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Some Observations on the Blair Project

Mike Phipps

This article, which provides an overview of the origins and political character of Blairism, was written in March this year for publication in the French socialist journal Carré Rouge. The original text, which was aimed at readers who would not necessarily be familiar with the details of recent labour history in Britain, has been edited slightly.

RECENTLY, ALAN Thornett, a leading trade union militant in the Cowley car plant in the 1960s and 1970s whose workplace experiences led him to revolutionary socialism, published Inside Cowley,1 effectively the second volume of his political autobiography. The book is subtitled Trade Union Struggle in the 1970s: Who Really Opened the Door to the Tory Onslaught? In it Thornett examines how one of the most powerful industrial movements of the time was reduced to a fraction of its former strength. His colourful account of how first regional and then national trade union leaders applied intense pressure – collaboration with management, media witch-hunts, victimisation of militants – to break shopfloor organisation and keep in power at any cost a Labour government is instructive for its wider application. The story of Cowley constitutes a microcosm of how trades unions were systematically demobilised by their own leaders, whose betrayal and defeatism paved the way for the authoritarian Thatcher governments of the 1980s.

This process continued long after the fall of the Labour government in 1979. Every section of workers that fought in the 1980s in defence of jobs, pay or conditions – steelworkers, printworkers, miners, seafarers, health workers, dockers – fought alone. All were defeated. The most significant defeat was without doubt that of the year-long strike by miners against closures in 1984-5. Whilst the mineworkers’ union leadership can be criticised for many important strategic mistakes, it is clear that solidarity action by other workers, raising the possibility of a general strike, was the key to victory. Nor was this lacking: railworkers, dockers and printworkers all took action during this period; all were quickly forced back to work by union leaders; all have since paid dearly, along with the rest of the working class.

The defeat of the miners in 1985, hugely symbolic on account of the leading role they played in bringing down the Conservative government of Heath in 1974, opened the way for a period of rapid de-industrialisation and change to the social structure. By the early 1990s there were only 20,000 miners compared to 200,000 at the start of the 1980s. Steelworkers had been reduced from 160,000 to 40,000. A similar picture emerges in many of the bedrock industries. Unemployment, accurately measured as opposed to the figures provided by the government, which has changed its method of counting 27 times over 18 years in order to massage down the results, fluctuates around 4 million.2 The decline in full-time manufacturing work, the increase in part-time service sector work, casualisation, the growth of home work and the informal economy have contributed to a considerable degree of differentiation and fragmentation within the working class. This, together with the influence within the labour movement of "new realism" following the miners’ strike – a philosophy developed by the trade union apparatuses to underpin their accelerated adaptation to the government and rejection of struggle against it – has left the fighting capacity of the unions profoundly weakened. Less than one in three workers is organised today, compared with half the workforce twenty years ago. Strikes in the early 1990s were at their lowest level since the start of the century. Many disputes that do occur are protracted battles for union recognition or against mass sackings. This fundamental change in the industrial situation since Thornett’s heyday provides a key to other developments.

Labour in opposition
Two decades of trade union defeat have had their political consequences. The radicalisation within the Labour Party after the electoral defeat of the Callaghan government in 1979 reached its high point in the democratic reforms to the Party structure and the narrow defeat of Tony Benn’s bid for the deputy leadership in 1981. By 1982, the Labour apparatus was already beginning to retreat from policy commitments that the Party’s conference had imposed on it, with the leadership openly supporting the Thatcher government’s war in the Malvinas/Falklands and publicly criticising left-wing Labour candidates.3 With a section of Labour’s right wing having split to form the Social Democratic Party, it is now clear that many right-wingers remaining in the Party deliberately sabotaged Labour’s electoral prospects by supporting the adoption of a radical manifesto for the 1983 election, which they proceeded to denigrate in the run-up to polling day. When Labour went down to its worst electoral defeat for over fifty years, blame was immediately heaped on the left, and under the new Kinnock leadership a process of policy reform was begun, taking the Party back to the right. This was accompanied by structural changes designed to weaken democracy and accountability in the Party and a campaign of expulsions and deselection of candidates considered disloyal to the new line. The intolerance of the Kinnock leadership was matched only by the public perception of him as an unconvincing opportunist of limited ability. Opinion polls throughout his nine-year leadership indicate that he was invariably less popular than the Party he led.

