I was a student when Tony Blair was elected leader of the Labour party.
At the time I was studying political ideology and the history of the Labour party and, despite knowing that the Labour Party had never been a true left wing socialist party, I also knew that the message that Blair was promoting was even far to the right of that.
At the same time though, I had grown up watching the Tories decimate the welfare state and bring in controls that would lead to the decimation of the Trade unions and workers’ rights. And despite all this, it seemed that the Labour Party stood no chance of wresting power from the Tories because the media were so strongly against them.
I remember talking to friends and we agreed that there had to be a way for the Labour party to bring the media onto their side. But the only way we could think of them doing it was to lie: to pretend that they had given up socialist ideas (however scant) and had given up trying to protect the unions and that they were the party for rising businesses and entrepreneurs.
But we never thought that a group within the Labour party would do exactly that … and mean it!
So, when Blair was elected leader I was unhappy. It appeared to me that the left had been sold out by the Labour Party. But at the same time, I kinda ‘got’ why Blair had done this.
I voted for Blair’s ‘New Labour’ and was pleased that they won in 1997. After all, surely even a business-minded, right wing Labour Party was still better than the Tories? And Labour’s manifesto had some great promises on the NHS, social care, education, housing and employment. We badly needed those promises to work.
So, although I never trusted Blair, I felt he should be given a chance.
Blair’s New Labour were faced with one hell of a job. Thatcher’s cruelty and disregard for working people and society in general had only been toned down a little under Major. There was much to do. But the promised reforms had to be made in a climate where any hint of socialism would send the press screaming back into the Tory camp. New Labour also had to ‘prove’ that old chestnut: that they could be trusted with the Economy. And of course being ‘trusted’ in the media sense was to be friendly to business.
So, I do understand New Labour’s dilemmas. My problem is that Blair, Brown and company appeared to welcome them and were happy to go along with all demands made from the right, while giving scant regard to any demands from the left.
New Labour and the NHS:
Under New Labour, the NHS improved rapidly. Waiting times were cut dramatically, new hospitals were built along with shiny new equipment and a determination to make the NHS a trustworthy and welcoming place for us all to go to.
But the word ‘trustworthy’ tells a tale of its own. Because New Labour used the PFI (Private Finance Initiative) system to get these shiny new hospitals built under the ‘hospital trusts’ system. The Tories may have brought PFI in, but Blair and Brown leapt on the system as a saviour. In order to do all the things they had promised in a country where the whole welfare system had been allowed (encouraged) to run down, rapid action was required. So Blair and Brown looked at the quickest solution – use the system already in place…
Our NHS is suffering from that decision today, as hospital trusts are falling into bankruptcy and for every pound given to the NHS from public funds, a large portion of that goes straight into the pockets of private financiers.
Could New Labour have done things differently for the NHS?
Well yes they could, but it would have taken much longer. They would have had to fight to bring the NHS back into complete public control even before they used public funds to begin the promised reforms.
But New Labour was not about keeping the people waiting. They had a mandate that they felt bound to deliver ASAP.
And in any case, the PFI initiatives kept the private sector sweet, so they were allowed to get on with things without too much interference.
New Labour and Education:
The Education system is another example of where New Labour brought in needed reforms, but did so in such a way that they allowed for private businesses to eventually take the system over altogether.
Under New Labour many new schools were built and others were improved. Labour reforms back in the 1960s had already encouraged working class children to attend university, but under New Labour these opportunities were opened much more. With the ‘New Universities’ already brought in under the Tories and extended under New Labour, it became a real possibility that the majority of working class families would soon have at least one child getting a university level education.
And to ensure that working class families had the chance from the very beginning, New Labour set up ‘Sure Start’ centres for parents to bring their children to. It wasn’t everyone’s cup of tea, in that depending on who was running a local sure start centre, the system could be rather patronising for working class parents, but Sure Start helped many thousands of families.
The problem again was that, as in all New Labour initiatives, the business sector was heavily involved.
It was New Labour that set up ‘Academy Schools’, where a mix of private businesses and ‘better performing’ schools in a locality sponsored the education of children in the academy school. This usually entailed bringing in a new board of governors, putting a new ‘executive head teacher’ in place and ignoring parent teacher boards (and parents as a whole) altogether.
