Show Hide image

Tony Blair is pining for a centre ground that no longer exists

The former prime minister has shown a total disconnect from the impact of economic change on ordinary people.

 

Sign Up

Get the New Statesman’s Morning Call email.

What if a great political leader from the past could time travel to our day? It would make for a classic comedy. Confronted with the wreckage of Labourism across the Red Wall, the rise of "wokeness" and the salience of far-right ideology among working people, we would laugh at his confusion. As he deployed policies and rhetoric from the distant past, like Don Quixote attacking windmills with a lance, we would grimace with recognition: it’s the fate of everyone, eventually, to be out of step with their time.

Unfortunately, Tony Blair has just tried this exercise for real. In a New Statesman cover story, Labour’s most successful living leader wades into the war on “wokeness” – attacking the left, damning the incumbent Labour centre with faint praise, and advocating – you guessed it – a new centre party, or formation, inevitably led by the Labour right and the barely existent Lib Dems.

It’s an important and significant intervention. First, because it identifies some strategic political problems correctly. Second because, if this is all the Blairite tradition has to offer by way of answers, we can conclude it is close to finished. Third, because despite identifying technological change as the source of most political problems, Blair demonstrates a total disconnect from the real-life impact of that change on ordinary people.

Blair’s argument runs as follows. Labour could be on the brink of extinction as a potential governing party unless there is dramatic change. The contingent problem is that “radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical... So, the running is made by the new radical left, with the ‘moderates’ dragged along behind, uncomfortably mouthing a watered-down version of the left’s policies while occasionally trying to dig in their heels”. 

As a result, the opportunities presented by the emergent technologies of the mid-21st century, which have created a power mismatch between people and machines, are being squandered. Labour’s radicalism, he argues, is focused around old solutions. “This new world doesn’t require a Big State,” he argues, only an intelligent problem-solving state. Public ownership, free university education and heavier regulation stand at odds, in the Blair mindscape, with the needs of the change-makers: they sound radical but are “museum pieces”. 

On the culture war, Blair warns that moderates, without a clear position of their own, get forced into rhetoric and towards causes that repel socially conservative voters, for example over trans rights or Black Lives Matter.

Labour, he concludes, “needs total deconstruction and reconstruction”. His ally, Peter Mandelson, has already spelled out the details: the hard left and their trade union backers should be denied a place at the party’s top table. The reason this necessitates “deconstruction” is that there’s not a cat in hell’s chance of it happening under the present rules, and Labour emerging out of such a trauma in an electable state.

The payload is this: “Without the diverting drama of speculation around new political parties, we need a new progressive movement; a new progressive agenda; and the construction of a new governing coalition.” Despite the new political frame, it is hard to see anything here other than the old Blair-Mandelson project, destroyed by the Iraq War, of a new Lib-Lab progressive party, free of the unions, acceptable to Rupert Murdoch and primarily funded by progressive millionaires. Blair’s project is, and always has been, to remove the vestigial anti-capitalism of British social democracy and fuse it with an essentially liberal political vehicle for the bourgeoisie.

The critique has to start from the place Blair does not want to go: the lived experience of working people amid the technological change he breathlessly describes. In Hartlepool, a town with a nuclear power station and a steelworks, around a third of children were growing up in poverty even before Covid-19.In Barrow, home to the most advanced naval construction facility in Britain, 28 drug poisoning deaths, including from opioid use, in three years led locals to nickname the place “brown town”.

In the brave new world Blairism helped to create, the unskilled working class became atomised, dependent, powerless and poorer. Under the original script, wealth was supposed to trickle down, and the powerless were supposed to become acquisitive “entrepreneurs of the self”. But wealth had to be forced downwards in the Blair/Brown project, through tax credits and state handouts, because Labour had become “intensely relaxed” about the core process of neoliberalism: the filthy rich getting richer.

As a result, some – not the majority but enough to create a new dynamic – have abandoned the collective working-class identity our ancestors took two centuries to build, in favour of an identity based on nation, ethnicity and traditional gender roles. Working-class Toryism – not just small-c social conservatism – was always there in the deferential enclaves: the East End of London, the loyalist communities of Scotland, the garrison towns. Now it has spread to the places where Blair, Mandelson and Tristram Hunt were once blithely parachuted in: Sedgefield, Hartlepool and Stoke.

This is the strategic problem facing Labour and all progressive politics. But it is not the only one. Because the moment Blair decided to bomb Iraq and began the marketisation of the NHS and the commercialisation of universities, Labour lost its connection to the very demographic created by the technological revolution: the young, skilled, urban, networked working class. 

