Après Blair, le déluge?

by Stephen Tall on September 3, 2006

Mr Blair long since passed his political sell-by date. But it strikes me he has a point that his own party needs urgently to debate what it now stands for before he departs (stage right, naturally).

In a sometimes thoughtful, and actually quite well-written, piece in today’s Sunday Times, former Blairite minister Alan Milburn comments:

… take the challenges that Peter Mandelson, one of new Labour’s principal architects, identified in The Blair Revolution which he co-authored 10 years ago: economic prosperity alongside reforms in health, education and welfare systems, constitutional change and a new relationship with Europe. People may quibble about the detail but in good part these challenges have been met.

(Well, I think people might do more than just quibble, Mr Milburn. But I’m not going to itemise here the number and range of ways in which people like me who voted Labour in 1997 feel let down in these areas. He continues…)

The more interesting thing is what is missing from them. How we respond to globalisation, not by resorting to economic protectionism but through open markets, free trade and a new accent on skills and employability. How we build genuinely inclusive societies when there are huge pressures going in the opposite direction, notably a widening gap between rich and poor. How we deal with the causes and consequences of global terrorism and get the trade-offs right between protecting wider society and defending civil liberties. How we avoid racial conflict in an era of global migration. How we deal with the challenge of demographic and environmental change. And, in particular, how we fulfil the desire people have for greater control in their lives whether through more choice over how services are delivered or through a better balance between work and family life. These were not the main challenges then. But they are now.

Though I suspect Mr Milburn and I might differ on the prescriptions this seems to me a pretty good diagnosis. But what intrigues me – as a former Labour member, and now outside observer – is to what extent the party will be able to arrive at a collective answer.

Ever since Mr Blair rocketed onto the electoral scene in 1994, his party has pretty much gone along with the New Labour agenda – markets, means-testing, targets, micro-management, crackdowns – however reluctantly, reassured that their leader was an election winner.

(We can see this being played out in eerily familiar déjà vu real-time now in the Tory Party under Mr Cameron, with true-blue members passively swallowing whatever medicine he doles out, however much the taste appals them.)

When there is no Mr Blair – what will his party then stand for? Over the last 12 years, the Labour Party has been smashed into smithereens by the New Labour hierarchy, its fragile shards held together only by Mr Blair’s sheer magnetism. But now the cracks are beginning to show.

Because, at heart, the Labour Party remains what it has always been: a centralising, socialistic, interventionist and authoritarian band of well-intentioned people who sincerely believe they know better than the rest of us how we should live our lives.

New Labour added two crucial ingredients: populism and popularity. Only the former is sure to survive Mr Blair’s departure.