed of change. So our values had to be applied in that context. What’s more, we had to apply them rigorously, unafraid to challenge old thinking even if it came from within. And where there were new problems and new contexts we had to be first to face up to them, again with rigour.


Above all, in a society in which fewer and fewer people thought of themselves as traditional working class, we needed to build a new coalition between the aspirant up-and-coming and the poorest and most disadvantaged. For the task of winning power, the emphasis on the values of community, society, family, compassion and social justice was highly effective.

But for the task of governing, we had to do more than proclaim our values: we had to have the courage and creativity to apply them anew to a changing world and make what counted what worked rather than defending interests or tradition.

This took time. Often in the first term, though we remained politically popular, we were not taking brave decisions; we were content to manage the existing system, albeit with rhetoric which reflected our different values. Some reforms — the minimum wage, Bank of England independence, devolution, peace in Northern Ireland, civil partnerships — represented major change. And progress.

But in public services, welfare, crime and pensions, we were at first timid. With experience in governing and with an attitude which was open to change irrespective of ideology, we then began to make change which was much more radical. Hence the drive for health and education reform, culminating in the opening up of the health service providers to competition, including provision in the private sector, and the academy schools. The public private partnerships for the renewal of the nation’s infrastructure; the antisocial behaviour legislation; and even identity cards to control illegal immigration. In short, we pushed the frontier of what the Labour party was supposed to be about. We were proud of our iconoclasm.

The ‘we’, I accept, was not everyone. But we should never forget that David Miliband won a clear majority of the party membership in the leadership election of 2010. He lost because he lacked support from the trade unions.

We spearheaded inner-city regeneration; mounted an audacious bid to host the Olympics; and targeted socially excluded families who were causing community problems. The school reforms were transformative. By 2007 — hard to believe now — we had satisfaction rates in the NHS higher than at any time since it was created. Crime fell, not by a little, but by over 30 per cent.

Of course we made mistakes. But we were a radical reforming government. And we tried to put the moral purpose of the Labour party into practice — the only sort of morality worth very much.

We didn’t spot the financial crisis, along with the rest of the world. It was more an absence of understanding than an absence of a will to regulate which was the issue. But the essential position we occupied in British politics retained appeal, which is why we won a third term in 2005. We were never in any real danger of losing that election.

After the 11 September attacks, I became convinced that Islamist extremism was the security issue of our time. People can agree or disagree with the decisions which I took, and the emphasis I put on the partnership with the USA, but I took them not in defiance of progressive politics but in furtherance of them.

I believed then, and believe now, that this extremism is a modern form of fascism, albeit one based on religious doctrine, and that we’re engaged in a global war against it. But the point for these purposes is that I didn’t start as one type of leader and end as another in terms of my values. What changed was that my experience of governing led me to solutions which became, over time, more radical and less traditional.

My essential argument — and indeed my argument with the party today — is that this approach has not become redundant with time. It is even more important. The pace of change is not slowing; it is accelerating. The next generation of technological advance — big data, possibly artificial intelligence — will be akin to yet another industrial revolution. Except that this time it will affect the service sector too.

We have to understand it and prepare for it. Infrastructure, housing, social exclusion — all these challenges require more modernising and less ideological thinking. So do issues to do with economic policy, particularly the impact of quantitative easing and its relationship with fiscal policy. Issues such as how to regulate banks in a way that protects us as far as possible from crisis, but also recognises the cardinal importance to a thriving economy of a thriving financial sector. All of these issues should be a huge topic of debate in progressive circles. But today they barely feature.

Right now we’re in danger of not asking the right questions — never mind of failing to get the right answers. All of this is about applying values with an open mind; not boasting of our values as a way of avoiding the hard thinking which the changing world insists upon.

Many, especially in today’s Labour party, felt we lost our way in government. I feel we found it. But I accept that in the process we failed to convince enough people that the true progressives are always the modernisers — not because they discard principle, but because they have the courage to adhere to it when confronted with reality.

Tony Blair’s first contribution to The Spectator appeared in the 18 August 1979 issue.


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