In the last week of the British general election campaign, former prime minister Tony Blair made a sudden appearance at a marginal constituency to shore up flagging Labour morale. Surprised reporters asked if he was an asset or a liability to the Labour campaign. Throwing up his arms, a smiling Blair replied: “Well, I’m here, aren’t I?”
Blair is here — and in more ways than one. As Britain awaits the outcome of talks to form a government in the aftermath of a hung parliament, signs are that the nation of over 60 million has not entirely rejected New Labour — the project that Blair helped craft along with Gordon Brown lives on.
New Labour’s ‘Third Way’ — an ideology inspired by American Democrats that seeks to light up the path between conservatism and socialism — could be the new dominant political discourse in Britain, commentators say.
Just as Blair borrowed from influential market-friendly ideas from former Conservative premier Margaret Thatcher to rescue Labour from wilderness, so Brown’s Conservative rival David Cameron has had to position his party in the central ground created by New Labour.
“This is not necessarily the end of New Labour. The Thatcher revolution is still working its way through British politics,” said Inderjeet Parmar, professor of politics and government at Manchester University.
Blair and Brown emerged as dynamic young politicians in the shadow of Thatcher. Spotted by Labour leader John Smith in the 1980s, the two men were fiercely intellectual, deeply read, wedded to modernising Labour and had massive ambitions. They quickly fell in after being elected to parliament in 1983, even sharing their office space. It was a partnership that was to fundamentally change Labour.
When Smith died of a heart attack in 1994, Brown was seen as his natural successor. But, aided by shrewd party strategist Peter Mandelson, it was Blair who became leader.
Leading a reinvented and re-energised Labour, Blair ruled for 10 years from 1997 with Brown as his powerful Chancellor of the Exchequer (finance minister), until a series of political reversals and growing criticism of Britain’s 2003 invasion of Iraq forced Blair to hand over the premiership to Brown in June 2007.
Brown has steadily slipped in opinion polls since then, ending up in a hung parliament this week. Though the Tories fell short, the vote percentage figures showed more than a little disenchantment with New Labour. Blair came to power in 1997 with 43.2 per cent of the vote. Brown could only muster 29 per cent.
As to whether it also rang the death knell for New Labour, the jury is open.
“You can argue that, if Margaret Thatcher’s achievement was to convert Labour to the market, then New Labour’s achievement was to convert David Cameron to a positive view of society, a concern for the less well off and the need to tackle injustice,” says Roger Liddle, the man who, along with Mandelson, co-wrote an influential 1996 book, The Blair Revolution: Can New Labour Deliver?
Parmar agreed. New Labour, he says, was wedded to traversing a political course between individualism and the state, taking lessons from what had made Thatcher tick and old Labour fail. It was an attractive alternative.
“What David Cameron has realised is that you can’t go back to Thatcher. Because New Labour so successfully borrowed aspects of Thatcherism, the Conservative party had to recalibrate itself,” said Prof Parmar.
While Blair freed Labour from the clutches of union bosses and tore up its core belief in nationalisation, Brown lifted controls on banks and financial services with a zeal.
“You know, here I was, arguing for Labour to look at markets admiringly, but even I would not have done what Gordon did,” said Lord Meghnad Desai, an economist and supporter of Blair. “From being an interventionist Gordon went overboard to the other extreme. And when the recession hit, he went back to becoming interventionist.”
In November 2003, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat Shadow Chancellor, confronted Brown in parliament.
“Is it not the brutal truth,” Cable asked, “that with investment, exports and manufacturing output stagnating or falling, the growth of the British economy is sustained by consumer spending pinned against record levels of personal debt, which is secured, if at all, against house prices that the Bank of England describes as well above equilibrium level?”
Brown replied combatively: “The Honourable Gentleman has been writing articles in the newspapers, as reflected in his contribution, that spread alarm, without substance, about the state of the British economy…”
It is this personal character trait — an obstinacy that Desai says borders on paranoia — that has alienated Brown from many Labour supporters. But he too is reticent to write off New Labour. Not just yet.