Maggie's boy

"You were the future, once," David Cameron famously taunted Tony Blair - but, in our final assessmen

A late by-product of the Eighties, Tony Blair will be remembered for using his party as a vehicle for an outdated version of the Thatcher project. Applying the half-truths of the political generation that preceded him, he secured ten years in office and is sometimes described as the most successful leader Labour has had. In fact, he has wasted a decade of unique opportunity and damaged Labour irreparably.

In domestic policy, Blair pursued the neo-Thatcherite strategy of thrusting markets into public institutions while expanding state power. His legacy is a hollowed-out party, which, despite the best efforts of his most likely successor, seems fated to be edged aside by David Camer on's new-model Conservatives. The hegemony that Labour was poised to achieve in 1997 has been frittered away. Whether or not it manages to form a government after the next general election, Labour faces a rerun of the disarray and paralysis suffered by the Tories since the fall of Margaret Thatcher.

Over the past 30 years, the right has been the vehicle for radicalism while the left has been reactive. The pattern continues today. Intriguingly, the Tories are the first to exploit the fact that the Thatcher era is over. Cameron has given voters only a simulacrum of a post-Thatcher project. Despite doffing his cap to local communities, he is unlikely to devolve powers to them. Rather than sweep away the Blairite apparatus of monitoring and targets, he will pretend to make it work. In this, as in much else, Cameron's new Conservatives will follow new Labour, but with a crucial difference: while continuing the neo-Thatcherite trend, they will be talking to the public of other things. The soft rhetoric of green consumerism has replaced new Labour's grating pro-business rant - a shift that appeals to voters who want the benefits of the market while feeling virtuous.

Cameron has grasped the central paradox of the Thatcher era: while it has been highly successful in strictly economic terms, it has bred a generation that wants self-realisation and quality of life as much as material wealth. Thatcher aimed to reinvent a country ruled by old values of duty and family. In fact, by rubbishing the ethos of public service and preaching that there is no such thing as society, she helped create a society in which self-realisation is the overriding ideal. Contemporary Britain is lax in its attitudes to sex and debt and uninterested in "traditional values", but it is still Thatcher's creation. Cameron, by turning his back on her while aligning himself with the values of the society she unwittingly created, has rendered new Labour obsolete.

The coup that created new Labour was a reaction to Thatcher's success. Tony Blair, Gordon Brown and the project's other architects concluded that, for Labour ever to return to power, it must adopt Thatcher's policies. New Labour was the result of this strategic choice rather than of any change in the basic beliefs of the party.

Yet, under Blair, the party soon became a vehicle for a version of neoliberalism more dogmatic and mechanical than even that which Thatcher had come to represent. Blair not only endorsed the Thatcherite settlement, in which market forces were accepted as beyond political control, he injected market mechanisms into areas Thatcher never envisioned. The core of the state was targeted - with large sections of the prison system, social services and healthcare being contracted out to private suppliers or forced to create internal quasi-markets. Here, Blair was more of a prisoner of ideology than Thatcher. Unlike Thatcher, however, he is a neoliberal by default rather than from conviction. A politician of considerable intuitive gifts but intellectually mediocre, he allowed himself to be shaped by the conventional wisdom of the Eighties.

If a neoliberal by default, Blair was a neo conservative by instinct. Embracing George W Bush's apocalyptic view of the "war on terror", he compromised British freedoms to a degree that Margaret Thatcher - despite having a close acquaintance with the terrorist threat from Brighton in 1984 - never contemplated. Blair's subservience to the White House went far beyond anything ever seen before, tran scending any geopolitical calculation he may have made about the celebrated Anglo-American "special relationship".

Like his fellow neoconservatives in Washington, Blair believes that America embodies the cause of human freedom, and that in any conflict with retrograde regimes it is invincible. His failure to condemn Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo reflected this: no doubt torture, secret jails and concentration camps are unfortunate, but in the long march of humanity they are unimportant. Like the pro-Soviet intellectuals of the Thirties, Blair identified himself with the state he believed to be in the vanguard of history. Confident a new world is coming into being, he views its human casualties as the acceptable cost of progress.

Article of faith

It would be naive to imagine that the grisly farce that unfolded in Iraq in any way dented Blair's confidence in American power. Despite their vastly superior technology, the US forces have suffered strategic defeat at the hands of 20,000 lightly armed insurgents. The US is no more invincible than other western states whose neo-colonial adventures also ended in humiliating débâcles. France was driven out of Algeria and the former Soviet Union out of Afghanistan, for example, though they waged their wars of occupation with ferocious intensity.