The Tories have grabbed the Academy system and extended it so that within the next few years, all schools that were once run by the local authority will have to become academies. Add to this the Tories’ ‘free schools’ and the privatisation of the pre-FE education system is complete.
And New Labour handed the Tories the tools to do so.
As for the Sure Start centres…most have been closed by local authorities under centrally-imposed spending cuts…
So, while New Labour encouraged many students to attain an education they would not have been able to achieve before, their methods for doing so left the systems wide open for further privatisation.
Again, with Education New Labour worked quickly to achieve their promises by courting business rather than extending public funding, but in doing so, just like with the NHS, they opened the door to further exploitation of a system which was a cornerstone of Labour Party politics.
New Labour and the Trade Unions:
An example that doesn’t refer to the welcoming of private money into a New Labour Reform is the lack of trade union support from New Labour. But of course, in not supporting Trade Unions, New Labour was demonstrating that they were not a threat to private enterprise.
Thatcher’s ‘reforms’ of Trade Unions had been a complete assault upon the working classes. Labour, being the party of the Trade unions would usually have been expected to work to repeal those restrictive reforms, but I don’t think that many people were surprised when the whole issue became sidelined.
Thatcher had been elected at a time when the press were rabidly anti-union. Even small, short-lasting strikes had been reported as causing total chaos. The constant media bombardment of rubbish piled up on street corners, juxtaposed against pictures of striking workers, made many people anti-union and they forgot about all the good things that Unions had done for them in terms of worker’s rights and working conditions.
So, I would guess that New Labour, being a party that wanted to ensure that media messages about them were as positive as possible, would not have wanted to repeal those Tory Trade Union reforms and would have much preferred to be seen as pulling away from Trade Union influence in the party altogether (ironically, despite the huge funds the Trade unions pay into Labour).
Was there an alternative?
Would I have done the same had I been PM? Would I have courted private enterprise for quickness and media acceptance? Would I have distanced myself from the trade Unions to keep the press happy and the Labour Party in power?
I can see the dilemmas faced by New Labour, but I suppose I would have to say that these dilemmas would not have applied to me, as I would not have offered a manifesto so pro-business and so subservient to the media in the first place.
By 1997, the country had been dragged through the mud so many times by the Tories that the majority would have voted for a more left wing Labour Party, even despite a mainly hostile press. John Smith, a solid Labour leader, from the right of the party but not in the pocket of private enterprise, had been welcomed by many voters and many also in the media. Sadly, Smith’s untimely death can only lead us to speculate on what would have happened had he been Labour leader during the 1997 General Election.
I am guessing that Labour would most likely not have achieved such a huge majority, but it would still have achieved power.
The path for Labour under John Smith, or another leader like him, would no doubt have been more rocky with less support from the media than they gave New Labour, and this may well have limited voter support and thus the reforms that Labour could carry out. Any reforms seen as a threat by the business sector would have been met with media outcry and perhaps would not have been achieved.
So, in that sense, one could argue that Blair and Brown’s reforms using ‘New Labour’ tactics would have received a much easier ride in the media than an ‘old Labour’ system of reforms, and therefore more was achieved which was of benefit to working people. And when one remembers the Blair years, before the headlong rush to neo-liberalism, the worrying alignment with GW Bush in ‘anti-terror’ policies which led to restrictions on ordinary people and a feeling of mass surveillance, and, of course, the Iraq war, one can think ‘well, they did get a lot of good things done…’.
But at what cost?
The good times that families experienced under the early Blair years have left a legacy for families suffering now. Our education system is being rapidly privatised, our NHS (now with Tory exploitation of New Labour reforms) is failing and being privatised and depleted of funds, and our Trade Unions are still hobbled from taking mass action to try to put things right (not to mention the corporate side of Trade Unions these days…)
So, was it worth selling out the hopes of future generations for a ‘quick fix’ which undoubtedly worked at that time?
Personally, I don’t think so.
But, as I don’t know what the alternative would have achieved (been allowed to achieve?), I can only speculate on what might have been…