Finishing what Blair started?
The project of delabourising Labour has had a new lease of life, argues Paul Demarty
After the May 6 election results, it was impossible to ignore a certain voice in the din of recriminations engulfing the Labour Party.
That voice was, of course, Peter Mandelson’s. The erstwhile Prince of Darkness has had little enough influence over the past decade, while he - like his great political ally, Tony Blair - has grown fat at the trough of non-specific international ‘consultancy’ services. But he is not a man liable to let a crisis go to waste. So, after Labour lost his old seat in Hartlepool, he told the Today programme: “We have not won a general election in 16 years. We have lost the last four, with 2019 a catastrophe. The last 11 general elections read: lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose.”
It would, of course, not be long before Blair himself weighed in on the matter. In the next week’s New Statesman, he laid out his call for “the total deconstruction and reconstruction” of Labour:
We need a new progressive movement; a new progressive agenda; and the construction of a new governing coalition. The construction of this new progressive movement should start with an open dialogue between like-minded Labour and Lib Dem members and the non-aligned.
The politics of such a “reconstructed” Labour Party fade, alas, into meaningless generalities and buzzwords, in the classic Blair fashion:
Today’s world doesn’t require a Big State per se, but a strategic and active one, which is good at solving problems and good at promoting social inclusion and economic dynamism at the same time. It will challenge all those who don’t adapt to change, including big business with a conventional, centralised mentality, or trade unions which can’t get to grips with mobilising workers in the new economy. A myriad of small firms and the self-employed will be central, not peripheral, to the future.1
The Blairite project had always, at its core, the conviction that the split of the labour movement from the Liberals was a catastrophe, in need of reversal. Until the very day of the 1997 election, Blair hoped to bring the Liberal Democrats into government with him; the scale of Labour’s victory paradoxically rendered this impossible, and by the time the numbers added up, Blair was a badly tainted figure clearly on the way out.
The scale of his victory did, however, give him a mandate within Labour to pursue related, subsidiary objectives. The mechanisms of control still enjoyed by the labour movement over the party were (and are) the key obstacles to healing the Lib-Lab rift, and so Blair succeeded in domesticating conference to an unprecedented degree, and adapting the party to the ‘presidential’ style of decision-making now familiar from successive governments and reaching a crazed apogee under Boris Johnson. Formal democracy was steadily replaced with ‘consultative’ bodies like the National Policy Forum. Local choice over candidates was severely constrained; the branches and constituency parties atrophied. Blair’s dream was to dissolve the membership and elect another - the new membership would be middle class, pay dues and leave the politics to the politicians.
The failure to secure a Blairite continuity leader in 2010 prevented a more thoroughgoing ‘delabourisation’. The union link remained; conference continued to exist despite its deracination. But the Blairites did not give up. The dream of an American-style, liberal, capitalist party to face off against the Tories, with its activists professionalised and under firm control, and its candidates chosen by atomised voters in primaries rather than party members, was revived by John Mann (lately occupied by sniffing out imaginary anti-Semites for the Tory government, but then the ultra-right Labour MP for Bassetlaw). Labour later adopted a new procedure to select the party leader, whereby any old Tom, Dick or Harriet could have their say for the princely sum of £2. It should be remembered that this was a devious ploy to reduce the influence of the trade unions and increase the influence of The Sun, the Daily Mirror and friends on the process, but the complacency of rightwing MPs in nominating Jeremy Corbyn onto the ballot caused it to backfire spectacularly.
The Corbyn years were notable, among the general drama, for the near total failure of the left to reverse any of the Blair-Brown-Miliband changes to the structure of the party. A slight easement in the requirements for triggering an MP’s reselection was eventually achieved in principle, but the leader’s office was so hostile to its actual use that nobody was ever successfully deselected. The result is that Kier Starmer, Knight of the Order of Bath, has control of almost the same party apparatus built by those virulently anti-democratic ghouls, Blair and Mandelson.
On top of that, having promised a new era, but delivered only an historic defeat in 2019, the Labour left is perhaps sufficiently discredited that there would be some apparent legitimacy to completing the ‘delabourisation’ project. Mandelson’s pithy summary of Labour’s electoral fortunes since 1979 makes a point that has some wider echo, as evidenced by Starmer’s victory in the leadership contest in the first place. There is no purpose, according to common sense, in proposing any policy if you cannot be elected to implement it. The old coalition of Labour could reach deep into working class communities through workplace organisation and local activism and thus deliver solid votes, but - even if ‘goodbye to the working class’ theories are bunkum - it can hardly be denied that those connections, the xylem and phloem of left politics, have atrophied under the capitalist class assault of the last four decades; they must be restored or else replaced.
