Tony Blair is back. His #FutureOfBritain conference yesterday (30 June) promised a “new policy agenda” transcending the outdated left-right divide. So far, so “third way”. The stated intention is to inject ideas into the public debate and revitalise the sensible centre of British politics. In reality, however, his aspirations amount to a thinly disguised attempt to hijack the left once more – bending the “arc of history” in the direction of a broad progressive alliance that owns the future.
Technology has superseded globalisation as the driver of historical evolution, but the Blairite playbook remains the same: scientifically determining the true path towards enlightened modernity. At the heart of Blair’s thinking is the blind belief in progress underpinned by technological innovation. Yet, as human work is replaced by computers and robots, the substitution of labour for technology robs people of their agency and dignity. In this futuristic world, the human person is but an exchangeable commodity and a cog in the collective wheel of global capitalism.
Take the vision essays published ahead of yesterday’s conference. The one on prosperity asserts that “as our knowledge economy matures… we need to radically raise our ambitions on education. We must seek to expand higher-education participation to 70 per cent.” Blair has learned nothing and forgotten nothing. Twenty-five years after promising to get half of Britain’s youth into university, he is doubling down on the same failed policy. Not only have graduate salaries stagnated for a decade but further expanding higher education will do nothing to provide vocational and technical training for fast-growing sectors such as health or social care. The obsession with boundless progress powered by techno-science leads Blair to devalue practical abilities and social, empathetic skills. It ignores the key workers who do the jobs that require hands and hearts, not just heads.
As globalisation goes into reverse and disrupts the traded sectors linked to the knowledge economy, a more resilient model cannot rely on cognitive achievements alone. Progress is neither linear nor endless, though Blair continues to claim that scientific advancement is necessarily good and that it will accelerate social improvement. But just as history is contingent, so too progress can be reversed. Technological innovation is ambivalent. It has empowered individuals and improved their lot, but it has also been an instrument of domination and has undone advances in civilisation. A cursive glance at 20th-century history refutes the myth that the Enlightenment ideal of progress has produced all the good deeds of the modern era and none of its crimes.
Ironically, the underlying determinism is something Blair shares with Marx and Comrade Corbyn. Both New Labour and the revolutionary left with its deterministic embrace of technology subscribe to an ideology that views the left’s electoral base as the new networked urban, educated youth. This is not just a world away from the everyday experiences of the people in the places Labour needs to win. It also fails to build a cross-class and cross-cultural coalition capable of defeating the right – and governing in the interest of a popular majority.
[See also: Tony Blair’s new centrist project shows he and his acolytes have learnt nothing]