By 1992, by which time Labour had lost four general elections in a row, it was clear to all official commentators that the Party’s traditional base in the industrial trade-unionised working class, which had constituted the social majority for Labour’s post-war welfarism, had weakened significantly. The closure of core heavy industries, Thatcher’s anti-union laws, the rise of mass unemployment and benefit cuts leading to the development of a permanent underclass of the poor with little allegiance to Labour, and some very limited attempts to detach sections of the skilled working class and tie them into a middle class constituency of support for the Thatcher project based on wider home and share ownership, low direct taxation and an authoritarian populist approach to crime – all contributed to this erosion of Labour’s base. Such social changes combined with economic circumstances to make a wholesale return to the traditional policies of post-war social democracy largely untenable.

The choice for Labour was: either, to reconstitute itself as a party of the working class and poor, requiring the mobilisation back into the political process of those excluded in the Thatcher years, yet whose capacity for militant action on often fragmented, single-issue problems could not be questioned, as anti-poll tax, anti-racist or environmentalist activity of the period shows; or, to accept the de-industrialisation, privatisation, erosion of welfare and destruction of civil liberties of the Thatcher years, as well as much of the free-market philosophy of individualism and inequality underpinning it, and to attempt to re-position the Party as a more competent, effective, "less dogmatic" national (i.e. middle class) party than the Conservatives and seek support from the latter’s traditional social base – tolerably realistic in the early 1990s, given the perceived weakness, divisions, corruption and economic mismanagement of the government. The assumption by the "modernisers" who advocated this strategy – not in practice borne out by the evidence of voting behaviour in the 1992 election – was that Labour’s traditional, albeit reduced, base would stay loyal to the Party, whatever changes were made to the ideology and programme.

The election of Blair in 1994 as Labour leader ensured the adoption of "modernisation" with greater vigour than had been practised under Kinnock or Smith. Taking advantage of his "honeymoon period" and the influx of many new members into the Party, Blair pushed through a number of new structural changes, designed to weaken trade union influence and undermine hard-won channels of accountability in the Party; one example was referendums of the membership. It was using this method of presenting unamendable statements to the membership for endorsement, backed up by a media barrage in support of the leadership’s proposals, that Clause IV, Part 4 of the Party’s constitution – the symbolic commitment to public ownership – was expunged in 1995 and Labour’s most right-wing electoral programme ever was adopted in 1997.

Despite the significance of these changes, however, it would be wrong to infer a fundamental transformation of the social character of the Labour Party. Blair’s policy victories at Labour Party Conference in recent years have been delivered to him thanks to the powerful block vote wielded by a handful of key union general secretaries – just as was the case for his predecessors. In this sense, "Old Labour" helped create "New Labour". Similarly, although Labour’s grassroots membership had expanded significantly to around 400,000 by 1997, with half of these drawn from professional and managerial classes and only 10% from the manual working class, it should be borne in mind that Labour Party membership has always been disproportionately middle class and that historically the Party’s structures have never been conducive to the inclusion of workers on a permanent basis. Yet one recent indication that labour’s grassroots membership still retains some of its former critical spirit can be found in the significant defeat that Ken Livingstone inflicted on Peter Mandelson in elections to the constituency section of Labour’s National Executive in 1997.

The Party into Power reforms adopted in 1997, on the other hand, do begin to call into question the nature of the Party, insofar as they scrap the National Executive to which Livingstone was elected, transform the Party conference into an advisory stage-managed showcase and create a series of Byzantine intermediary structures, much of them in the gift of the leader, designed to filter out dissent. The architects of this reform openly acknowledge that it is intended to prevent the expression of the kind of rank-and-file discontent that was publicly articulated within the Party during the last Labour government, and they draw for inspiration on the leaderist traditions of the US Democratic Party. Yet it’s hard to deny the fact that a party that depends on working class votes and trade union money for support cannot hermetically seal itself off from all mechanisms of accountability, however much it may modify its structures. The parliamentary party’s rebellion over In Place of Strife in 1969 confirms this assessment, as does the more recent nomination to Labour’s new Policy Forum of Alice Mahon – following her resignation from the government in protest at its recent benefits cuts – by the Parliamentary Labour Party itself.

