image by Center for American Progress, via Flickr (licence CC 2.0)
by Baris Celik
Are Blair’s consecutive electoral victories positive developments? Did Labour prefer to stay in opposition rather than being in the reign as ‘New Labour’? Whatever the answer is, there may be things that Labour can inherit from Blair’s political journey.
It’s not Corbyn’s recent electoral victory that prompted me to dedicate this month’s article to Tony Blair and his view of politics. Rather, I was intrigued a few years ago by the question of how a left-wing (well, at least on paper) party can be successful at a time when centre right parties were on the rise. As I researched on the issue, I started to think that the left, if it’s after electoral success, inevitably had to make significant compromises at such a time.
Given the wave started with the rise of Syriza in Greek politics, things turn out to be different in today’s political environment. And I doubt the accuracy of accepting this wave as a development related only to the left-wing politics. Because what is on the rise in today’s European politics is rather a tendency towards those parties that are more outspoken in discourse and bolder in action, be them from the right or left of the political spectrum.
But the old questions related to the success of Labour Party under Blair’s leadership still haunt me. Before the three-term reign of the ‘New Labour’, a phrase defining the Blair-era’s Labour approach, Britain had been ruled by Tory governments during a big majority of the post-Second World War years. Thus, three consecutive election victories was quite an impressive achievement for the Labour Party back then. Thinking of that now, it sound pretty far away from reality. Even though many predicted that the worst case scenario the 2015 elections could produce for Labour would be a hung parliament, the results presented an outright Tory victory.
Two years ago, at the early stages of Labour’s election campaign, I asked a supporter whether he saw Blair’s electoral victories as a success for the Party. He raised his eyebrows while saying that Blair had jettisoned a substantial part of Labour’s core tenets. Having said that, he asked whether election victories in such a way could be mentioned as positive developments. Did he, then, prefer a Labour in opposition rather than a ‘New Labour’ in government?
Three Labour typologies
That’s the substantial question determining the two sides in the debate on Labour’s transformation. In his autobiography A Journey, Blair identifies three Labour typologies: a Labour Party that can never win an election; one that can be victorious thanks only to then-decreasing sympathy towards the Tories; and one that he desires – a ‘modernised’ Labour Party.
Blair believed that there is a psychology within the Party that holds it in opposition for long years and prevents it from embracing the modern world by heart. One of the obstacles for Labour to get out of opposition stands, he argued, was the notorious Article 4 of the Party Constitution, which explicitly mentioned ‘common ownership’ as one of the Party’s values. Such a move marked the peak of criticisms against the Party’s socialist backgrounds, but perhaps sparked more criticism than it had directed. After that came a totally new Labour approach which is blamed to be only a moderated version of Margaret Thatcher’s policies. Although Blair criticises Thatcher on the basis that she was wrong on her attitude towards Europe and on not providing the public the opportunities it needed, he still cannot avert these harsh criticisms of being likened to the Iron Lady. Thatcher, he argues in his memoirs, instilled on the public the sense to stand on its own feet, and she did this without any sympathy for the working people.
Bridging social democracy and neoliberalism
As I mentioned above, New Labour made its dominating electoral gains despite the rise of neoliberal economic policies. Tony Blair must have seen the appeal of such policies that he started pondering how to maintain that neoliberal track whilst not hampering the left. Essentially, he was uneasy with the decreased economic and social role of the state. Therefore he sought to keep the state as a way of helping out citizens in one way or another: The state should continue producing welfare, but it shouldn’t get in the way of private sector while doing so – and vice-versa. Rather than supporting the less fortunate in the first place, the state should give its citizens theopportunities to realise their potentials, to make use of what they already have, a method named as ‘equality of opportunities’. Blair assumed that giving direct financial assistance to the people is not the right way. Rather, the state should give opportunities to the people to make money. Seen from this point, it reminds me the Native American adage of ‘teach me how to use a thing, rather than giving it to me’. But his way of striking a balance on whom to protect and how has proven to be quite dubious. At the end, he was seen as a representative and supporter of ‘middle class’, rather than being a leader who provides prosperity to the people with lower levels of income as well.
Beyond left and right?
Blair’s New Labour is informed by a move called the ‘Third Wave’, which is deemed to be an alternative to the traditional line of politics of rightist and leftist camps. Anthony Giddens, one of the most famous proponents of Third Wave, describes the move as ‘a policy without enemies’. This sounds a bit of a dream to me at best, and at worst it is an ill-structured definition. Because I believe that politics is fundamentally established upon conflicts of different views, which makes ‘enmity’ a central and necessary element in it. In this regard, meanings ascribed to ‘enmity’ is the difference between political views. Some argue that adversaries can never be reconciled and they should be exposed in physically violent ways, whereas some others are open to dialogue. In any case though, each political view has its enemy. This is perhaps best demonstrated by the fact that Blair himself collected a decent number of adversaries throughout his political career.
In his autobiography, Blair favours thinking radically. He mentions that people eschew from challenging the traditional perspectives and presenting new ideas. In Blair’s terminology, radical thinking means taking bold action to establish this view of ideal world system. The ‘radical’ aspect of his thinking is in fact similar to what is called today the ‘radical extremism’. Indeed they only differ in what they are trying radically to realise. Just like fundamentalists recourse to physical violence for the sake of their own view of ideal world, Blair ascribed himself the duty of teaching the Muslims how to live in accordance with Islam. Credits to him, because such an aim is actually ‘radical’: One should be blind to not to see that intervention made Middle East worse, not better. He might not be in evil thoughts when he coined the idea of intervening in Iraq and Afghanistan, but having seen his post-Prime Ministry initiatives in the Middle East, Blair doesn’t seem he took lessons on his way to departure from active politics. His justification was the idea that the international community should not be silent on the things it does not directly feel and ‘seeing the suffering’ was a legitimate reason to intervene.
Like him or not, Tony Blair has left his mark on British politics, with particular ones on the Labour Party. I think that his ideas will always be discernable within the Party ranks. And they are not to be ignored. Because Labour supporters should be open to debate the arguments they criticise, be them pro- or anti-Blair. One thing that I believe the Labour should inherit from Blair is that his belief on the power and possibility of change. Because without change, no political movement can achieve its goals. Like Darwin said, it is not the most powerful that survived, but the one who adapts to ever-changing conditions.