Left’s Labour Lost

Left’s Labour Lost

After nine years, Tony Blair’s magic has worn off. His Labour Party has mutated from an imperfect conduit of progressive change into an active obstacle to it.



The novelist Doris Lessing once said of British Prime Minister Tony Blair: "He believes in magic. That if you say a thing, it is true." For almost nine years he has governed as though he could mold reality out of statements alone, insisting for example that the terrorist attacks of July 7 last year had nothing to do with Britain’s involvement in Iraq when all the evidence suggested otherwise.

But lately the magic has been wearing off. The discrepancies between what Blair says and what is true have become so great and so many that his entire premiership appears set to implode under the weight of its own contradictions.

He has already promised to step down before the next election–due in 2010 at the latest. The issue now seems to be whether he will be able to choose the timing of his own departure or whether events will choose it for him. In mid-March the Economist and the Guardian–both of which backed him last year–called for his resignation.

As the co-architect of Labour’s shift to the right, Blair’s heir apparent, Gordon Brown, represents a shift in personality rather than political trajectory. Nonetheless, whenever it comes, Blair’s departure will be greeted heartily by the left. But the truth is that his tenure has exposed our inability, not just locally but globally, to develop a coherent and substantive response to those centrist parties that put a gun to our head on polling day and warn us that a vote for anyone else will let in the right. If Blair has taught us anything, it is that while the interests of these parties may at times coincide with ours, our priorities and victories should never be confused with theirs.

Two recent episodes in particular have made Blair vulnerable. First there was the "cash for ermine" scandal, during which he was forced to admit he knew that three wealthy men he had nominated for peerages in the House of Lords had collectively made soft loans of #3.5 million ($6 million) to the Labour Party. Blair knew about the donations, but neither the party treasurer nor the deputy prime minister did.

Second was his education bill, which despite Labour’s parliamentary majority of sixty-nine he could only push through because the Tories supported it. The bill would essentially privatize education and dump poor and minority children in the worst schools, prompting fifty-two Labour MPs to vote against it.

Viewed in isolation, neither of these events would have been a deal-breaker. But both were emblematic of Blair’s tenure. Between them they exposed his contempt for the interests of his most loyal constituency–the working poor–along with his distance from the party in whose name he governs and the degree to which he is embedded with conservatives and monied interests.

Given these traits, what is truly amazing is not that Blair’s position is precarious now but that he wasn’t ousted before. His ascendancy owes itself in no small part to the electoral defeats that preceded him and to the particular history of the Labour Party. Labour was founded by the unions to represent the interests of working people in Parliament and was always a broad church. Whereas in the rest of Europe the social democratic and communist traditions were represented by two separate parties, in Britain the majority of each tradition found a home within Labour. When Blair was elected party leader in 1994, the Conservatives had been in power for fifteen punishing years. The Labour leadership attributed its problems at the polls to being too radical.

For the next three years, the mantra went that in order for Labour to win, the left within the party first had to lose. Weakening the links with the trade unions, disabling the levers of internal democracy and ditching its commitment to unilateral nuclear disarmament were all sold as pragmatic concessions necessary to insure a Labour victory. When Labour finally came to power in 1997, this rightward shift had curdled into a dogma. It stood for office but little in the way of principle. It went on to win two more elections with ever diminishing minorities, while conceding almost every substantive argument to the right. Rebellions, defections and dissent would all be answered with the question: "Who would you rather have in power: us or the Tories?"

The trouble was, at times you really couldn’t tell the difference. A recent survey by the Institute for Fiscal Studies revealed that economic inequality in Britain has remained virtually unchanged since Labour came to power. Meanwhile, racial discourse has degraded, asylum seekers have been criminalized and fascism has returned in some areas as a potent political force. Indeed, by the time of the Iraq War the party’s historical project had been all but extinguished. Blair had leapfrogged social democracy and Gaullism and landed in the lap of the neocons and Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

That is not to say that nothing valuable has emerged from Labour’s reign. We now have a minimum wage (albeit set at an inadequate level); civil unions for gay couples passed this past December with little fuss; and while inequality has risen poverty has also been reduced, with 700,000 children no longer living in destitution. But Labour’s relationship to the working class came to resemble James Baldwin’s description of the North’s treatment of African-Americans in the United States: "What it promised it did not give, and what it gave, at length and grudgingly with one hand, it took back with the other."

Eventually Labour mutated from an imperfect conduit of progressive change into an active obstacle to it. This posed a real dilemma for progressives. No electoral force has emerged to the left of Labour that is capable of replacing it, and no internal force has proved capable of returning it to its roots. Nowhere has this been clearer than over the Iraq War. Our ability to mobilize millions in the biggest demonstration in the nation’s history and to maintain the pressure on Blair throughout has revealed the strength of our arguments. Our inability to give that mobilization an electoral expression has exposed the weakness of our applications. We have shown we can get mad; we have not yet found a way to get even.

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