‘The wrong people were voting Labour’: an exchange with Neal Lawson

A debate about Tony Blair’s legacy and Labour’s future

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Neal Lawson, chair of Compass, the left-wing pressure group, wrote an open letter to Tony Blair after the former Prime Minister gave an interview in which he said the election could be one “in which a traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party, with the traditional result”. This seemed to suggest that Blair thought Ed Miliband would lose, although Blair said he had been misinterpreted.

Lawson accused Blair of having failed to achieve lasting change, saying his majority was “too big” in 1997 and that, given their attitudes and interests, “the wrong people were voting Labour”. I thought this was an absurd phrase, and said I would post it on Twitter every day as a warning to Labour of the self-defeating delusions into which the idealistic left can fall.

_______

Dear Neal

Thanks for suggesting an email exchange. Let me begin by responding to your post on Comment Is Free on 1 January.

Yours is a strong theme of revisionist Old Labour history: that it would have been better to have won the 1997 election with a smaller majority but on a more “left-wing” platform.

Tony Blair anticipated your argument in his memoir, A Journey: “I assessed that there were three types of Labour: old-fashioned Labour, which could never win; modernised Labour, which could win and keep winning, which was my ambition from the outset; and plain Labour, which could win once, but essentially as a reaction to an unpopular Conservative government.” John Smith’s half-modernised party was what Blair describes as “plain Labour”, and Blair accepts that it would have won in 1997. As you say, not by as much as Blair, but the John Smith Thesis is that winning less emphatically would have been better.

This is where your argument becomes self-refuting. You describe Blair’s majority in 1997 as “too big” and say that “in hindsight the wrong people were voting Labour”. Your argument appears to be that, because rich people voted Labour, Blair was afraid to offend them and therefore failed to meet the “challenge of reshaping the world”. That you cannot see how absurd “the wrong people were voting Labour” is does not inspire confidence that a further exchange of views is going to be fruitful, but let me try.

First, it is simply ahistorical. As you suggest, it is apparent in hindsight that Smith would have won in 1997. But it wasn’t obvious at the time. Many people did not trust the opinion polls after the 1992 experience, when an average two-point Labour lead in the week before the election turned into an eight-point Conservative lead on the night. After Labour had lost four times, the party supported Blair in doing everything he could to maximise the Labour vote and to minimise the Tory one.

Incidentally, you are wrong, and insulting the memory of Smith, to suggest that “any Labour leader could have won in 1997”. I don’t want to be similarly rude, so if you apply to me in person I will happily supply the names (which I will then deny) of at least 20 people who were members of the Parliamentary Labour Party then who, had they been leader, would have lost that election for Labour.

But that is not the main point. Your main point is that Blair was “about one thing really, ... winning. Winning at any cost”, and that this limited the scope of his ambitions. The obvious reply to that is that losing elections is a poor way to “reshape the world”, but let me accept the premise of the “hindsight” argument. Let us accept that Labour could choose to turn the left-right dial to the left to maximise the left-wingery while not turning it so far as to deny Labour a working majority. Already we are testing the limits of plausibility, given that the only Labour leader to have won a working majority (more than 20 seats), from opposition, apart from Blair, is Attlee in 1945.

But let us pretend that Smith won in 1997. Would Britain be “more equal, sustainable and democratic” now, or would it have had a Tory government since about 2002?

I look forward to your reply.

Best wishes

JR

_______

Thanks for responding John – some of this is the debate Labour should have had four and a half years ago.

You start by outlining three types of Labour all of which I recognise. But you omit a fourth. It used to be called the soft left – today it might be called the modern left. I know you know about this because I saw you at the meetings in the late 1980s and early 1990s. I saw Tony too. Back then I was a “Blairite” – because I didn’t want to lose again and knew the party needed to change.

I thought New Labour was rightly about reconnecting with enough of the British public so that the forward march of Labour and a much better country could be renewed. But instead of starting where the majority of the people were and leading them in a new direction, New Labour kept going. It believed its own hype – “it won as New Labour and it would govern as New Labour”. But it won because it wasn’t the Tory party. There were so many more opportunities back then than it allowed for. Even if you’re right and at the time the only game was to win big – the strategy should have changed and the voting landslide turned into a political landslide. It never was.