For Blair, however, the evidence of history is irrelevant. His belief in America's big battalions is an article of faith - a modern version of the Whig interpretation of history, in which the advance of an Anglo-Saxon version of freedom is seen as divine providence at work - which he shares with Bush. But Blair's faith in American supremacy has another source, in a mistaken reading of the end of the cold war. Along with many others, he perceived the collapse of communism as creating a unipolar world. He overlooked how other great powers were emerging with the advance of globalisation, leading to a loss of US hegemony - a process that has been accelerated by the disaster of Iraq.

Blair's abject relationship with Bush inflicted untold damage on Labour. He has presided over a huge drop in party membership, which has fallen by roughly a half since he became Prime Minister. Few Labour activists joined the party in order to celebrate the military crusades of a fundamentalist US president, while watching Britain's public services descend into chaos as they struggle to adapt to "market reforms".

The strategic decision to embrace Thatcherism may have helped Labour to exploit Conservative divisions, but it has also deprived Labour of much of its reason for existing. Old Labour had many flaws, some fatal, but it embodied a political culture for which people were ready to work. With the destruction of this culture, Gordon Brown has lost a vital resource. In the interests of party management, he insists he will carry on the course set by Blair. But it is not easy to see how a long spell in power can be secured by pressing on with a decision to continue a Thatcherite project that was devised in the mid-Seventies, the impact of which has been to leave Labour an empty shell.

Blair's departure marks a generational shift in politics. The Thatcher narrative, of achieving national renewal by releasing market forces, has dominated politics for the past three decades. And yet, if the country she helped create is somewhat different from the one she envisaged, it is also in some ways more attractive than the one she inherited. Though less cohesive, it is also more tolerant. If it is highly materialistic, it is at the same time aware that its prosperity is fragile.

A threatening truth

The ruling cliché has it that Cameron models himself on Blair. The truth is more complex - and more threatening for Brown. Certainly Cameron owes his PR techniques to Blair, but in this case the medium is less important than the message. Cameron is identifying with the values of voters who know nothing of the struggles of the Eighties. Thatcher's children may decide the next election, but they know that her story belongs in the past, along with new Labour.

For all the presentational stunts, Cameron remains mired in orthodoxy, and once in power he will faithfully implement the bankrupt consensus. The alacrity with which he saved Blair from defeat over Trident - a ruinously expensive cold-war inheritance that serves no useful purpose - shows him to be at one with the rest of the pol itical class in refusing to question Atlanticist pieties. No party has begun to think about where Britain fits in a world where US hegemony is fast vanishing; and, for all their affectation of novelty, the Cameroons are as much prisoners of anachronistic assumptions as Blair.

In practice, there is likely to be little new or different in a government led by Cameron, but, by speaking to the generation Thatcher created, he has stolen a march on Labour. It looks as if, after ten years in power, Blair will bequeath to Labour a long sojourn in the wilderness.

John Gray's next book, "Black Mass: apocalyptic religion and the death of utopia", will be published in July by Allen Lane (£18.99)

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 07 May 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: The reckoning

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Why Jeremy Corbyn is a new leader for the New Times

In an inspired election campaign, he confounded his detractors and showed that he was – more than any other leader – in tune with the times.

There have been two great political turning points in postwar Britain. The first was in 1945 with the election of the Attlee government. Driven by a popular wave of determination that peacetime Britain would look very different from the mass unemployment of the 1930s, and built on the foundations of the solidaristic spirit of the war, the Labour government ushered in full employment, the welfare state (including the NHS) and nationalisation of the basic industries, notably coal and the railways. It was a reforming government the like of which Britain had not previously experienced in the first half of the 20th century. The popular support enjoyed by the reforms was such that the ensuing social-democratic consensus was to last until the end of the 1970s, with Tory as well as Labour governments broadly operating within its framework.

During the 1970s, however, opposition to the social-democratic consensus grew steadily, led by the rise of the radical right, which culminated in 1979 in the election of Margaret Thatcher’s first government. In the process, the Thatcherites redefined the political debate, broadening it beyond the rather institutionalised and truncated forms that it had previously taken: they conducted a highly populist campaign that was for individualism and against collectivism; for the market and against the state; for liberty and against trade unionism; for law and order and against crime.

These ideas were dismissed by the left as just an extreme version of the same old Toryism, entirely failing to recognise their novelty and therefore the kind of threat they posed. The 1979 election, followed by Ronald Reagan’s US victory in 1980, began the neoliberal era, which remained hegemonic in Britain, and more widely in the West, for three decades. Tory and Labour governments alike operated within the terms and by the logic of neoliberalism. The only thing new about New Labour was its acquiescence in neoliberalism; even in this sense, it was not new but derivative of Thatcherism.

