The real failure of Labour wasn’t Blair, it was marketing. If they had known how to sell rather than spin and if they’d had the courage of their own policies, Labour could have told a story to avoid both a Tory government and a Corbyn leadership.
No, this isn’t a guest column by John McTernan. It is the result of a cold analysis of what Labour actually achieved in office and contrasting it with their own rhetoric. For an organisation famed for messaging and manipulating opinion they were utterly abysmal at selling themselves.
Any mention of Blair today brings to mind the haunted face, the Iraq War, the dubious millions acquired from tyrannical regimes or international finance. Yet it was Blair whose government delivered peace in Northern Ireland and devolution to the UK, cancelled debt for the poorest nations and doubled international aid, brought in a smoking ban, Sure Start centres and Child Trust Funds…from the global to the local to the personal.
It’s true that there were 13 years of unrivalled majorities to work with and true too that any government is likely to improve things over a decade in power, but when you compile a list of achievements, it reads like a progressive’s dream…minimum wage, winter fuel payments, 500,000 children lifted out of poverty, free nursery places, apprentices doubled, free bus travel for the elderly, the repeal of Section 28.
There is paid holidays for full-time staff, paternity leave, child tax credits, TV licences for over 75s and probably a Tuscan villa for every family. The point is that whatever went wrong for Labour, the underlying record is strong and progressive.
Overall, however, most of the extra spending went on improving services, not on benefits. For example, in health there was a major programme of investment and reform, including a new NHS building programme and extra nurses and doctors. Efforts were concentrated on cancer, heart disease and stroke, and on the reduction of waiting times for appointments and treatment.
Schools received 48,000 extra FTE equivalent teachers (11.9 per cent) and the number of support staff more than doubled, with over 133,000 extra teaching assistants and 96,000 extra other support staff. A new school buildings programme, designed to replace or upgrade the entire stock of secondary school buildings within 15 years, saw over 160 schools rebuilt or refurbished between 2004 and 2010, with more than 450 underway.
From 1998 all four-year-olds were given the right to 12.5 hours per week free education for 33 weeks of the year. This was extended to three-year-olds in 2004. By 2010, free provision had been extended to 15 hours per week for 38 weeks per year. In public housing, 90 per cent of social housing was brought up to a “decent” standard.
That’s John Hills, Professor of Social Policy and director of the Centre for Analysis of Social Exclusion at the London School of Economics.
He concludes: In summary, it was not, as some claim, that Labour spent a lot and achieved nothing. Rather it did spend a lot, but it also achieved a lot.
The view of Andrew Harrop of the Fabians is probably fair.
On the whole, Labour was most effective in fields where it set explicit and measurable goals that were fairly amenable to national government intervention. Examples include relative poverty, health-care waiting times and university participation. But there was little progress on issues which were not official priorities, such as preventing rising wealth inequality or the stagnation of median pay. People like to criticise Labour’s top-down target culture, but it often worked.
I agree with his conclusion: Financial crisis, calamitous foreign policy and vicious in-fighting have obscured memories of the last government’s impressive social and economic achievements.
But today Labour are out of office, condemned as Red Tories and subject to the firm corrective of a Corbyn leadership. What went wrong?
Well for a start they were not cohesive, no matter how many rebuttal units and pagers they had, no matter how often Alistair Campbell bullied reporters. They weren’t together where it mattered – at the top. The grudging and at times volcanic relationship between Blair and Brown meant they could never stand together convincingly under one banner and both take the credit. Brown huddled with his own set, briefed against Blair, refused to back him, took the credit he could and ultimately ousted him in what some countries would regard as a coup. That meant the smooth roll-out of a positive story that would form the history was made problematic and success was sacrificed to vendetta.
The other issue is more complex. Throughout Labour’s period there was a refusal to appear loyal to old Labour as if the rebranding excluded recognition of the past, all of which had to be denounced. Like regimes everywhere, they began with Year Zero. In the indyref Brown was able to return to the historic role Labour played in building Britain with the NHS and Welfare State (pre-Blair) but in office it was as if it never happened. Instead of claiming credit for continuing the traditions of the wider Labour movement, shiny New Labour had to stick to the mantra that it was different and distinct from the past with its imagery of mass meetings and boiler suits, beer and sandwiches and socially primitive working types. That at least was what the message most voters were left with. (When did you see union leaders entering Number 10 to be greeted by Tony with his Cool Britannia mug?)
I believe it led to an instinctive reluctance to admit just how much they were actually changing Britain through progressive policies. Individual initiatives were publicised and bragged over, for sure, but however inspired in speeches, Blair failed to make a coherent case that spending more, aiming it at those in need – mainly children and pensioners – and following a social democratic agenda was a transformational success. In real terms, total public spending rose by 60 per cent during Blair/Brown period, from £449 billion in 1996-97 to £725 billion in 2010. It’s as though they didn’t want to admit it. They did boast of huge extra amounts going to education and health but couldn’t quite square the circle and say: Look, spending taxpayers’ money really does bring benefits. Were they afraid of the Tories (in the early years, certainly not) or scared of the media (absolutely).
Part of the historic mission was to stop the Press bashing Labour as socialists hence the breakfasts with the Daily Mail and the family relationships with Murdoch. What a waste of time…
I recall an academic telling me of an unpublicised meeting at an English university early in the Blair premiership. Brown was addressing a small audience made up exclusively of academics – most of them lefties and Labourites. My friend was open- mouthed at Brown’s declaration of how he planned to redistribute wealth to the working poor through tax credits and other measures. He went further than anyone had expected from public announcements and raised the hopes of his listeners that socialism was unrolling in Britain. ‘But’, he said. ‘I got the distinct impression he didn’t want anyone else to know. It wasn’t for media dissemination…’
Buried in there is a truth – that Labour didn’t want to appear left-wing. So long as policy could be dressed up somehow aspirational – that is, middle class – they were relaxed about selling it. The result was they obscured what today would be a genuine monument to their success.
You don’t have to remind me of the failures. They had majorities to do anything they liked but chickened out. They used PFI far too much. They were greedy and failed to regulate the crooks in the City. Blair was vain and seduced by war. They believed their own publicity and drifted further from their core voters. In Scotland they didn’t know what devolution was for and were scared of their own creation.
There is a great line from Labour-loving Polly Toynbee. The only place to cement social change is in the hearts and minds of voters. Blair and Brown were defeatists, convinced Britain was essentially conservative, individualist, imbued with Thatcherism. Confronted with the Mail, Sun, Times and Telegraph, the culture looked immutable, a force to be appeased.
And so, through cowardice and lack of conviction, the Labour Party lost its soul and denied itself the legacy of a progressive Britain. It allowed careerists who knew no better to take key jobs, created the conditions for a real Tory government and opened a door to a takeover by the true left it disdained.
If Blair is censured in the Chilcot Report, it will throw the final earth on the coffin of New Labour.