This Labour leadership contest has been one of competing nostalgias. It has been easy and lazy to dismiss both Corbyn as some kind of mid 80s ‘Bennite’ whilst Kendall can be labelled as a post-Blairite closet Tory. Apart from focussing more on the party’s past than on its future it highlights the key failures of both Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband as leaders of the Labour Party: neither have dealt with the legacy of Tony Blair.
It has become almost fashionable to dismiss Blair as a pain that had to be barred by Labour. Brown began this anti-Blair rhetoric when he became leader and did all that he could to appear different in both substance and style to his successor. The ‘not flash, just Gordon’ slogan describes perfectly his distaste for Blair’s relationship with the media but he struggled to find a dialogue and agenda outside of the New Labour figurehead.
Miliband if anything suffered greater for the lack of a clear legacy. With the Chilcot enquiry hanging like a ‘Sword of Damocles’ over the party, there has never been a full debate over whether New Labour necessitated military interventionism in the middle east. Whilst government spending under Blair and Brown provided for Sure Start centres, the Education Maintenance Grant and massive investment in the NHS and education (by no means an exhaustive list) leaders have still struggled to write a coherent narrative on this investment. It may have been shrewd investment doomed by an international banking crisis caused by an under-regulated sector or it could have been reckless and narrow-minded, ignoring the challenges of the future in favour of a favourable present.
Further confusion emanates from the more obviously neo-liberal policies such as the stand-off approach to big business and the entry of private enterprise into the state sector. Whenever a policy appears too pro-business and wealth creation it is considered to be a Tory idea hiding in Labour clothing. All the while state provision of services is coveted by many without major justification of why it is better for users than private provision. It is almost the case that the conclusion of the party isn’t the important phase, but it is the debate about these aspects of Blairism that have been neglected and desperately need to be aired.
As a party we have been too quick to dismiss the most electorally successful ideology in Labour’s history. There was much that those three successive governments did that was uncomfortable for members, so it is perhaps a natural instinct to move as far away as quickly as possible. But it is an important aspect of Labour’s history, and one that was incredibly successful. Before any leadership candidate can hope to lead a party that is as divided as it is demoralised we must learn the lessons not only from our defeats of 2010 and 2015 but also from our successes of 1997, 2001 and 2005.
Daniel Charleston-Downes is a Young Fabain member