Alex Massie

Blairism Eclipsed

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Danny Finkelstein's typically excellent column (£) this week argued that Blairism is dead and buried in the Labour party, not least because none of Blair's followers remain in any position of authority in the party. Blair, he suggests, was a one-off and the party leadership contest has been, if not a sprint, then a trundle to the left.

I think there's a good deal to that. Indeed, it's startling how Blair has been excised from the party's memory. Startling, but not, perhaps, entirely surprising. Faced with a centrist government, it's easy to see why the Labour party has shifted to the left, if only because a) a smaller parliamentary party is ever more dependent upon its Scottish and London strongholds and b) it needs to distance itself from the government. Cameron and Clegg are camped in the centre so Labour must pitch its tents elsewhere.

And since there are aspects of government policy (in England) in areas such as health and education that build-upon stalled Blairite reforms (while being bolder than even Blair dared to be) it's the case that Labour in opposition can't help but disassociate itself from aspects of its own record in government. The alternative is a kind of constructive opposition that's ill-suited to our style of politics.

It's not the case that the left is in command of the Labour party, more that the Blairite wing has been silenced. As Hopi Sen writes:

[P]artly it’s that their [the Blairites'] analysis is a tough and unpalatable one. They believe the party needs to confront the deficit with a clear strategy, embrace reform of public services, have a strong anti-crime and pro-voluntarism message, and support private sector job creation.

Personally, I more or less assent to that agenda (I have concerns over choice in public services in a time of low spending, and I don’t see why progressive civil liberties and green policies couldn’t fit within that policy structure) but nothing would be more fatal than for such a policy programme to be proposed by warmed over veterans of the “out-riders” years. The “Blairites” need to find new champions, and that will take some time.

John McTernan hints at something similar in a piece for the Scotsman on how Labour must reconnect with England:

The labour movement has its roots in a very strong English tradition that is suspicious of the state, that created its own institutions - friendly societies, co-ops, building societies.

A confident Labour would have welcomed David Cameron's Big Society while acidly pointing out he was more than 160 years late in adopting the ideas of the Rochdale Pioneers, the founders of the Co-operative movement. And it would concede the mistakes it made in the post-war period where, after the 1945 landslide victory, Labour all too rapidly concluded the state was not the problem for working people but was, in most circumstances, the solution. But, in addition, this needs to go wider to embrace the dissenting strand of English thought.

Quite. The Big Society is no one party's property. It draws on all three great traditions - Toryism, Liberalism and the Labour movement - which is both one reason why it can be tough to define and tricky to attack. But in as much as it represents a certain kind of fusionism it's also, in some ways, the successor to Blairism just as Blairism succeeded Thatcherism. (Which is also why the right is often so sceptical of Cameron.)

It's not a surprise that Labour haven't quite come to terms with this, nor remarkable that the party isn't ready to do so. Nevertheless, at some point it will need to remember how and why Tony Blair was able to appeal to Middle England. Meanwhile, the coalition - a very English coalition incidentally - is winning the intellectual battle not least because it hasn't adopted a Year Zero strategy and is instead building on the better, more reforming aspects of Blairism.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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