http://www.timesonline.co.uk/article/0,,2088-2092566,00.html Sunday Times March 19 2006
Blair has hijacked Labour's soul and we shall never see it againSimon Jenkins
Any similarity between Tony Blair, the prime minister, and the British Labour party is becoming coincidental. Upheavals last week over the schools bill and cash for honours were like a venerable and sleepy family bank discovering too late that it has been taken over by sharp-suited spivs.
Blair has saved his most reckless abuse of Labour tradition until the end. His recent attempt, partly thwarted, to reintroduce selective direct grant schools, and the secret sale of honours to finance his re-election, are breathtaking only for the bravura with which he commits and then excuses such actions.
Blair is as crafty as Harold Wilson, as shameless as David Lloyd George and as bourgeois as Ramsay MacDonald. His command over parliament, his party and his colleagues is total. Compelling his ministers to lie publicly last week about his sale of honours was cruelty to defenceless children.
On Thursday Blair launched in Sedgefield what he claimed was the biggest “debate” on Labour ideas since his demolition of the party’s clause 4 in 1995. He denied that he had become a detached presidential figure concerned only with his personal legacy. When a politician even airs such criticism he lends it veracity. To Blair, Labour “c’est moi”, and there is an end to it for the duration.
All the Labour party’s much travelled chickens are coming home to roost. The truest words Blair ever spoke were after winning the last clause 4 debate: “I was not born into this party; I chose it.” He did not say why he chose it, merely that “I cannot stand these people, the Tories, being in government”.
Blair had made his name in 1983 by savaging Margaret Thatcher’s union reforms as “self-righteous and sanctimonious pap, unacceptable in a democracy”. He then accepted them. In 1987 he condemned trust schools opting out of council control. He now makes reintroducing them the headline of his reform agenda. In 1988 he demanded that Labour enforce clause 4 on nationalisation. He changed his mind. He said that under Labour privatisation would be “abandoned here, now, for ever”. He now extends it daily. At his first election he called for Britain to withdraw from the European Union, for Trident to be cancelled and for American missiles to be removed from British soil.
For a politician to lose one conviction may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose all, and when still in opposition, looked like strategy. Nothing better illustrated the ideological bankruptcy of the Labour party than that it bought Blair hook, line and sinker. But his most remarkable achievement in politics was to get Labour not just to abandon these convictions but to hand over to him the job of replacing them.
The leader who in 1982 castigated the Social Democratic party for “isolating itself from organised labour” did just that from the moment of his election. With Philip Gould, Peter Mandelson and Alastair Campbell, Blair hijacked a mass political movement and turned it into a private electoral machine, one that was able to defeat one of the most formidable such machines anywhere in Europe, the Conservative party.
To do this required the leadership to take total command and control over a historically pluralist federation. As Blair told Gould as early as 1995, “I would rather leave politics than be defeated by the party. I am going to take the party on.” He meant it. One by one the pillars toppled: the union block vote, the national executive committee, the writing of the manifesto, conference control of policy and, more recently, fundraising.
The Blair project was not just an electoral strategy, it involved the total emasculation of the Labour party (and a new way of governing Britain). Give me power, Blair said to Labour, and I shall give you power. It was the greatest Faustian pact in modern politics with the new leader as Mephistopheles.
When he arrived in Downing Street, Blair’s weakness was to have little to do with office but hold it. He was like a general who could establish a bridgehead but had no map to go forward. His conversion to Thatcherism in opposition was thought at the time to be mere opportunism. It was not. Thatcher was the first elder statesman Blair invited to Downing Street on taking office, before even his other hero Roy Jenkins. There followed the entrenchment of Tory union reforms, the privatisation of health, the neutering of Labour local government, the return to twin-track secondary education and a neoconservative foreign policy.
While Blair’s signalling of a new debate is laudable, the sheer emptiness of last Thursday’s speech indicates Labour’s intellectual exhaustion. Most parties long in power can draw on a well of ideas from their grassroots. Labour has none, only think tanks strangled by abstract nouns. Thatcher in office conducted a running dialogue, indeed a battle, with Toryism nationwide. Blair has rewarded his favoured courtiers but permitted no return of influence to the unions, the big city parties, the council estates or the academic wellsprings that once formed the backbone of the Labour movement.
Under Blair the Thatcherite consensus has supplanted the post-war welfare one. When its author remarked in her memoirs that no ideology in history had been so tested to destruction as socialism, she spoke the truth. Blair’s most devastating legacy to his successors was to concede her case. He gazed at Thatcherism, shrugged and said, “Okay, you win.” Nor did he admit it just as the best system for running a modern political economy. By publicly pursuing “Blatcherism” he showed that elections would in future be won not from the centre left but from the centre right. All this the Labour party has bought for more than a decade. In return for at least a sniff of power it has allowed itself to become what Blair intended, a British version of the American Democratic party. Now Blair is on the way out. He has met his side of the bargain. Mephistopheles gazes at Faust and beckons his soul forward to damnation. He winks at the Tories’ David Cameron. They are devils in league, the two of them, and the knowledge must strike terror into Gordon Brown’s heart.
Brown may argue that Labour’s soul can be redeemed by affirming its love of humanity. He may seek to redirect public attention away from London and the southeast, engage in massive “social chapter” regulation and unleash a flood of anti-poverty initiatives. He may deny his role as Blair’s willing accomplice in the Thatcherisation of Labour.
This will not be easy. However much Brown may postpone the day of reckoning, his borrowing long to spend short is coming to haunt the public finances, as it is already haunting the National Health Service. This week’s budget must begin the process of somehow meeting a massive public indebtedness, not just in the form of public borrowing but also hidden in Brown’s reckless private finance initiatives and chaotic pensions policy. Brown is condemned to lead Labour from the right. As Thatcher said, there is no alternative.
British politics is entering a period of perplexity. The Conservatives are led by a man as desperate not to be outflanked on his left as Blair has been desperate not to be outflanked on his right. Without denting the Thatcherite consensus, Cameron is colonising the centre ground as assiduously as Harold Macmillan did in the 1950s, in competition with the Liberal Democrats under Sir Menzies Campbell.
In 10 or 20 years this must leave a substantial part of Britain’s electorate disenfranchised. They will be the elderly without protected public sector pensions, people dependent on a welfare state that cannot afford a soaring health and social services bill. They will be the 19th century’s unthrifty and “undeserving poor”, an underclass reliant in part on their children and on charity. They will be the second-generation immigrants, the poor whites of the inner suburban ring, the graduates of sink “community” schools so derided last week.
These are the people who, a century ago, looked with eager hope at a new political group then emerging onto the scene, a group committed to taxing the rich, giving to the poor and creating a new Jerusalem. It was called the Labour party. Blair called its bluff a decade ago and calls it still. I wonder if we shall ever see its like again.