Tony Blair's retrograde confidence in technological progress leads him astray

The former prime minister's unshakeable faith in machines suggests a technocratic politics unfit for today's most pressing challenges.

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Tony Blair, writing in the New Statesman, got one thing correct in his latest “rare intervention”: without fundamental change, Labour will die. There is, as he says, no God-given right for parties to continue to exist, and the set of results in last weekend’s elections should be a spur to change. Sadly, his core argument has barely altered from his election as Labour leader almost 30 years ago, notwithstanding the novel sprinkling of attention-seeking anti-woke talking points.

If there is a defining feature of Blair’s unchanged beliefs, it is a deep, unshakeable attachment to the inevitability of technological progress. Beginning in the 1990s, he has returned again and again to the need for “progressives” to passively accept their subordination to a hard version of historical determinism. His speeches as leader of the Labour Party hammered the message home: the “information highway” in 1994, the “information superhighway” in 1996, by 1999 a whole “technological revolution” that was sweeping away all the old certainties, and that would leave progressives in the dust with the “forces of conservatism” if they did not hitch themselves to it.

We get the same staccato lists of whizz-bang novelties now: “Electronic commerce. The Internet. The science of genetics” updated, two decades later, to the “internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery”. It doesn’t matter how or why these changes are happening, or what (if anything) might link them all: what counts is that they are happening, and from this follows Blair’s political conclusions.

But accumulating technology in the specific ways we have done so – most notably in the form of capital, as machinery and knowledge used to produce profits – is not a uniform good. One side of this has been known for the last two centuries, as Gavin Mueller’s excellent new book, Breaking Things At Work, describes: there is a long history of those in work resisting and shaping technological advances. A smart politics of labour and work would acknowledge and build on that history, taking, for example, the modern mechanisms of algorithmic control and management out of the hands of the corporation and its owners, as the Institute for the Future of Work’s just-published report recommends.

And the other side is also now truly making its presence felt, as two hundred years of capitalist industrialisation produces its ecological blowback. The accumulation of technologies dependent on burning fossil fuels is now destabilising the global environment, and doing so at an increasing pace; the industrialisation of agriculture has expanded the opportunities for new diseases to leap across the species barrier. Any new politics will either grasp this profound disruption to the stability and certainty of our shared natural existence, or it will be redundant.

Blair alludes to Covid-19, of course: the Tony Blair Institute has spent the last year attempting to leverage itself into relevance through a series of tech-fixated proposals for managing the coronavirus crisis, at least one of which – digital immunity certificates – has been greeted with concern by the data experts at the Ada Lovelace Institute. And, of course, while the pandemic is being brought under control more rapidly through technological breakthroughs, those advances have occurred in the medical sciences rather than the pure informatics the Blair Institute focuses on.

But the complete lack of curiosity about why and how the SARSCov2 outbreak occurred underlines the problem with Blair’s approach. Technology, in his world, is simply cumulative, like his expanding lists of New Things: you get one exciting gadget, then another, then another, piling up into the future, leaving politics as merely a question of managing its progress upwards. Any problems on the way – global poverty, say, or climate change – can be resolved through a combination of technology and judicious political management. The technology itself is neutral, and blameless.

[See also: Paul Mason on Tony Blair's pining for a centre-ground that no longer exists]

Blair is a technological determinist, as rigidly confident in the future the machines are creating as any liberal-minded Victorian reformer surveying the wonders of the Steam Age. And it is to Victorian politics that Blair seeks to return, suggesting – not for the first time – that the division between Labour and Liberals that founded the Labour Party was a mistake that gifted the 20th century to the Conservatives and now risks handing them the 21st too.

Instead, “modern progressives” should build a “new progressive agenda, a new governing coalition” between “like-minded” Labour and Liberal Democrats. Once upon a time, Blair promised the Liberal Democrats of 1996 places in Labour’s first Cabinet, before ditching the proposal after the election. Blair, in office, had the opportunity to implement the manifesto promise of electoral reform that might have made his “new governing coalition” a reality. He did not.

This retreat to the past perhaps helps explain his peculiar dismissal of Green parties and environmental politics. His attack on the German Greens is particularly odd: Blair may have forgotten the whole-hearted support Joschka Fischer, Germany’s Green foreign minister from 1998 to 2005, gave to Blair’s military interventions, balking only at sending German troops to Iraq. The German Green party is now on the cusp of winning the next national elections, polling well ahead of the SPD. In the UK’s local elections last week, the clearest winners in England were the Greens, gaining a record number of council seats and moving to challenge Labour strongholds like Bristol. The Lib Dems underperformed, and the Greens now regularly poll as the third-placed party across the whole country.

The Greens, not the Lib Dems, are the more obvious partners for Labour’s future. This future is not guaranteed: if the party has one, it will, as Blair says, be in building coalitions with like-minded forces. But his 1990s bromides and 19th-century alliances lead him in precisely the wrong direction.

[See also: The Tories’ Hartlepool triumph owes more to cash than culture wars]

James Meadway is an economist and Director of the Progressive Economy Forum.

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