Those who had hoped for serious and sustained opposition from Labour to the coalition government’s disastrous austerity policy, are understandably disappointed and frustrated by the limp and ineffective response that has been forthcoming. In the autumn of 2010, the surprise election of Ed Miliband, rather than his brother David, as leader of the party, gave grounds for thinking that there might be a decisive break with the legacy of New Labour. This has not happened. While the leading players from the Blairite years such as Mandelson, Straw, Reid, Blunkett and Clarke no longer occupy centre stage, there has been a marked reluctance on the part of Ed Miliband and the party leadership to confront and reject the ideology and practice of New Labour. Unless and until they do so they will be unable to mount an effective opposition to a government whose now plainly bankrupt austerity measures have resulted in a double-dip recession. It may be that the Labour leaders have deluded themselves into believing that the party’s stable opinion-poll lead means that they need do nothing but mount token opposition until the 2015 election which they assume the government will lose.
The more likely explanation of their ineffectiveness in opposition is failure to break free from the debilitating grip of New Labour. Ed Miliband had the opportunity to do so but has so far failed to take it. Why? One explanation is that provided by the adherents of New Labour themselves. It goes like this: “Old Labour” had run its course by 1992. Neil Kinnock’s electoral defeat that year after thirteen years of Tory government, showed that “old left” social democracy was finished. All talk of socialism, nationalization, partnership with trades unions, over-indulgence of a “bloated” public sector, had to go. New Labour would beat the Tories at their own game. A “modernized” party, completely at ease with the financial sector and the corporate power-elite, would prove that it was better suited than the Tories to manage the economy. Fully committed to the neo-liberal “trickle-down” theory, they abandoned old Labour’s commitment to progressive taxation to achieve greater social equality. Instead they facilitated further deregulation of the financial sector and the promotion of London as the financial centre of the western world. Increased tax revenues would be used to fund programmes to reduce child poverty, such as Sure Start, and to improve performance in the National Health Service. However, in all areas of social policy, New Labour would encourage the involvement of the private sector through PFI’s (Private Finance Initiatives), which all too often would result in the privatization of public services. In fact, New Labour would embrace privatization more zealously than the Tories under Thatcher and Major.
Their theft of the emperor’s clothes left the Tories tired and disorientated. Blair’s election victory in 1997 was impressive. But it’s worth taking a closer look at New Labour’s electoral performance between 1997 and 2005, if only to challenge the myths about the supposed brilliance of Blair’s leadership in winning three successive victories at the polls. In 1997 New Labour swept into office after winning 418 seats against the Tories’ 165. New Labour took 43% of the popular vote; the Tories 30.7%. But it’s worth comparing this with the party’s performance in earlier elections. In 1945 Labour won with 49.7% of the vote (a performance never to be surpassed by any political party since) as against the Tories 36.2%. In the 1951 election which Labour lost to the Tories, they actually took a higher percentage of the popular vote (48.8%) than the Tories (48%) but only won 295 seats against the Tories 321. Labour was not to win again at the polls until 1964, but even in the 1959 election which was regarded as a humiliating defeat for Hugh Gaitskell, the party took 43.8% of the popular vote, more than Blair managed in his 1997 landslide. Harold Wilson, who scraped to victory in 1964 with an overall majority of only 4 seats, nevertheless managed 44.1% of the vote and his landslide victory of 1966 was won with 48%. The 1970 election (which Wilson lost to Heath) was the last for nine years in which any party took more than 40% of the popular vote. Thatcher’s victory of 1979 was won with 43% against Labour’s 36.9%. The party did not manage to poll over 40% of the vote again until 1997.
New Labour’s electoral record since then has been distinctly unimpressive. It has been made to look impressive only because of the abysmal performance of the Tories. In 2001 New Labour won 413 seats with 40.7% of the vote against the Tories 166 seats with 31.7%. 2005 was the nadir of New Labour’s fortunes before the party finally lost office in 2010. Blair won the election (355 seats against the Tories 198) with 35.2% of the vote. The Tories failed to gain an overall majority in 2010 on 36.1%. But the more important story is about the turnout in elections since 1945.