The financial crisis of 2007-2008 marked the beginning of the end of neoliberalism. Unlike the social-democratic consensus, which was undermined by the ideological challenge posed by Thatcherism, neoliberalism was brought to its knees not by any ideological alternative – such was the hegemonic sway of neoliberalism – but by the biggest financial crisis since 1931. This was the consequence of the fragility of a financial sector left to its own devices as a result of sweeping deregulation, and the corrupt and extreme practices that this encouraged.

The origin of the crisis lay not in the Labour government – complicit though it was in the neoliberal indulgence of the financial sector – but in the deregulation of the banking sector on both sides of the Atlantic in the 1980s. Neoliberalism limped on in the period after 2007-2008 but as real wages stagnated, recovery proved a mirage, and, with the behaviour of the bankers exposed, a deep disillusionment spread across society. During 2015-16, a populist wave of opposition to the establishment engulfed much of Europe and the United States.

Except at the extremes – Greece perhaps being the most notable example – the left was not a beneficiary: on the contrary it, too, was punished by the people in the same manner as the parties of the mainstream right were. The reason was straightforward enough. The left was tarnished with the same brush as the right: almost everywhere social-democratic parties, albeit to varying degrees, had pursued neoliberal policies. Bill Clinton and Tony Blair became – and presented themselves as – leaders of neoliberalism and as enthusiastic advocates of a strategy of hyper-globalisation, which resulted in growing inequality. In this fundamental respect these parties were more or less ­indistinguishable from the right.

***

The first signs of open revolt against New Labour – the representatives and evangelists of neoliberal ideas in the Labour Party – came in the aftermath of the 2015 ­election and the entirely unpredicted and overwhelming victory of Jeremy Corbyn in the leadership election. Something was happening. Yet much of the left, along with the media, summarily dismissed it as a revival of far-left entryism; that these were for the most part no more than a bunch of Trots. There is a powerful, often overwhelming, tendency to see new phenomena in terms of the past. The new and unfamiliar is much more difficult to understand than the old and familiar: it requires serious intellectual effort and an open and inquiring mind. The left is not alone in this syndrome. The right condemned the 2017 Labour Party manifesto as a replica of Labour’s 1983 manifesto. They couldn’t have been more wrong.

That Corbyn had been a veteran of the far left for so long lent credence to the idea that he was merely a retread of a failed past: there was nothing new about him. In a brilliant election campaign, Corbyn not only gave the lie to this but also demonstrated that he, far more than any of the other party leaders, was in tune with the times, the candidate of modernity.

Crises, great turning points, new conjunctures, new forms of consciousness are by definition incubators of the new. That is one of the great sources of their fascination. We can now see the line of linkage between the thousands of young people who gave Corbyn his overwhelming victory in the leadership election in 2015 and the millions of young people who were enthused by his general election campaign in 2017. It is no accident that it was the young rather than the middle-aged or the seniors who were in the vanguard: the young are the bearers and products of the new, they are the lightning conductors of change. Their elders, by contrast, are steeped in old ways of thinking and doing, having lived through and internalised the values and norms of neoliberalism for more than 30 years.

Yet there is another, rather more important aspect to how we identify the new, namely the way we see politics and how politics is conceived. Electoral politics is a highly institutionalised and tribal activity. There have been, as I argued earlier, two great turning points in postwar politics: the social-democratic era ushered in by the 1945 Labour government and the neoliberal era launched by the Tory government in 1979.

The average Tory MP or activist, no doubt, would interpret history primarily in terms of Tory and Labour governments; Labour MPs and activists would do similarly. But this is a superficial reading of politics based on party labels which ignores the deeper forces that shape different eras, generate crises and result in new paradigms.

Alas, most political journalists and columnists are afflicted with the same inability to distinguish the wood (an understanding of the deeper historical forces at work) from the trees (the day-to-day manoeuvring of parties and politicians). In normal times, this may not be so important, because life continues for the most part as before, but at moments of great paradigmatic change it is absolutely critical.

If the political journalists, and indeed the PLP, had understood the deeper forces and profound changes now at work, they would never have failed en masse to rise above the banal and predictable in their assessment of Corbyn. Something deep, indeed, is happening. A historical era – namely, that of neoliberalism – is in its death throes. All the old assumptions can no longer be assumed. We are in new territory: we haven’t been here before. The smart suits long preferred by New Labour wannabes are no longer a symbol of success and ambition but of alienation from, and rejection of, those who have been left behind; who, from being ignored and dismissed, are in the process of moving to the centre of the political stage.