The 1997 general election
The full significance of the 1 May 1997 general election has still to be fully appreciated by mainstream commentators in Britain, which is all the more remarkable in view of the fact that the result was trailed in the opinion polls over four years in advance.5 In fact, polls predicting a massive Labour landslide were uniformly discounted on the grounds that surveys before the 1992 election for a variety of reasons had shown a substantial bias to Labour. This time, however, the polls were largely accurate, producing Labour’s largest ever majority in seats and record electoral swings that will effectively require the junking of all post-war studies of voting behaviour.

Firstly this was an anti-Conservative vote. No fewer than five outgoing Cabinet ministers lost their seats. The Conservatives lost all their seats in Scotland and Wales. Although the Liberal vote fell by three-quarters of a million votes, they doubled their seats in Parliament by targeting weak Conservative constituencies and with the help of tactical voting. Although the swing from Conservative to Labour averaged 10.5% nationally – more than double the previous record swing of the post-war period (the election of Thatcher in 1979) – the swing in the south where Labour needed to win seats was significantly higher. In some areas, most famously where Michael Portillo, widely seen as a future Conservative leader, lost his seat, the swing was a remarkable 18%. Such massive gains in the south help explain why Labour now has two-thirds of the seats in the House of Commons, an overall majority of 180, despite having polled only 44% of the vote nationally.

But what was it a vote for? Blair’s post-election mantra, "We were elected as New Labour and we will govern as New Labour", is a convenient interpretation, but one not borne out by closer scrutiny. As stated earlier, the scale of victory was in accord with opinion poll predictions from October 1992 onwards, long before "New Labour" was invented. Opinion polling on policy issues during the election was also revealing. 72% of voters surveyed supported raising income tax to pay for better education, 58% wanted wealth redistribution (only 15% opposed), 74% wanted no further privatisations. 86% thought taxes would go up under Labour – which did not deter them from voting Labour anyway. 72% wanted public services extended even if it meant tax rises. The significance of this alone is enormous; one commentator admitted: "The conventional wisdom of a whole political generation – that voters would never vote for tax-raising parties – has turned out to be wrong."6

New Labour rejected all these aspirations. Whilst 71% of voters said that education, health and welfare issues were the most important questions in the election, Labour’s campaigning focused on fiscal orthodoxy, including a refusal to deviate from the outgoing government’s spending limits for two years, populist gestures on crime and immigration and stylistic matters of tone and competence. One is tempted to conclude that New Labour has embraced the discourse of 1980s Thatcherism at the very moment a majority of voters have turned away from this.

Labour in government
Labour’s election was greeted in the markets by a rise in share prices. Within a week, the new government handed total responsibility for the setting of interest rates over to the Bank of England. If grassroots members were astonished by this surrendering of one of the principal governmental levers over the economy to an unelected and unaccountable institution, the precursor to several successive interest rate rises, they were less surprised by Labour’s first budget. This was accurately summarised by the International Herald Tribune as essentially pro-business with a few gestures to please Labour supporters, such as a cut in the VAT rate on domestic fuel and a one-off tax on privatised utilities. The core of the budget included cuts in corporation tax worth £2 billion to the private sector and a reafffirmed commitment to keep inherited Conservative spending limits. This has been maintained despite the fact that the government is running a £5.7 billion surplus in its accounts and is actually spending £3 billion less than the Conservatives would be if still in power! The consequences for the public services, including lengthening hospital waiting lists, hospital and fire station closures, teacher redundancies and cuts in other local authority provision, could be remedied simply by increases in the rate of direct tax paid by higher income earners: the one policy the government has excluded for the length of its projected five-year existence.

As a result, social policy is largely determined by the need to cut costs, the imperative behind the moral rhetoric about `welfare to work’. The National Health Service this year is getting less than half the 3% budget increase it needs just to maintain its current level of service and new charges are being considered for some services to make "savings". In education, tuition fees for university students from all but the very poorest families have been introduced, with a resultant drop in enrolment, a policy repeatedly ruled out by previous governments. In social security, the government accepts the long-term run-down of the state pension and advocates compulsory second pensions run by the private pensions industry, much of which still faces legal action over millions of mis-sold pensions in the 1980s. But the biggest uproar so far has centred on the abolition of lone parent benefit and proposals to cut benefit to the disabled – as an "incentive to work" – providing confirmation of continuity with previous governments in New Labour’s choice of easy victims and the moralistic content of the rhetoric used to justify its actions. Blair’s "big idea" on poverty – the setting up of a Social Exclusion Unit to tackle the problem – fits firmly into this framework. As Labour Left Briefing noted: "The Social Exclusion Unit defines the problem of poverty as a function of the ’underclass’, an alienated minority trapped in a cycle of despair and criminality. This sleight of hand shifts the burden of responsibility away from economic policy and on to the ’culture’ or even the ’moral fibre’ of those who suffer it."7

The reality is that Labour lacks any strategy to tackle mass unemployment. The EU’s decision to make this a big issue was effectively downgraded to an unfunded commitment at Labour’s insistence and has subsequently been reinterpreted to mean making people more employable. Consequently "labour flexibility" naturally complements "welfare reform" in the government’s perspective, and promises on improved workplace rights, easier union recognition and a minimum wage remain unfulfilled.

