Crisis is a way of life for Blairism.
Blairism today lives under a constant siege of ‘crises’ and ‘rebellions’.
The current issue is top-up fees for universities. On 23 June, the government saw its majority more than halved in a debate forced by the Liberal Democrats, as many Labour MPs defied whips (1).
Over the next couple of weeks, Labour rebellions are expected over the issues of foundation hospitals and foxhunting – when the government’s Health and Social Care Bill and foxhunting proposals come up for debate (2).
The war on Iraq, ID cards, constitutional reform…everything that the New Labour government tries to do becomes mired in controversy. The Guardian claims that the past couple of weeks have been ‘two of the worst’ for Blair. The Times says that backbench discontent is ‘at its highest since Labour returned to power’. Even the new Leader of the House Peter Hain is doing his fair share of rebelling, breaking rank to suggest that the government should consider increasing taxation.
These rebellions express a disillusionment with the Blair project. Blair is becoming increasingly isolated, and even his handful of close allies are melting away. But because nobody is posing alternative to Blairism, the prime minister is able to lurch from crisis to crisis unscathed.
In fact, constant crisis is becoming a way of life for Blairism. Every initiative sparks opposition, but this opposition is unable to turn the tables. So it dies down and waits for the next initiative to come along a few days later.
Superficially, the disputes within the Labour Party about higher education or the National Health Service (NHS) look a bit like a political conflict between old and new Labour. Rebels support free university education for all against New Labour’s proposed top-up fees; and a centralised NHS against planned ‘foundation hospitals’ that could set their own clinical and financial priorities.
But these rebellions are less about political differences, than about the rank-and-file’s sense of disconnection from its leadership. There is no serious state-centralist/unionist movement within the Labour Party. The rebels’ problem is not that New Labour is new – after all, the party elected Blair to take it away from the dark days of the 1980s – it is that the ‘new’ is unable to inspire allegiance. Blair’s policies spark dissent less because of their political detail, than because they don’t seem to belong to anyone but Blair.
So Labour critics’ claim that Blair’s plans for health and education will create a ‘two-tier’ system only partly expresses a concern with increasing social inequality – it also expresses a concern about people being shut out, of Blair rushing ahead and leaving everyone behind. And here, they could be talking as much about their impression of their party’s leadership as prospects for NHS patients.
Labour ministers regularly complain about Blair’s exclusionary style of government. When ex-environment minister Michael Meacher lost his position on the cabinet, he said: ‘We do have a presidential style system of politics. I am concerned about that.’ According to one report, he suggested that Blair routinely ignored the cabinet, and was becoming dangerously out of touch (3).
In her resignation speech, Clare Short, another ex-cabinet member who had previously accused Blair of being ‘reckless’, worried about the ‘centralisation of power into the hands of the prime minister and an increasingly small number of advisers who make decisions in private without proper discussion’ (4).
These sentiments reflect Blair’s increasing isolation – not just from the rank-and-file, but from the handful of people around him who could once have been called ‘Blairites’. In an article in the Guardian, journalist Jackie Ashley notes the drift away of once-loyalist MPs, press followers, special advisers and think-tanks. ‘Where are Tony Blair’s people? Who are Tony Blair’s people?’, she asks (5). Figures like Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Peter Mandelson and ex-political secretary Anji Hunter have all gone.
However, this detachment from Blair is not feeding into backing for alternative leaders, parties or policies. The constant crises wash over Blair, without seriously rocking his boat. Blair’s policies on Iraq sparked the biggest protest march and the biggest parliamentary rebellion in history, but a week later it was easy to have forgotten that they had even happened. And once the cock-up over constitutional reform actually became a subject for debate in Parliament, Blair was let off the hook – when faced with the shrill ineffectuality of Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, a cock-up doesn’t look so bad.
Yet the crises leave their mark on Blairism. New Statesman political editor John Kampfner suggested that Blair is suffering from a ‘psychosis of opposition’ – although he presides over British politics, he is constantly on the defensive, worrying about enemies who are trying to attack him (6).
Blair consults only a handful of people because he simply doesn’t trust anyone else. This contributes to his isolation – and causes him more trouble. In the case of the ‘dodgy dossier’ or the recent bodged constitutional reforms, for example, it seems that Blair worked with only a few close advisers. The normal safeguards that would prevent shoddy plagiarism being released as an official report, or that would inform the prime minister about basic legal hurdles, are not there for Blair. His paranoia about enemies ends up breeding enemies.
This cycle of crisis is no good for British politics. Dodgy initiatives and knee-jerk rebellions are becoming a somewhat tedious way of life for Blair and for Britain. This is no good for Blair, and no good for those who are interested in developing an opposition to Blair.
A little bit of real rebellion would be preferable to this constant, but futile, permanent rebellion.
Spinning the constitution, by Josie Appleton
People don’t believe Blair – or anybody else, by Mick Hume
(1) Large rebellion over top-up fees halves Labour’s majority, Independent, 24 June 2003
(2) ‘Labour MPs try to kill elite hospitals’, The Times, 23 June 2003
(3) Daily Mail, 23 June 2003
(4) Under the influence, Guardian, 18 June 2003
(5) You can’t have Blairism without any Blairites, Guardian, 21 June 2003
(6) New Statesman, 23 June 2003
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