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18 June 2015

Blairism isn’t about moving right – it’s about doing what’s right

What matters is what works. The solutions have changed, but the spirit of Blairism would do Labour a power of good, argues Thom Brooks.

By Thom Brooks

Another lost election is met with a new round of soul searching. Nothing says more about the challenges facing the Labour Party than the unwarranted panic some have about all things Tony Blair.

Blair was the most successful Labour leader and Prime Minister in the party’s distinguished history. It is baffling why so many regard any hint of Blairism as a form of political leprosy, to be avoided and untouched.  You could be forgiven for viewing attempts to combat Blairism like the cultural destruction we’re seeing in Syria. Both want to blot out great achievements worthy of continued celebration.

The greatest irony is that these attempts to run away from Blair’s legacy leading to his winning three general elections is performed in the name of Labour’s winning the next general election. Perhaps irony is dead. And we’re our own worst enemy.

There’s nothing distinctively right-wing about supporting what works. Improving public services, school and hospitals, economic policy or border controls need not always be about increasing state control, unnecessary bureaucracy and trying to govern a 21st Century Britain in a globalized world as if nothing has changed since the Victorians or earlier.

The healthy scepticism many on the left have for the effectiveness and benefits of the private sector is rarely found with the same vigour for the public sector. One is not bad and the other good no matter the facts.

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Labour will not win the next general election combatting privatisation as an abstract idea. Many voters work in the private sector and the constant attacks on that sector without making clear why led many a business leader to conclude Labour was not on their side. Labour must support responsible businesses if it is to be in electoral business.

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The concerns many have for increasing NHS privatisation has merit. But voters will only come to Labour if we can say something concrete about how privatisation done badly can make things work much worse for them. It’s not the private sector that is a problem, but its managed badly that is the issue. If voters can see GPs more often and have better access to hospitals, I doubt they will oppose them because the state relied on industry for help.

Liz Kendall is regularly accused of Blairism and so therefore not fit for becoming Labour Party leader because she believes we must focus on what works. She must be right. If what works is a problem, then I fear the solution.

Whatever else Blairism is, it is not a move to the right, but the right choice. It represents the triumph of pragmatism and policy making based on evidence rejecting narrow ideological commitments better tailored to a past age. 

I’ve said nothing of the record economic growth and job creation, new schools built and more built during Blair’s three terms in power. This is because we all know the numbers, but now we need to believe we can win again and take our fight to the Tories.

Some think we need to reject Blairite pragmatism for success. But we’ve had five years of it and the disappointing results should speak for themselves. Others point to the SNP’s success as a sign that the public wants to support progressives, but see other parties as more deserving of their vote. But Scotland post-indy ref is not rUK after coalition. The public voted SNP and UKIP as a rejection of Westminster politics. Labour’s goal should not be repositioning on an ideological scale, but repositioning its relevance.

And this is why a touch of Blair could be what is needed. His appeal was so widespread because focusing on what works based on evidence transcends narrow ideological pigeon holes that only political obsessives obsess about.

As we debate who should serve as leader, we must ask who is a viable leader for not only Labour, but also the country. If you’re unsure, then let’s agree to win first.

Feeling good and losing elections is something Liberal Democrats do. Not us. Let’s avoid learning the wrong lessons and turn not to the right, but in the right direction.

It’s time we embraced New Labour’s legacy as achievements we should build on and no longer ignore.


Thom Brooks is Professor of Law and Government at Durham University and Communications Lead for Sedgefield CLP. He tweets as @thom_brooks.