The same emphasis on moral self-improvement pervades the Home Office’s thinking on criminal justice. Again, continuity with the previous government is the principal characteristic: populist "toughness" on crime, more custodial sentences, more prisons. Particularly pernicious is the threat to abolish legal aid, established by an earlier Labour government, the only mechanism enabling ordinary people access to the legal system. The cynical immobilism on immigration issues is also noteworthy. Many observers missed Blair’s election campaign articles in the tabloid press promising strict immigration controls: "Under the Tories thousands of people settle in this country each year and little is done to stop them."8 In office, Labour has done nothing to lift the iniquitous restrictions that prevent asylum applicants from claiming benefits – effectively designed to starve them out of the country – despite the fact that it would require no primary legislation, simply a stroke of the pen, to do so. Instead Labour has imposed tougher restrictions, including visa requirements for Colombian asylum applicants, thus reducing to a trickle the numbers fleeing to Britain to escape death squads and violence there.

On constitutional issues, the implementation of devolution for Scotland and Wales is to be welcomed. But nothing has been proposed on the long-needed reform to the unelected House of Lords and the commitment to a Freedom of Information Act has been at least temporarily shelved.

In foreign affairs, it is hard to take seriously Labour’s commitment to an "ethical foreign policy". The government’s offhand, implicitly racist, treatment of the people of Montserat, whose lives and livelihoods have been devastated by the volcanic eruption there, its selling of arms to the Indonesian dictatorship and above all its slavish adherence to American imperialist aggression in the Gulf indicate a business-led, narrowly self-interested approach indistinguishable from the previous government’s and far removed from any ethical considerations. Defence remains one of the few budgets not touched by fiscal rigour: £14 billion alone is committed to the Eurofighter project, ten years behind schedule and targeted at a country which no longer exists.9

To what extent is it possible to make an overall characterisation of the Blair project thus far? In a general sense, it is clearly the pursuit of capitalist class interests, a domestic expression of the global neoliberal offensive. At the political as well as economic level, the comparison made increasingly frequently is with Thatcher. One of Blair’s first acts as Prime Minister was to invite her to a meeting at Downing Street to discuss Europe, a symbolic message from Blair of the continuity of the two projects. If this is especially striking in the field of economic and social policy, it is because Blair’s ministers are so eager to employ the same Orwellian Newspeak in their rhetoric as that popularised by the Thatcherites, such as talk of a "dependency culture", or "throwing money at the problem of poverty".

After the internal divisions and vacillations of the Major years, Blair has also been keen from the outset to promote a presidential style reminiscent of the later Thatcher years. Stylistically the Blair government has already exhibited a level of arrogance, personal intrigue and media manipulation comparable to the late 1980s (something it took Thatcher years to learn). The handling as well as the substance of the decision to exempt Formula One Motor Racing from a ban on tobacco advertising after its boss had secretly donated œ1 million to Labour Party funds is perhaps the most striking illustration so far of this behaviour. That said, there is nothing uniquely Blairite about corruption or a government’s willingness to prostitute itself before the interests of big business.

In other respects, there are marked discontinuities with preceding governments. Inasmuch that it emerges from within a Labourist framework, the Blair project has to adapt and compromise with the traditional social democratic concerns expressed in the membership, the unions, the parliamentary party and even the Cabinet. Nor is Blair’s rhetoric simply a reheated version of Thatcher’s; it replaces her narrow individualism with an emphasis on society and a formal commitment to social inclusivity, underpinned by moral precepts governing individual responsibility, where the exercise of one’s rights are conditional upon the acceptance of social duties. Clearly this can develop in a very right-wing direction. One activist has observed: "New Labour mixes economic liberalism, social conservatism and political authoritarianism into a noxious brew that threatens to poison the Labour Party’s traditional egalitarian and redistributive concerns. Monetarism and communitarianism have united in New Labour: the first requiring that cuts be made to government expenditure and taxation; the second providing the justification for attacking social security benefits in order to reassert individual responsibility and social obligations."10

