They are all Blairites now – whatever that means
There seems about as much chance of Labour MPs kicking out Blair as there is of the Taliban toppling Bush.
Barely 10 months after winning his historic second election landslide, UK prime minister Tony Blair is under fire over everything from public sector reform to the prospect of war with Iraq. There is even talk of a challenge to his leadership from within the Labour Party. But there seems about as much chance of Labour MPs kicking out Blair as there is of the Taliban toppling President Bush.
According to reports, government ministers are privately concerned that Blair is ‘fighting on too many fronts’. Strange, that, since from the outside, it appears more the case that Blair is reluctant to fight anybody over anything.
Whenever the chance arises for Blair’s government to take a firm position of principle on the high ground, to draw and hold a line, his instinct seems to be to withdraw into the marshy lower terrain of compromise, ‘triangulation’ and the search for the Third Way. Blair would even like to avoid a battle with the foxhunters, previously thought of as the embodiment of those ‘forces of conservatism’ whom he has sworn to vanquish.
As his ‘I will heal the world’ speech at last year’s Labour conference demonstrated, Blair has always found it easier to strike high-minded moral poses on the international stage. Thus his hardline support for President Bush over the war in Afghanistan and the confrontation with Saddam Hussein seems in sharp contrast to the woolly waffling we get at home. Yet behind the bravado, the Labour government is clearly nervous about sending a few hundred marines to fight in Afghanistan, and is not eager to go to war in Iraq.
Blair’s recent ducking and diving has belatedly prompted many to ask what New Labour really stands for. When one Labour MP asked the prime minister in February to outline ‘the political philosophy that he espouses and which underlies his policies’, he received a revealing answer. ‘The best example I can give’, said Blair, ‘is the rebuilding of the National Health Service today under this government – extra investment’.
In case anybody was wondering how the technical process of paying for a public service could be the same thing as ‘the political philosophy…which underlies his policies’, Blair elaborated. ‘For example, there is the appointment today of Sir Magdi Yacoub to head up the fellowship scheme’ to attract some foreign surgeons to the NHS. The prime minister’s ‘political philosophy’ turns out to be a management recruitment scheme-cum-PR stunt.
Surveying the government’s apparent u-turn over compensation for Railtrack shareholders, its plans for more private investment in public services, and the announcement of big job losses in the postal service, Paul Routledge of the UK Mirror no doubt spoke for many Labour loyalists: ‘The last few days have exposed Tony Blair and many in his government for what they are. A denial of what Labour has always stood for. Their time of reckoning will come.’
But of course Blair does not support ‘what Labour has always stood for’. The whole point of the New Labour project has been to reinvent the party by distancing it from its past – a process publicly symbolised by dropping Clause Four, Labour’s constitutional (though always rhetorical) commitment to the redistribution of wealth. The fact that commentators can express surprise at seeing the truth about Blair the non-socialist ‘exposed’, fully eight years after he became Labour leader, says more about the long-term self-delusion among leading Labour supporters than it does about Blair.
No doubt Blair’s Labour critics are right to suggest that his ‘time of reckoning will come’ one day. But they are advised not to hold their breath waiting for it. What alternative is on offer?
It is not just Blair who has abandoned the politics of principle. His managerial style of government merely symbolises the absence of any significant ideological divide in society. The Labour Party has fully signed up to the Blair project. The only issue of conviction that backbench MPs have been able to take a stand on is the pettyfogging question of foxhunting. It remains to be seen how far they are prepared to push their opposition to an attack on Iraq. Despite the obvious disaster of the public/private schemes to run sectors like the railways, disgruntled Labour MPs have so far proved unable even to get rid of the hopeless minister Stephen Byers, never mind challenging President Blair himself.
More importantly, even if the personality cliques that now pass for the Labour Party did manage to mount a challenge to Blair, what difference would it make? Chancellor Gordon Brown, the most touted successor, offers no alternative political vision. Indeed, the way the iron chancellor recently justified increasing NHS spending by talking about the tragic death of his baby daughter suggests that, on the contrary, it is he who has converted to the Blairite politics of emotionalism.
Meanwhile, the Tory conference at Harrogate offered the unappetising spectacle of Iain Duncan Smith trying to remodel the Conservatives along New Labour lines. His use of a child’s teddy bear that he claimed to have found among drug syringes on a rundown council estate was the kind of stunt at which even the People’s prime minister might have balked.
Like it or not, they are all sort of Blairites now. Which is quite an achievement, given that nobody even seems to know what ‘Blairism’ might mean.
Mick Hume is editor of spiked, and is speaking at the spiked conference After 11 September: Fear and Loathing in the West, on Sunday 26 May at the Bishopsgate Institute in London. See here for full details.
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