The middle class will never understand how much Tony Blair’s policies improved the lives of families like mine

The effects of New Labour’s policies are felt by those of us at the bottom who benefited from reducing child poverty, introducing the minimum wage and investing in schools and NHS 

Rabbil Sikdar
Sunday 28 January 2018 14:13 GMT
New Labour under Tony Blair made mistakes, but we must also remember the achievements
New Labour under Tony Blair made mistakes, but we must also remember the achievements (Getty)

The Labour Party is a strange thing. Possibly the most adored politician in the party’s recent history, Tony Benn, is also the man who split the party in the 1980s and didn’t even win the leadership contest. And yet the most divisive, possibly loathed, politician is Tony Blair, the man who guided Labour out of 18 years of darkness and into three successive election victories.

It’s Benn, not Blair, who inspires such a rousing following. Blair garners respect but, beyond the small pockets of his more hard-line supporters, is often seen as that chapter in the party’s history no one wants to remember too fondly, beyond the grudging compliments for the electoral feats. Mention Benn’s name, meanwhile, and there’s the flicker of a light being switched on in the eyes of many a Labour socialist, an adoration for a man seen as upholding the party’s principles and traditions even though it led him to achieving not much.

Instinctively I lean closer to Benn’s brand of politics on a lot of issues but there is something of a middle-class faux outrage when it comes to ignoring everything Tony Blair did. Which is why it is frustrating at times to see Diane Abbott, a politician of working-class roots, become the ambassador of this new middle-class socialism that has gained an iron-clad grip over the party.

When Abbott said that no one remembers supporting Blair, it’s also ignoring the many achievements Labour forged under his and Gordon Brown’s watch, achievements that any socialist should be proud of.

Blair urges Labour to challenge Brexit

The party significantly reduced child poverty and pensioners’ poverty, introduced the national minimum wage, low pay commission, created Sure Start and tax credits. Labour invested in the NHS and schools, created the Human Rights Act and introduced devolution. Under Blair the deficit was maintained at a low rate prior to the financial crash compared to what it is now. We had more teachers and nurses and the welfare system wasn’t the threadbare net it’s been reduced to today.

It reflects on Labour’s increasingly middle-class membership that Tony Blair is seen so poorly. In many ways this embodies Tony Benn himself. The effects of Labour’s policies are felt by those of us at the bottom who benefited from them, not the middle class who would have seen the introduction of tuition fees with burning resentment.

For all the talk about white privilege and male privilege, there’s also middle-class privilege in regarding Tony Blair as inseparable from the Tories. The difference between New Labour and the Tories for working-class individuals such as myself are the welfare cuts, scrapping of EMA, longer NHS waiting times, fewer teachers, the spiralling costs of living. Often, simply put, it has been a matter of life and death.

The point of this isn’t to depict New Labour as perfect or adore Tony Blair, because there were mistakes made by Labour under his watch that have played a part in facilitating Brexit. Tax credits were introduced to help the working class but eventually became a subsidy for employers who could hire on the cheap, and outsourcing public sector contracts to private firms has only resulted in the state picking up the bills while corporate fat cats pick up the profits.

No one should forget the catastrophic mess that was the Iraq war, which will always be a stain on Blair’s legacy. But to remember him simply for that and forget, for example, the humanitarian intervention in Kosovo is absurd. It shouldn’t become an excuse to write Blair off as some sort of neoliberal puppet.

It’s historical revisionism to tickle the revolutionary desires of middle-class egos and erase how Labour helped people such as myself. Any Labour achievement in government has to be praised because the only tangible improvement in the lives of the working class came about thanks to a Labour government.

The compromises Tony Blair had to make are ones Jeremy Corbyn is learning, with the difficulties over Brexit and Labour’s stances. Yet if – and it’s more a case of when these days – Labour under Corbyn becomes the government, will we criticise him for compromises or regard it as effective governance?

The cuts to public services and welfare that we angrily criticise the Tories for today are usually cuts to New Labour’s achievements, to their legacy. Arguments could be made that New Labour did not challenge Margaret Thatcher’s economic consensus, but then no government is without its mistakes.

It’s a pity that we only define New Labour’s record by its mistakes and do not celebrate its achievements. As the Open Labour editor and left-wing blogger Jade Frances Azim wrote two years ago: “Give me a Blairite government over a Tory one any day. Call it ‘Red’ Tory, it’s still not bloody Tory.”

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