There’s been a kerfuffle among various commentators on the meaning and definition of the term ‘Blairite’ and how this applies to the last Labour reshuffle.
First, Steve Richards defines Blairites out of existence, pointing out that Tony Blair was rather fond of spending money on the NHS. Next, Dan Hodges argues that Blairites do exist, but have been culled (He also defines me as a Blairite, but one who seeks to pretend Blairites don’t exist). Jeremy Cliffe says both Blairites and Brownites have been replaced by Milibandites, John Rentoul supplies a definition of a Blairite, which certainly encompasses me.
I can see some merit in all of these points. Cliffe is right that the next generation of moderate. loyal Labour politicians are desperate to move on from the Blair/Brown era, and so to define their own politics by their approach to new challenges. This seems entirely reasonable to me – why would Stella Creasy, Liz Kendall or Gloria De Piero want to be smothered by a label they have no control over the definition of?
Yet Rentoul’s definition of a ‘Blairite’ encompasses why this is proving difficult for them. Under his definition, being a Blairite is so clearly a correct political strategy that any attempt to reject it seems slightly odd.
Naturally, you can seek to define the political centre out of existence, arguing that people can be in favour of flogging and low train fares, and you’d be right about the complexity of what centrism is, but the British public recognise an appeal to the centre in the same way they recognise pornography. There may be no simple definition, but they know it when they see it. There is a thread of centrist appeal that runs from Baldwin to Morrison to Butler to Macmillan to Gaitskell to Healey to Major to Blair. The advocates of such an approach are usually both electorally popular, and deeply distrusted by their own party.
As a result Blairism hangs over the Labour party as the last successful iteration of the ‘appeal to the centre’ political approach, in a similar way to how ‘One Nation’ hung over the Conservative party.
Oddly,it appears no-one is eager to grab the Mantle of Butler or Healey, yet any departure from their political centrism is gleefully used as a weapon by each party. This leaves us with the odd situation of both main parties accusing the other of rejecting a centrist approach they do not wish to embrace themselves. “You’re no Blairite” says Cameron. “Well, you’re no One nation Tory” replies Miliband. The British people seem to agree with both leaders, and curse Nick Clegg for not being Roy Jenkins.
Which brings me back to Dan Hodges point, and his observation about me. Dan regards me as a self-denying Blairite. This may be true, in the sense that I believe in the strategic approach to politics John Rentoul defined as ‘Blairite’, but agree with Steve Richards that the core economic strategy this represented in the boom years is closed off to the next Labour government, or at least should be.
For me then, post-Blairism is a harder, tougher, and in fiscal terms, a more ‘right-wing’ creed than Blairism was.
I believe post-Blairism should promise less, think longer term, not rely so much on the distribution of growth to ease the pain of distributional choices. It will have to face up to sustained limits on public spending, especially in areas like pay, welfare and pensions benefits for the better off, (and at the same time likely increase taxes). Further, tight spending limits will need to be sustained for an extended period, far longer than the 1997-99 limit, in order to fund a shift in resource allocation towards innovation, infrastructure, science, technology and skills, rather than immediate incomes lifting or public service budget reliefs. Most of all, it would have to set itself very tight overall fiscal rules, or have them set for us, and stay the course for at least a parliament.
I’ve jokingly called this approach ‘unpopulism’ because it would be so hard to deliver.
It might also be called ‘bitter medicinism’. For my spoonful of sugars, I’d rely on two or three big progressive pushes on social policy. For me these would be advances in childcare and early years education, ensuring a bias towards low and middle-income families in the distribution of spending and tax decisions and, if affordable, a major advance on social care.1 However, all of this would be predicated on the delivery of deep restraint elsewhere. In fact, I think they would prove unsustainable and largely fantastic without such restraint.
Delivering this approach would be an extremely difficult ask for any centre left party, which is why I think that the next generation of Labour politicians, eager though they are to move beyond Blair and Brown, are currently struggling to develop a big argument about the sort of government and political agenda they wish to see replace their past leader’s vision.2 Unfortunately for them, the future is too difficult and unpleasant to get away with a mildly moderate optimism found on generally increasing prosperity.
At the moment Labour is opting to replace all this with a sort of classical continental social democracy, which may well be enough to win an election against a discredited, divided and unpopular government but I suspect would find the challenges it would face in government almost unbearable. (For examples, look at the travails of Francois Hollande or the Danish Government).
In this sense Dan is right. I’m both a Blairite and not a Blairite, a loyalist and not a loyalist.
As a ‘Blairite’ I’ve moved beyond the Blairism of the 90′s and 2000′s to a much harder place. As a loyalist, I’m sharply aware that a classical continental social democratic party would be far better for Britain than the one we have, it would soon be a butterfly broken upon the wheel of reality.
So I favour promising less, trying to secure smaller, more meaningful, more achievable aims and a frankness with the public about what cannot be done as well as a justification of what can. This puts me in the rather odd position of desperately wanting a Labour government, while feeling that the scale of what it would have to do in government is far different from what it is discussing in opposition.
Still, in that at least, I have a great deal in common with other, longer standing fringe minorities in my party!
- If not affordable, I’d go for something around preventing market abuses in areas like pensions and so on, but I’d rather see these as limited, structural technical reforms than as bold solutions [↩]
- The current trend is to find a popular word, like community, or local, or family, or place and try and turn this into an ideology. Such approaches always dissolve into meaninglessness [↩]