For many in Westminster, the “quiet landslide” of 2001 cemented a growing consensus. As the Tories bickered amongst one another, Tony Blair delivered another thumping victory at the polls. Third Way centrism seemed to possess an inexorable electoral appeal and Labour seemed to have tapped into an unstoppable election-winning formula comprised of social liberalism and fiscal discipline. Now, as he outlined in an interview with this magazine, he is worried we’re forgetting this.
But beyond the Westminster bubble, however, local politics and communities have long been telling a different story.
Developments in East Lancashire typified the changing mood of the country. In May 2003, the BNP became the official opposition in Burnley, winning the popular vote in the borough council election. In what is now my constituency, Hyndburn, Lancashire, voters also began to turn away in their droves and, as early as 1999, Labour lost overall control of the council; just two years after Blair’s 1997 landslide. This almost-instantaneous disaffection mirrored the national picture, with Labour losing 1,150 councillors across the UK.
Such a decline seemed incongruous with the success of New Labour’s centrist policies – a dramatic cut in NHS waiting times, an eight-fold capital investment increase in education, and growth in GDP per head by 20 per cent. How could these impressive achievements occur alongside such incontrovertible disaffection? To answer this, any explanation for New Labour’s decline must move beyond its individual policies to confront Blairism as an ideological framework in and of itself.
Firstly, Blairism too often served as an ideological straightjacket on policy-making.
Simplistically viewing politics as a linear left-right continuum, it decreed that every policy had to be “within a millimetre of the centre”. In this way, New Labour’s centrism emerged not as the organic product of well thought-through policies but as the overriding determinant of every individual policy. Accordingly, it could never hope to reflect the diverse needs of different communities across Britain, many of which were estranged by globalisation. The limitations of such blind ideological subscription are captured by the state of social housing, which has been plundered by the private rented sector in part due to the government’s self-imposed antipathy towards interventionism.
This method of policy-making blinded New Labour to the extent to which working people had been marginalised and excluded from economic prosperity. While Blair placed his faith in the free market and services to advance economic growth, manufacturing opportunities and wages declined in shire communities. While his Chancellor, Gordon Brown, assured financial capital that deregulation would be safe under Labour, industrial communities outside of London were left to fend for themselves. And while Peter Mandelson cosied up to Europe, capital used freedom of movement to undermine collective bargaining and employment rights.
In the absence of a comprehensive industrial strategy, “One Wage Towns” emerged – secure jobs were replaced with insecure work such as shelf-stacking, and large, responsible employers made way for call centres and Amazon warehouses. Communities could not square Blair’s language of aspiration, social mobility and equality of opportunity with their own experiences. For them, the New Labour era was one of communal practices making way for individualist consumerism, power being sucked into an increasingly technocratic state, and regional imbalances persisting, as young people left for the country’s capital.
Yet, at the same time, where Blairism did assert a distinct ideological brand, it was often incomprehensible or alienating.
The Blairism of 1997 spoke the language of the time. It resonated with communities which had been left behind during Margaret Thatcher’s pursuit of monetarism and privatisation, and it embraced a message of hope, epitomised in the mantra of “Things Can Only Get Better”. Its purchase, then, declined so dramatically precisely because it failed to evolve from this cry for change to a real engagement with voters’ everyday concerns.
This quickly became apparent to those of us who lived in these left-behind communities. Our constituents knew the hurt caused by years of being left at the back of the queue and, in 1997, had put their faith in Blairism. Indeed, as early as 2001, one of my neighbours, a Labour councillor in Hyndburn, resigned precisely because the party refused to address the issues that concerned local voters. For her, as for many others, the party seemed to be drifting into a position that was at odds with the very values that its working-class base had historically sought to advance.
In stark contrast with Blairism’s commitment to a rights-based individualism, working-class communities spoke of the erosion of the communal practices which mattered to them. These were shared social codes which had evolved through mutuality and cooperation. While New Labour was promoting an abstract liberal doctrine which refused to recognise the value of relations and geographical affinity, many of these people lamented the decline of the tangible institutions which embodied their community’s identity – pubs, neighbours, community centres.
For them, New Labour abandoned its commitment to cornerstones of social and economic insurance – such as collective self-help, reciprocity and fraternity – which had furthered working-class interests for centuries. Rather than serving as a vehicle for collective empowerment, the party strayed towards managerialism, centralisation and statism. For some of a younger generation, Blairism changed the path of their lives, giving them university dreams and the belief they could live lives more prosperous than their parents. But, for too many, it left a sense of detachment and disappointment, with leaders and ideas that could never relate to the realities of life.
On the doorstep, voters spoke of “immigration”, “benefit scroungers” and their inability to decide for themselves how their lives and communities were governed. Such phrases were – and remain – a cry for political acknowledgement and a demand for action. Predictably, their questions went unanswered. Westminster stuck to its belief that GDP statistics proved Third Way economics truly was working. It has taken our withdrawal from the EU to ensure those questions are, at the very least, on the political agenda. This point was certainly not missed by the Leave campaign, with its message of “Take Back Control”.
If the left is to learn any lesson from Brexit, it must be that we cannot speak a political language different to those we seek to represent. Blairism may have resonated with swathes of voters in 1997. But after a referendum result decided by emotional sentiment rather than economic “expertise”, his brand of triangulated economic centrism seems ill-suited to re-engage with these left-behind communities. In Hyndburn, 66.2 per cent voted to leave. We, in the Labour party, must offer these voters more than Blair could ever do if we are regain the trust of communities which so desperately need us.
Graham Jones is the Labour MP for Hyndburn.