Until 1997 turnout for national elections in the UK was over 70%. In 1950 and 1951 it peaked at 83.9% and 82.6%. 1997 saw the lowest turnout since 1935 at 71.4%. The 2001 election recorded the lowest turnout (59%) since 1918. But the worst result for New Labour was 2005; 35% of the vote on the basis of a turnout of 61.4%. is abysmal. This was Blair’s last election before leaving office. It is worth remembering just how little support he had.
Perhaps none of this would matter very much if the parliamentary Labour party had learned anything from the extent of the disillusionment with New Labour, and more generally with parliamentary politics. The coalition government is becoming more unpopular by the day. In a situation crying out for clear and decisive opposition, there is timidity and dithering. Opposition to austerity is not confined to leftists and trade union activists. Liberal Keynesian economists such as Nobel laureates Paul Krugman and Joseph Stiglitz have presented cogent arguments calling for an end to austerity now. No-one in government wants to listen to them. The same goes for the Labour opposition. Ed Miliband and shadow chancellor Ed Balls repeat the mantra that the government “is cutting too far and too fast” – hardly a clarion-call to action against the cuts.
Today, (27 July), the 2012 Olympic Games will formally open in London. The next Letter from the UK will, no doubt, find something of interest to say about them. London, we are told – and have every reason to believe – will be gripped for two weeks by “Olympiamania.” In the build-up to this it has not passed without notice that Tony Blair has accepted the role of adviser to the Labour party on the Olympic legacy. He is apparently qualified to dispense such advice as he was leader of the party and prime minister when Britain was awarded the Games in 2005. In what should be a cautionary note for Labour, a recent poll found that if Blair were leader of the party it would score three points lower than it does under Miliband. Yet he says he is “ready for a comeback.” He wants to re-engage with British politics. He thinks enough time has passed since 2007 for people to have forgotten about the Iraq war. As he always said about anything that caused him trouble “it is time to move on.”
It is astonishing and dismaying that this megalomaniac mediocrity is still regarded with respect by Miliband and those around him. Even if we ignore the serious accusation against him that he should, along with G.W. Bush, face charges for war crimes over Iraq, there are numerous other reasons for judging him utterly unsuitable for any role whatsoever in the Labour party. Since leaving office in 2007 he has single-mindedly pursued the objective of making himself very rich very fast. He has been very successful and is rumoured to have made as much as £80 million. In 2011 he made £20 million advising business chiefs and foreign governments. His business consultancy, Tony Blair Associates, advises among others, the governments of Kuwait and Kazakhstan on human rights issues. The Kazakh regime has paid him $13 million. The advice he gives to J.P. Morgan is supposedly worth the £2.5 Million a year he is paid. He is highly regarded by the corporate elite as an after-dinner speaker, charging as much as £200.000 a go for his services. But for all the millions he made last year, thanks to the complicated web of companies he has set up for the purpose, he has only paid a fraction in tax.
It seems he is touched by what he regards as the unfair criticism he has faced from those who have failed to understand him. He has never ceased telling the world how passionately he believes in what he has done, and what he does. He is, after all, a deeply sincere Catholic. He has set up a faith foundation to bring people of different beliefs together. As envoy for the Middle East Quartet (the UN.EU.US and Russia) he has responsibility for implementing the peace process between Palestine and Israel. According to Nabil Shaath, aide to Mahmoud Abbas, Blair “talks like an Israeli diplomat selling their policies.” He has been accused of using the position for his own personal enrichment.
All these extraordinary achievements since leaving office have left Blair unsatisfied. He has hinted that he would like to be prime minister again. He has even hired a new spin doctor (no doubt Alastair Campbell has other fish to fry) to help polish his tarnished image. One is tempted to laugh out loud (LOL). It is difficult to imagine how anyone with any sense at all could begin to take the prospect of a Blair comeback seriously. Let’s hope that Ed Miliband comes to his senses. But one is reminded of Tom Lehrer’s reaction in 1973 when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. It’s time to retire, he is supposed to have said. There is no room for satire in the world any more.