It is this, not some text by Herbert Marcuse dredged up from the mid-1960s, that is the source of “wokeness” – or progressive, networked identity politics, based on concepts of universality and intersectionality. Blair seems barely to have noticed, but the entire structure of exploitation and oppression, as experienced by young working people, has changed. Their basic problem is that rentier capitalism eats half their wages and financial capital takes much of the rest. 

They are exploited not just in the production process – though for the care worker, the Amazon packer and the Deliveroo driver the exploitation is extreme – but through consumption, borrowing and exclusion from asset ownership. For good measure, their taxes subsidise financial rents of the kind extracted by Lex Greensill as the middleman between the NHS and local pharmacies.

Blair, in common with Labour’s old right, mistakes the “wokeness” of young working people as gestural. In fact, it is a new form of resistance. As neoliberalism destroyed the culture of collective resistance, a new generation of workers learned to resist through their identities. A trade union can be smashed; a person’s gender, ethnicity, sexuality or even local or niche cultural identity cannot. It forms a solid kernel of resistance in the digital age.

***

This is the root of Labour’s problem. One section of the working class retreated from mass solidarity towards xenophobia; another has retreated to individualised progressive resistance. Both now express their aspirations through values, culture and identity – the politics of economism and tradition is powerless, whether social democratic or Corbynite. In response, Blair wants a muscular new centre to emerge that tells the “woke” left to shut up, crushes the traditional left’s aspirations for public ownership, redistribution and regulation, and forms a pact with the Lib Dems.

It’s become fashionable to say there is no political centre, but that’s demonstrably wrong. The majority of voters still lie towards the middle of the axis, but now have to be measured in two ways: left vs right on economics, liberal vs conservative on social issues. As the political scientist Paula Surridge has pointed out, Labour’s problem is simply this: it cannot win the votes of left social conservatives because their social values are more important to them than their economic interests.

There are two solutions: one is for Labour to construct an alliance of all socially liberal voters, which would mean starting with the Greens (who surged in the local elections), working through to the Lib Dems and, if possible, the SNP and Plaid Cymru. The other is for Labour to become an umbrella party in which the voices of socially conservative workers can be heard and respected.

What Blair wants is something different. The end of Labourism, a merger of the social-democratic centre with liberalism, and the embrace of all the things he’s been promoting in the world’s boardrooms: a deregulated liberal globalism with a social conscience.

But there is no basis for that project in reality. The global order is breaking up. National or regional solutions are becoming mandatory: Britain will need a space industry, a silicon chip industry and a domestic or European 5G manufacturer just to survive in this new world. But the asset-stripping and disinvestment of – yes – the Blair years left us bereft of options. So the state’s role in the tech revolution is central, not peripheral. Likewise, with climate change: there are no private-sector solutions without severe and urgent state regulation of fossil-fuel industries.

As for the social base, where will it come from? Even after up to 100,000 members have left the Labour Party in disgust at Starmer, his allies are forced to concede that the left still accounts for a majority of the membership. True, some of that left are backward-looking Bennites, but the core of it – Momentum, The World Transformed, Open Labour, Labour for a Green New Deal and associated think tanks – is forward looking. They recognise the challenges of technological modernity and look for answers beyond the boardrooms of Big Tech and the big banks. In the mass mobilisations of Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, Extinction Rebellion and, now, Kill The Bill, they saw a new generation yearning and fighting for progressive change.

If Blair and Mandelson want rid of this force, they want rid of the lifeblood of the party – because there are no compliant union bosses left. True, there are plenty of time-servers in the Labour movement, but even they know that the consequence of an assault on the left would be moral collapse and the emergence of a vibrant alternative left party. Indeed, it is only the forbearance of left MPs, activists, union leaders and members – their loyalty to the Labour institution – that’s prevented this so far.

To win, Labour needs to become a party in which all sections of the working class, with all their competing values and identities, can find a voice and a place. It cannot tolerate racism, sexism or homophobia, just as it can’t tolerate anti-Semitism. But it can offer a route away from prejudice for working people in thrall to the right-wing ideologies of the tabloids and phone-in shows. And it should, above all, allow local people to choose the candidate, the platform and the programme on which their constituency or town branch fights. 

Throughout the period Corbyn led the party, Blair’s allies and admirers dreamed of creating a new centre party: the money was there, the candidates were ready, a battle bus had even been commissioned. But they bought a one-way ticket to Palookaville, in the form of The Independent Group, because the social forces were simply not there to underwrite it. The real battle in British society is between a neo-imperialist, corrupt and xenophobic conservatism, and mass movements for radical and progressive change. Get with it, Tony: the centre’s fallen apart.

Paul Mason is a New Statesman contributing writer, author and film-maker. As economics editor at Newsnight, then Channel 4 News, he covered the global financial crisis, the Arab Spring, the Occupy movement and the Gaza war. His latest book is Clear Bright Future: A radical defence of the human being.