The Definition of Blairism

John Rentoul

Gordon Brown and Tony Bla 001 300x192 The Definition of BlairismI fear that, in my article for The Independent on Sunday, I broke a rule that I expect my students to observe: first, define your terms. I said that most MPs were Blairites, but my definition of Blairism was inadequate:

The Blairite party’s policies, as well as choice-driven public service reform, include being on the side of the public on crime, immigration and national security.

I also pointed out that the benefits cap is a Blairite policy, and that the Blairites have no view about the deficit – that ought to be a matter of what works rather than ideology – but I should have been more specific.

I should have said the purpose of dominating the centre is to make society more open and equal. It is a socially liberal and moderately egalitarian doctrine,* and therefore it is not the same as Thatcherism, a common delusion of the anti-left (by whom I mean the people who think of themselves as left-wing but whose negativism and impossiblism is the greatest obstacle to the election of a Labour government).

In fact, if you want a definition of Blairism, you could do worse than read Fabian pamphlet no 565, Socialism, written by Tony Blair and published on 1 July 1994, during the Labour leadership election campaign that followed the death of John Smith.

This was, I think, the first outing for “social-ism”. It starts by saying:

The limitations of Thatcherism are clear. The claims of an economic miracle have evaporated [Oops; that was destined to happen again]. Society is divided. People are insecure. The public is once again ready to listen to notions associated with the Left – social justice, cohesion, equality of opportunity and community.

And, just in case you missed it, he repeated: “The Thatcherite project of the 1980s is over.” Sure, he was appealing for Labour votes at the time, and would say nicer things about the good things that Margaret Thatcher achieved when he came to the general election, but this 19-year-old Fabian essay still stands as a pretty good statement of Blairism.

*There are two important footnotes to this. One is that liberalism in the form of equal rights for women, ethnic minority and gay people, and toleration of different kinds of families does not necessarily mean being civilly liberal about crime. The other is that, as almost no one knows, the level of inequality stayed about the same throughout the Labour period 1997-2010, which I regard as an achievement in an open economy; while public services improved, to the disproportionate benefit of the less well off, and important changes to early years and education promise more equal opportunity for generations to come.

Photograph of Gordon Brown and Blair on day of Blair’s election as Labour leader, 21 July 1994: Tim Rooke/Rex Features

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  • Tim Chiswell

    Then they could take us into illegal wars without a democratic mandate in Syria and Iran just like they did in Iraq and Afghanistan…. Blair/Brown/Campbell/Mandelson = ‘Tory Lite’.

  • Tim Chiswell

    In my opinion, the REAL ‘anti-left’ are those that have allowed the Labour party to drift so far to the right that it now operates a position that, 50 years ago, would have been the province of socially conscious Tories. The ‘anti-left’ were the ones that removed Clause IV from the constitution of the Labour party, thus effectively ending any scialist alternative in the UK.
    If you listened carefully you could actually hear Attlee and Bevan turning in their graves in the last years of the Blair/Brown administration – if its ‘negativism’ to question a LABOUR government that opens the door to NHS privatisation (remember ATOS?), or slavishly follows the US right into illegal foreign wars then call me ‘negativisit’.
    The UK DESERVES a real socialist party – its a shame more of us ‘negativists’ didnt speak out when Labour stepped gradually further to the right over 25 years…

  • Tim Chiswell

    Its for the reasons Ive already posted – the mindless over-simplicity of “you’re either pro-Blair or a ‘negativist’ “..
    I POSITIVELY believe that a Labour government can win an election on a genuine left-wing agenda… WITHOUT having to befriend the American Republican party, de-regulate the banks, bail out toxic bank debts, running illegal wars, or any of the other ignominities that Blair/Brown subjected us to.

  • Tim Chiswell

    PS – in one of the last interviews before she died, Thatcher, when asked what her greatest achievement was, replied “New Labour”.
    If you think that being concerned that Thatcher herself endorsed Blair and Brown makes one a ‘negativist’, or that such concerns must be deeply buried lest they make us ‘unelectable’ then you deserve every down arrow you get and should be taking a good hard look in that mirror yourself – whats looking back at you is someone who agrees wit one of Thatcher’s opinions.

  • JohnJustice

    Quite right, Tim. It would have been much better to have stuck to our socialist guns and remained in eternal opposition unsullied by the realities of power. That way we could have kept our consciences clear while the country really went to the dogs.

  • mightymark

    Blair did not “befriend the American Republican Party”. He allied with George W Bush (as Churchill did with the mass murderer, Marshall Stalin) in two wars which I believe, along with many others, were both right and legal. I supposed I have to admit perhaps to a small advantage over your post in timing, however you will search the recent election results high and low for the slightest evidence that the electorate are looking for what I suspect you mean (show me how II’m wrong if you like) by a “genuine left wing” agenda. On the banks, they were mostly deregulated in “big bang” in the 1980’s. If you want to argue they should not have been baled out you should say what the alternatives were.

    PS on your second post you are aware are you, that towards the end Thatcher’s mind was going? And don’t forget if I am right you should perhaps look in the mirror and ask whether you are not looking at someone whose error would whatever your intentions, guarantee Tory rule rather longer than my ideas would.

    For what it is worth I don’t believe that “you are either pro Blair or a negativist” – I do believe if you think any alternative much to his left would win, that you are a fantasist.

  • Kippers

    Choice can not reform public services: it will simply destroy them. Reform of public services has to be based on accountability.

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