Tony Blair has a point – Labour’s ‘defect at birth’ was its link with the trade unions

The former prime minister was more blunt about breaking the link between Labour and the unions than ever before, writes John Rentoul

Tuesday 05 April 2022 19:00 BST
Blair presented New Labour as a broad-based party committed to social justice
Blair presented New Labour as a broad-based party committed to social justice (Getty)

Some of Tony Blair’s strongest supporters are not impressed. One right-wing Labour MP told me that his former leader’s comments were “ahistorical, self-indulgent drivel”. This was a reference to the former prime minister’s class at King’s College London, where he took questions from the students I teach with Dr Michelle Clement, Professor Jon Davis and Dr Jack Brown on the “Blair Years” course.

One of the questions was how Labour could win an election today, and Blair launched into a short history lesson before saying: “Personally, I think the big defect at birth of Labour was to be tied to organised labour rather than to be broadly progressive. The separation of that liberal tradition of progressive politics and the Labour tradition is the thing I tried to cure in New Labour, but after I left people went back to the traditional roots of Labour, which I think was and is a mistake.”

This was blunter than I have heard him be on a subject that was sensitive throughout the New Labour years. Some of the modernisers would occasionally let slip that they thought the institutional role of the trades unions in the Labour Party should be abolished, and Blair himself was given to repeating the grand musings about the divide between the Labour and Liberal traditions that Roy Jenkins blessed him with, but this went a step further.

I don’t think Blair was suggesting that the founding of the Labour Party was a mistake. The party was in effect founded by the unions in 1900, but it was explicitly founded as a coming together of all groups committed to advancing the interests of the workers and of an ill-defined socialism. The Fabian Society, the Independent Labour Party and the Social Democratic Federation were all part of the Labour Representation Committee (LRC), which organised for the election of Labour MPs. When 29 of them were elected in the 1906 general election, they adopted the name “The Labour Party”.

The form of the new party, however, had been set by the LRC, which was made up of delegates from affiliated organisations. Thus Labour’s internal democracy was dominated by the block votes of unions from the start, in a way that didn’t happen with other social democratic parties in the rest of Europe or with the Democratic Party in the US.

For most of its history, trade union leaders provided a pragmatic bulwark against the passionate but not always voter-friendly idealism of the individual membership. Indeed, as a would-be Labour candidate in 1982, Blair condemned the Social Democratic Party’s breakaway from Labour, saying that “they have isolated themselves from organised labour, a fatal mistake for any radical party”.

Blair’s point now, though, is that the union ballast also swung the party towards a workerist politics that, even in its most conservative form, made it hard to sustain the widest possible electoral coalition. He told our students that the “defect” of Labour’s origins makes a difference “to the psychology of the country towards the two parties”.

He said: “The country looks at the Tories and thinks, ‘They only care about power.’ Now, if you’re Labour, you think, ‘That’s really bad; really unprincipled.’ But the public finds it curiously comforting. Because they think, ‘They only care about power, so they’re probably going to try to please me most of the time.’ So what we think is a point of criticism is really a point of reassurance.”

I’ll have to ask Blair what he meant by that, but he may have been referring to the politics of class interest, and the way in which Labour’s attachment to “principles” has been inferred from the traditions of the labour movement.

He claimed that this difference accounted for the party’s poor electoral performance for most of its life: “Unfortunately, if you look back on, what, 120 years of Labour’s existence, we’ve been in power for less than a third, roughly a quarter, of that time.” By my calculation, Labour has been in power for 33 years out of 122, although we should possibly add a few years for Labour’s shares of the wartime coalitions.

This is the Jenkins theory of the divided progressives. I thought Blair was only pretending to take Jenkins seriously as part of his wooing of the Liberal Democrats before and for some time after the 1997 election. Even Paddy Ashdown, the Lib Dem leader, affectionately mocked Jenkins’s pomposity, calling him TGPB, The Great Pooh-Bah, in his diaries.

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But it turns out that Blair really does see more than two centuries of British history through Jenkins’s eyes, arguing that the Liberals were a more successful rival to the Conservatives in the 100 years before Labour’s founding.

Personally, I think Jenkins’s view is bunk. There were several specific reasons for Labour’s relative lack of success over most of the party’s life, from the collapse in the confidence of its inexperienced cabinet in 1931, to the rigours of post-war austerity which cut short the Attlee government, and to the Bennite diversion which split the party in 1981.

But the main refutation of it was Blair’s own success in uniting and holding together the most dominant electoral coalition in post-war history, despite being “tied to organised labour”. This was achieved partly by simply denying the fact of the union link. In the run-up to the 1997 election, he said he would listen equally to organisations representing employers and employees, and that the Labour government would be the “political arm of no one other than the British people themselves”.

Blair presented New Labour as a broad-based party committed to social justice, with the unions inside the big tent but not owning the guy ropes – comparable to the politics of Emmanuel Macron and Joe Biden.

So there was nothing pre-ordained by theories of the grand sweep of history about Labour’s lack of success since 2007. What is true, though, is that the unions’ influence on internal Labour Party politics did play a role in the retreat from that broad coalition. It was the sectarian politics of Len McCluskey that delivered the leadership to Ed Miliband, and which opened the way for Jeremy Corbyn.

The union link ought to be reformed, but the real lesson of Labour history is that the party needs the right leadership.

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