Corbyn, you may recall, was instantly rejected and ridiculed for his sartorial style, and yet we can now see that, with a little smartening, it conveys an authenticity and affinity with the times that made his style of dress more or less immune from criticism during the general election campaign. Yet fashion is only a way to illustrate a much deeper point.

The end of neoliberalism, once so hegemonic, so commanding, is turning Britain on its head. That is why – extraordinary when you think about it – all the attempts by the right to dismiss Corbyn as a far-left extremist failed miserably, even proved counterproductive, because that was not how people saw him, not how they heard him. He was speaking a language and voicing concerns that a broad cross-section of the public could understand and identify with.

***

The reason a large majority of the PLP was opposed to Corbyn, desperate to be rid of him, was because they were still living in the neoliberal era, still slaves to its ideology, still in thrall to its logic. They knew no other way of thinking or political being. They accused Corbyn of being out of time when in fact it was most of the PLP – not to mention the likes of Mandelson and Blair – who were still imprisoned in an earlier historical era. The end of neoliberalism marks the death of New Labour. In contrast, Corbyn is aligned with the world as it is rather than as it was. What a wonderful irony.

Corbyn’s success in the general election requires us to revisit some of the assumptions that have underpinned much political commentary over the past several years. The turmoil in Labour ranks and the ridiculing of Corbyn persuaded many, including on the left, that Labour stood on the edge of the abyss and that the Tories would continue to dominate for long into the future. With Corbyn having seized the political initiative, the Tories are now cast in a new light. With Labour in the process of burying its New Labour legacy and addressing a very new conjuncture, then the end of neoliberalism poses a much more serious challenge to the Tories than it does the Labour Party.

The Cameron/Osborne leadership was still very much of a neoliberal frame of mind, not least in their emphasis on austerity. It would appear that, in the light of the new popular mood, the government will now be forced to abandon austerity. Theresa May, on taking office, talked about a return to One Nation Toryism and the need to help the worst-off, but that has never moved beyond rhetoric: now she is dead in the water.

Meanwhile, the Tories are in fast retreat over Brexit. They held a referendum over the EU for narrowly party reasons which, from a national point of view, was entirely unnecessary. As a result of the Brexit vote, the Cameron leadership was forced to resign and the Brexiteers took de facto command. But now, after the election, the Tories are in headlong retreat from anything like a “hard Brexit”. In short, they have utterly lost control of the political agenda and are being driven by events. Above all, they are frightened of another election from which Corbyn is likely to emerge as leader with a political agenda that will owe nothing to neoliberalism.

Apart from Corbyn’s extraordinary emergence as a leader who understands – and is entirely comfortable with – the imperatives of the new conjuncture and the need for a new political paradigm, the key to Labour’s transformed position in the eyes of the public was its 2017 manifesto, arguably its best and most important since 1945. You may recall that for three decades the dominant themes were marketisation, privatisation, trickle-down economics, the wastefulness and inefficiencies of the state, the incontrovertible case for hyper-globalisation, and bankers and financiers as the New Gods.

Labour’s manifesto offered a very different vision: a fairer society, bearing down on inequality, a more redistributive tax system, the centrality of the social, proper funding of public services, nationalisation of the railways and water industry, and people as the priority rather than business and the City. The title captured the spirit – For the Many Not the Few. Or, to put in another way, After Neoliberalism. The vision is not yet the answer to the latter question, but it represents the beginnings of an answer.

Ever since the late 1970s, Labour has been on the defensive, struggling to deal with a world where the right has been hegemonic. We can now begin to glimpse a different possibility, one in which the left can begin to take ownership – at least in some degree – of a new, post-neoliberal political settlement. But we should not underestimate the enormous problems that lie in wait. The relative economic prospects for the country are far worse than they have been at any time since 1945. As we saw in the Brexit vote, the forces of conservatism, nativism, racism and imperial nostalgia remain hugely powerful. Not only has the country rejected continued membership of the European Union, but, along with the rest of the West, it is far from reconciled with the new world that is in the process of being created before our very eyes, in which the developing world will be paramount and in which China will be the global leader.

Nonetheless, to be able to entertain a sense of optimism about our own country is a novel experience after 30 years of being out in the cold. No wonder so many are feeling energised again.

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

Martin Jacques is the former editor of Marxism Today. 

This article first appeared in the 15 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Corbyn: revenge of the rebel

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