Starmer thus has both the means and the opportunity to ‘finish the job’, or at least to try. The unions may still present an obstacle - but, for example, with the left split three ways in the upcoming Unite general secretary election, the rightwing candidate, Gerry Coyne, could sneak through (he got close last time), and that could make a lot of difference. Unite’s support for Jeremy Corbyn came at a cost, but it shielded him considerably. A vote of confidence in ‘sensible’ rightism from such quarters would be a boon to the Blair-Mandelson axis. Having spent the summer, as he promises, having awkward conversations with ‘ordinary people’, Starmer could frame any plan as an outcome of those discussions, however tendentious any such assertion would inevitably be. In the fairground-mirror world of bourgeois politics, ‘ordinary people’ mysteriously only ever give voice to one’s own prejudices - whatever they happen to be.
Assuming that Starmer (or a successor) could pull it off, it is worth interrogating a little more closely the central claim that a hollowed-out ‘progressive’ bourgeois party has an electoral future, where a (bureaucratised, bourgeoisified) Labour Party does not. Our primary interest, as communists, is not the next election but the consciousness of the masses; but even the most mundane polls offer some insight into the work to be done.
On that score, there are reasons for scepticism. Blair’s ‘theoretical’ arguments about the changing economic times are both bland and bizarre, as if we had literally opened up a time capsule from the mid-90s to find a Progress white-paper (or, indeed, a late-80s number of Marxism Today). The paeans to smaller, more agile firms against the old corporatist forces of big companies and unions somehow never die. They could not be killed by the post-9/11 ‘forever wars’ (of which Blair still refuses to repent), the 2008 financial crash, Trump, Brexit, Biden’s Keynesian rhetoric or anything else - so it would be a foolish to expect Blair to change his unyielding prescription at the prompting of a mere by-election result in north-east England. A literal repeat of the Blairite programme of the 90s would place Labour to the right of the Tories, so far as economic policy goes.
Blair’s other political interventions in recent years have suggested he thinks this is just fine, so long as the ‘concerns’ of ‘ordinary people’ (who else?) about immigration and political correctness can be addressed. Such is the common touch of this supposedly great politician that he still does not notice that obvious bad-faith cooptation of reactionary social mores by metropolitan liberals are deeply alienating and essentially never work for exactly that reason. Why vote for the fake chauvinists if you can just vote for the real ones? If Labour’s Hartlepool election headquarters had been festooned with any more union jacks, the building would have collapsed under the weight. It did them no good there.
Having mentioned Progress, then, it is interesting to take a look at its recent operations. The great white whale of a Blairite think-tank has merged with its rival, Policy Network, into a single group, Progressive Britain. The line of the new organisation seems to be slightly to the left of its component parts. Patrick Diamond, a former advisor to Blair and PN chair, told the launch meeting: “For the last decade the party’s modernising wing has been frozen in time, bereft of new thinking … We live in an utterly different world from the 1990s. Solutions for then are no longer appropriate for today.” Brexit would have to be “accepted”, but nevertheless
it has never been more necessary to forge connections with progressive parties across Europe and the US, as president Biden constructs a new social contract for America … while social democrats across Europe identify new ways to create high-wage, secure jobs and revitalise the welfare state.2
While the usual Blairite tics are there - the use of the word ‘progressive’ in a way that evacuates it of all meaning, the obsession with and radical overstatement of novelty - there is nonetheless a retreat from the Blairite triangulators’ obsession with petty-bourgeois swing voters’ prejudices.
Could this version of a neo-Blairite revolution succeed at the polls? Perhaps; after all, Joe Biden won the US election against a far-right incumbent and remains popular, as he play-acts at getting progressive legislation through Congress. It is too early to draw any real conclusions from this, of course; and success, on the recent evidence of capital flight being provoked by very mild rises in taxation in France under François Hollande and his subsequent desperate unpopularity, may be temporary. Certainly Democratic success in next year’s midterms is hardly secure, with the Democrats’ supposedly game-changing programme grinding to a halt in the face of trivial resistance on the part of conservative ‘blue-dog’ senators.
That is, ultimately, the peculiarity of Blairism and other forms of liquidationist Labour rightism. Diamond again: his faction “defined themselves by what they are against - the ‘hard’ left - rather than what they are for”; but in truth what they are for, even in their own minds, is ‘winning’, which means chasing the favour of the capitalist media to the exclusion of all other things. The failure to win that favour cannot be explained in class terms, for that would mean admitting that success was entirely out of the hands of the clever men and women who seek it; it must instead always be blamed on the left. Nihilism will always resolve to vicious scapegoating. There is ultimately nothing behind Blairism other than the conviction that the ‘hard’ left - by which Diamond, Blair and co mean everyone from Len McCluskey to Harpal Brar - has no legitimate place in politics at all.
Starmer may or may not decide to adopt this programme - he has made no attempt to disavow it, bringing in Mandelson for ‘advice’ - but if he does, no doubt many Labour lefts will attempt to argue that it is not so great a vote-winning formula as the Blairites think. This is a dead end. What is at issue is the far more precious prize, for the bourgeois wing of Labourism, than a mere electoral result: the death of the Labour Party as even the shadow of a working class institution.