In other respects the Blair project is avowedly anti-political. A recent analysis argued: "Insofar as a political agenda can be discerned amid the rhetorical emissions of New Labour, it would appear to consist in shrugging off politics, in transforming ’political’ responsibility into an ethical imperative, and siting it therefore within an ’inclusive’" realm of society and community. Political responsibility is abrogated to the individual, whereby it is stripped of its essentially political character. The ’Blair Revolution’ is a programme not of structural change, but of change in the way that individuals live their lives and comprehend their relations with others. Socialism, for Tony Blair, has no particular economic or even political significance, but constitutes rather a ’moral purpose to life’ – a set of values, he says, a belief in society." For Blair everything should simply be as it ought to be – a very static, indeed backward-looking vision. "Blair sees certain things out of shape which he means to put into shape – a process which by definition comprehends a strategy of resistance to new shapes. ’We will put our education system right’, avows Blair. ’No more dogma. No more argument about structures.’ Which is to say in effect, no more politics. Instead, ’a new deal in our classrooms’, says Blair. ’We will be the champion of standards for the 21st century.’ That children should do their homework, however, is about as political an objective as the declaration that grass should be green, or that dogs should bark. Similarly, the statement that teachers should be ’properly’ paid affirms nothing more than that ’things as they are’ should be as they ought to be."11

The Blair vision is deeply conservative then, not just for its nostalgia for a non-existent golden age, nor for its practical effects, but for its depoliticised approach. As the decision to hand over control of interest rates to the Bank of England exemplifies, politics must be left to an elite, to experts. The articulation of a working class interest that might disrupt the overall project is dismissed as "sectional". Such a process of depoliticisation and exclusion is not confined to Britain. This expulsion of people from politics and of politics from society is a much broader phenomenon, underpinned by postmodernist theories of fragmentary, ultimately unknowable, identities. The rejection of universal values or the development of a coherent world outlook provides the philosophical basis for the whole process of popular disempowerment.

For the left, weak and divided though it may be, the new political context poses exciting opportunities. The scale of his majority and the fact that he inherits an economic recovery leave Blair few excuses in the eyes of those who voted for him for not meeting their aspirations. With the Conservative Opposition in Parliament voting for the benefit cuts they devised and Labour implemented, the left is the only force offering an alternative perspective to this emerging new consensus. How far it can meet this great challenge, by developing both a credible economic alternative and an inclusive, democratic strategy for effective popular action, will be tested in the months ahead.


1. Published by Porcupine Press, 1998.

2. See "The Tories’ Unemployment Myth", Labour Research, May 1997.

3. Most notably when Party leader Michael Foot denounced in the House of Commons Labour’s candidate in the 1982 Bermondsey by-election, Peter Tatchell, who went on to lose a safe Labour seat amid a tabloid media witch-hunt focusing primarily on his sexual orientation. For a good discussion of this period and subsequent events, see Richard Heffernan and Mike Marqusee, Defeat from the Jaws of Victory, 1992, and Leo Panitch and Colin Leys, The End of Parliamentary Socialism, 1997.

4. Figures cited in Mike Marqusee, "New Labour and its Discontents", New Left Review, No.224, 1997.

5. Despite polling only 36% of the vote in the 1992 general election, Labour opened up a 20-point lead in the autumn of that year, when Britain crashed out of the Exchange Rate Mechanism, and from then on consistently led in the opinion polls by a wide margin.

6. Anthony King, quoted in the editorial "Victory Belongs to All of Us", Labour Left Briefing, June 1997.

7. See the editorial "Labour in Name Only", Labour Left Briefing, September 1997.

8. The Sun, 28 April 1997, quoted in "Alternative Campaign Diary", Labour Left Briefing, June 1997.

9. See "Timidity Behind the Rhetoric", my review of Paul Anderson and Nyta Mann, Safety First, 1997, in Labour Left Briefing, December 1997.

10. Robert Deans, "The Antics Roadshow: the Value of Welfare Reform", Labour Left Briefing, March 1998.

11. Timothy Bewes, Cynicism and Post-modernity, 1997, quoted in my review "From Cynicism to Engagement", Labour Left Briefing, July 1997.