We live with that decision today. Banks that are too free, teachers who are too controlled, the gap between rich and poor widening. Unsustainable growth and spin papered over the cracks but blew apart with the economic crash in 2008 and the political crash two years later. Yes some real achievements – but no real change in the Thatcherite weather.

Of course the wrong people can back Labour. We don’t want racists, misogynists or people who are anti-trade unions. Neither should we seek the support of those who never want to give anything up in support a good society – and therefore gain more than money can buy. If you are relaxed about the very rich then it’s impossible to help the very poor. New Labour thought its traditional voters could be ignored as they had nowhere else to go – but the Greens, the SNP and UKIP show that’s not true. So even if winning was all, it’s a failed project. New Labour built a cage for its own victory.

I’m a political pragmatist. I think you can build a good society slowly and surely – through ideas and organisation: 1997 could have started that process. Not overnight miracles but the beginning of a journey.

I’m not into the politics of betrayal – it’s too disempowering – then it’s all about them, the “leaders”, and not us and movements and alliances for change. New Labour was a skin-deep renewal of a social democratic project already in crisis back then. The real issue is what are the forces and ideas that can really renew a project in the 21st century that is about greater equality, solidarity and sustainability. You surely don’t believe that all we have to do is return to the politics of 20 years ago as if the crash, climate change and social media never happened?

Best

Neal

_______

Dear Neal

Thanks for your reply, which clarifies that you stand in a popular minority position in the Labour Party. One which saw New Labour as a trick to be played on the British people so that our own favoured brand of traditional Labour could get into power and do whatever it was we wanted in the first place.

Most of the party, fortunately, moved on and accepted that being in the centre is not just where you need to be to win (and to keep on winning) but that it is the right place for a reforming social democratic party to be, because that is how you make lasting social progress.

This is where your two sentences in your original are so revealing. First, that “the wrong people were voting Labour”, and, second, your question: “What meaningful project includes everyone?” The point not just about winning but about changing society in a democracy is that a successful party ought to imagine that everyone could vote for it. That is how you win and, having won, how you mobilise for change.

Your vision is of two social classes pitted against each other’s economic interest and vying at elections for superiority. You imply that for the oppressed class to win elections it needs to co-opt some of the oppressor class – either by fooling them into false consciousness about their interests or by simply selling out to those interests. I’m afraid this is punk Marxism that bears scant relation to how most people see Britain today.

Thus your minority in the party is permanently sunk in the gloom of its own false consciousness, sustained by myths such as that “the gap between rich and poor is widening”. Presumably you think it widened when New Labour was in government. It didn’t. It widened under Thatcher and Major and has been stable since. This may not be enough for you but (a) this ought to suggest to you that achieving greater equality is really, really hard, and (b) compared with America, say, it’s a heroic achievement in an open economy.

New Labour achieved a great deal for social justice, as I’m glad you accept, but I cannot imagine why you think it made “no real change in the Thatcherite weather”. We now have a Tory party committed in principle to no extension of selection in schools, to equal rights for gay people, to a foreign aid budget of 0.7 per cent of national income, to the minimum wage, early years support, massive universities expansion, protected spending on the NHS and no tax breaks for private insurance. So why the long face? Just miserablism, I suppose.

Best

JR

_______

John

We are getting to the nub of some of this. You seem to see the centre as something static – which politicians respond to and dance around. I think its more dynamic than that – something to be shaped and shifted. The centre in 1955 is not the centre of 2015.

So how do we we shift the centre? By tapping into the forces of modernity and bending them to our values – as Labour did in 1945 and did again to some extent in the 1960s. The country was open to more radical change than New Labour allowed in 1997. It made a rod for its own back by refusing to say politics is about choices and trade-offs. There were only enemies to the left – not the right.

It seems there are three options – to do a New Labour again – and win without sufficient purpose. To shout leftist demands. Or to understand where people are, reconnect and provide the space for answers that are in tune with the values of equity, solidarity, democracy and sustainability. That’s not a trick – that’s political leadership.

I don’t think there are two classes of irreconcilable difference – we change things through dialogue and coalition building. But New Labour sold the pass and gave up before they began. Blair even said “the party was the political wing of the British people” – it’s almost sinister.

