I am concerned that our generation has yet to learn the lessons of pragmatism and compromise that facilitated that landslide victory and all the positive change that came afterwards. We should remain critical of the mistakes made in those 13 years, but throwing “Blairite” around as a swear word is doing nobody any favours.
Back in April, after a one year term, Malia Bouattia was ousted as president of the National Union of Students. Controversial for her outspoken anti-Israeli views and highly popular on the student Left, one of Bouattia’s supporters had used to the campaign to brand her challenger and successor as president a “standard-bearer of the Blairite Right”. This was intended as a toxic allegation: in certain Left-wing millennial circles, the charge of overt or covert “Blairism” is the heaviest you can fling at an opponent.
There is perhaps some sort of cyclical necessity here. Our generation, born in the late-1980s and 1990s, grew up largely under the New Labour governments. Many of us voted in our first general election in 2010, by which time Labour was definitively associated with the political establishment. Every new generation defines itself in part by dissenting from the choices of its parents, and by the end of Gordon Brown’s short premiership the Labour Party appeared to many of us youngsters a spent force in need of renewal.
However, this can’t explain the whole story. In the years since Labour lost power the reputations of its leading figures have only hit rockier and rockier bottoms, especially among the young, and allegations of “Blairism” have only become more hysterical the further the memory of a Labour government recedes into the mists. After the stalemate of the Miliband years, a great number of millennials have embraced Corbynism and the politics of the extra-parliamentary Left.
Of course, there are many valid criticisms to be made of New Labour in government that go beyond the much-cited catastrophe of the Iraq War. In reaction to the internal divisions of the 1980s, the Blair-Brown leadership embraced a machine politics of party discipline and media manipulation that greatly eroded trust in our institutions. Neither did Labour seek to challenge the most damaging aspects of the Thatcherite inheritance – an economy over-reliant on the financial sector and public services emasculated by part-privatisation – and in some cases enthusiastically pursued that agenda further. Above all, it failed to build a durable public consensus for social democracy that would outlast its time in government; witness how swiftly the incoming coalition was able to shred years of good work.
THese failures have led a new generation to denounce Labour’s years in government as wasted and lend their support to an ostensibly more authentic socialist project. The problem with this approach is that it rather lightly flings away the great milestones that were reached in those 13 years. We have Blair’s radical first term to thank for the national minimum wage, the Human Rights Act and Scottish devolution (English fans of the SNP should remember there would be no Nicola Sturgeon without Tony Blair). There was also a decade of uninterrupted growth, record investment in public services, the Good Friday Agreement, the Climate Change Act, the Equalities Act and Brown’s global leadership during the financial crisis. That is a formidable record of achievement by any measure.
Even those of us sceptical of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership find much to admire in his unambiguous commitment to social justice. The thorny question that no Corbynite has yet answered satisfactorily is how Labour will ever win an election while he and Momentum are in charge. Whisper it softly, for some tend to take offence, but the last time Labour won a general election without Blair as leader was around when the mobile phone was invented.
In our utterly different political context it would deeply misguided to try and rerun the model that brought New Labour to power in 1997. Nevertheless, I am concerned that our generation has yet to learn the lessons of pragmatism and compromise that facilitated that landslide victory and all the positive change that came afterwards. We should remain critical of the mistakes made in those 13 years, but throwing “Blairite” around as a swear word is doing nobody any favours.
James Bartholemeusz is a Young Fabians member.