Your list of “successes” tells us all we need to know about such a strategy – an education system fragmented by false choice, a minimum wage unable to keep people’s heads above water, universities that are no longer in the public sphere, the NHS broken by bureaucrats and commercialisation both instigated by New Labour, poverty alleviated for a while through back-room transfers but no moral and public crusade about a civilised society because of the refusal to ever upset the Daily Mail. It was a project built on the froth from the City. You judge a government by its legacy – neither the party nor the country look in good shape after the New Labour years.

Labour was once strong because of the organised working class and the Soviet Union which posed a real alternative that capitalism had to buy off. New Labour wrestled with those structural weaknesses but failed to be either new enough or Labour enough. Change comes from movements and compelling ideas. Labour stopped being a movement and became a command and control centre with no compelling vision of a good society.

Rather than do the same thing again and expect a different outcome, it’s time to move on and establish a social democracy for the 21st century. I’m hugely optimistic about the prospects for people-led change – but it won’t look like New Labour.

My best

Neal Lawson

_______

Apologies for the delay. This is partly caused by the fact that I have little idea what you are talking about. I don’t think the point of politics is to “shift the centre”. It is to change the country and the world for the better, to make them fairer. But if you are trying to shift the centre, being in government is a good place to start and New Labour shifted it some way, as I said.

You dismiss some of those achievements, although you don’t mention gay rights, foreign aid or forcing the Conservative Party off selection in schools and away from incentives for private insurance in healthcare. Nor do you engage on equality, possibly because you would rather not have your comfortable outrage about inequality growing under New Labour disturbed by facts.

You would rather sloganise about “commercialisation" of schools, universities and the NHS, all of which are in much better condition thanks to 13 years of Labour government. As for a minimum wage “unable to keep people’s heads above water”: as I say, no idea what you are talking about. Yes, life is tough for a lot of people, but a minimum wage is a lot better than not having one and the vast majority are still better off than they were, even if Gordon Brown failed to abolish the business cycle. You can’t just magic higher wages, or “the good society”, out of ideas, however “compelling”. 

Still, at least you have retreated a little from the Marxist idea of classes pitted against each other and accepted that change comes through “dialogue and coalition building”. That’s what Blair did, but it wasn’t good enough for you, so you dismiss the whole of Labour history since, presumably, some golden age of Attlee as a failure.

Sure, the party as the “political wing of none other than the British people” was an odd phrase, but was just a different way of saying that its vision was one to which everyone could aspire. Whereas you want a vision for which “the wrong sort of people” would rather not vote. I think you are about as utterly mistaken as it is possible to be.

Sorry to be so blunt.

Best

JR

_______

Thanks John,

I didn’t want this to be a cross examination of claim and counter claim – but an exploration of political strategy. You say I didn’t engage on inequality. The evidence is contested but after 13 years and huge majorities Britain was as unequal as New Labour found it. I’m not surprised – inequality is a big tanker to turn round. I don’t expect that to happen in one term or even three. What I expect is for Labour to steadily put in place the ideological and organisational basis so that over time – even a long time – we head towards a country that is much more equal, democratic and sustainable.

New Labour didn’t do that – it did the exact opposite. After it, the left was weaker – as a party and movement. That’s because New Labour saw ideas such as equality, the party and any wider movement as problems to be sidelined on its route to victory not assets to be mobilized to promote a good society.

That’s because the whole New Labour project was based on the premise that Britain is an essentially conservative country and the only way the party could win was to rip up much of what it believed in and ditch its troublesome members and wider alliances. Because they just didn’t get it. So New Labour was really just five people who drove everything from the centre. No one else could be trusted. It was doomed because that isn’t how progressive and lasting change happens.

New Labour really meant Not Labour. That’s why the rich people I encountered in 1997 could cheerily vote for Tony. It’s why Michael Gove said he wanted to be the “heir to Blair”. As such it’s hard to avoid the conclusion that the Blairites don’t want the country to shift to the left because if it did then their analysis would be proved wrong and their special place as the only people who can lead Labour to victory would be over. So the dwindling band of Blairites are sustained not by a vision of a different world but by the moment when they can say: “I told you so, there is only our pessimism.”

Me? I’m full of hope, optimism, and belief in the best in people and their collective ability to reshape our world. The way new technology links us up and allows us to mobilise has huge potential. The transformation of our country – a politics of love, openness and trust is not just desirable but feasible. And I know you probably won’t understand any of this either.

My best

Neal

Comments