Labour: Tony Blair is on the wrong track

I really wanted to leave Britain’s Labour Party alone for a few weeks. It gets too much media attention as it is. Part of me just wants to party to go away and die quietly. Another part thinks that most of the comment is just ritualistic diatribe from enemies and internal factions, saying the same old things regardless of reality. Then along came Tony Blair. My concern is not so much about the effect of his intervention has on Labour, but that too many people outside the party cheer him on and congratulate him on his insight. Especially ageing liberal professional-types like me.

Mr Blair’s intervention was a long article in the New Statesman. It is clever and well-written, and worth a read if you are interested in British politics. It has drawn widespread praise, for example this from Trevor Phillips in The Times. He suggests that parties of the centre-left (a dying breed, as he points out) must be both radical and sensible. Under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership Labour was radical but not sensible, but under Sir Keir Starmer’s… well you can fill in the blanks. He makes two main points. The first is that Labour is stuck in an outdated policy agenda that does not embrace the true challenges of the modern world. It supports on nationalisation and “free” university tuition, and it is without a reform agenda for public services. But the world is being rapidly changed by new technology, and many of the world’s biggest challenges, such as climate change, can only be embraced using that technology. Meanwhile the party’s central theme – a rejection of austerity, has been trumped by the current government’s “what it takes” approach to the covid crisis. Mr Blair’s second point is that Labour has surrendered the debate on social and cultural issues to the extreme left – shouting down people who question it from the likes of J K Rowling on transgender politics, and Mr Phillips on racism.

Mr Blair doesn’t really spell out what he means by the embrace of new technology, beyond more online learning and a few other examples at the fringes. On cultural issues he wants to move to a middle ground that tolerates a wider diversity of views. He seeks a remaking of Labour, and joint efforts by Labour and Lib Dem figures, alongside apolitical ones, to define the new agenda.

There is much here that I can agree with. Much of the old policy agenda promoted by Mr Corbyn’s party was nonsense, especially those favoured by big trade union bosses. The shouty and intolerant way that the left take on cultural issues alarms me too, even though I agree with much of what they say. The problem is that, for all his talk of embracing the way the world has changed, I’m not sure Mr Blair has noticed how much it really has. And in some ways the post-Blair Labour Party has adapted well to these changes, saving it from the disaster it was heading for under his leadership.

The rise of two groups in particular encapsulate this change. One is younger public service professionals. The Labour government of 1997 to 2010 greatly expanded public services, and extended university education. This has expanded a new class of people directly or indirectly employed by the public sector. But their path to middle class security is barred by high property prices. They have a stake in the public sector, hence a vitriolic reaction to austerity, have cultivated modern social attitudes at university, and are angered at the way Conservatives prioritise protecting and enhancing the property and entitlements of older people. The current Labour movement is largely made up of these people. The second group is the new working class: those with precarious jobs and drawn from a diverse range of cultural and ethnic backgrounds. This group felt badly let down by cuts to benefits and public services, are victims of routine discrimination, and feel that the government is not doing enough to enhance its physical and economic security. In 2010 the new working classes’ support for Labour was soft; Labour has turned that around.

Labour’s predicament is that while it has consolidated its hold on these two groups, it is letting go of many others, and in particular traditional white working class voters with relatively stable jobs or pensions, and ethnic minority middle classes (of which many are now holding jobs in the Conservative cabinet). It is not at all clear that there is a magic “sensible but radical” policy agenda out there which allows Labour to hold not its current core vote, while winning over many of the people who currently support the Conservatives.

I think there is a deeper problem with Mr Blair’s approach as well. It is very top-down. His “radical” ideas about embracing technological change sound a lot like he has fallen for a lot of the hype around new technology prompted by large, progressive companies (as well as the Chinese Communist Party, but I digress). He has form on this: while in government Mr Blair fell for a lot of the radical business transformation talk put about by management consultants and big business executives, and badly misjudged their applicability to the public sector. My worry is that this approach to technology transformation, and especially its enthusiasm for Artificial Intelligence, is dehumanising and creates dependencies that are vulnerable to disruption by criminals and others, which in turn leads to increasingly intrusive security.

What I believe the left has to do is to engage with the public at the local level, and develop new civic institutions to create a human interface between the public and public services and the social safety net. This means working with a diversity of people, many of whom you will have political disagreements with. It also means using new technology in a distributed and empowering fashion, rather yet more “computer says no”. Some Labour people, including people in the far-left Momentum movement, understand this. There are local bright spots (Preston is often quoted), but by and large Labour as an institution, and Mr Blair is a prime exemplar, favours the seizure of power at the most senior level it can, and implementing change from there, and crushing local dissent.

So yes, Labour must be remade if it is to play a useful part in the progress of this country. But not in a way that Tony Blair has any clear conception of.

All the main parties have opportunities and challenges

We now have nearly a complete body, so the post-mortem is more convincing. What the elections show is that politics has been changed decisively by Brexit and the takeover of the Conservatives by Boris Johnson and his supporters. This new world offers challenges and opportunities for each of the five main political parties – the Conservatives, Labour, the SNP, the Lib Dems and the Greens.

One comment I am reading a lot of is how much these elections have been favourable to those in power, at least down to regional level. The Conservatives have done well in England, and in the Teesside and West Midlands mayoralties. Labour did well in Wales, Manchester and other big city mayoralties. The SNP did well in Scotland. Perhaps that is the influence of the covid-19 crisis. Perhaps that means that the winners are not as secure as some suggest. One aspect of this incumbency bonus is the naked way the Conservatives are using power in recently won seats in England to bring in local government spending. The voters have got the message, it appears, and don’t object; Labour complaints only draw attention to it.

The biggest winners are the Conservatives, who have consolidated their hold on formerly Labour areas in northern England and the Midlands, but not Wales. I have already written about this. It places the party in a formidable electoral position. The challenge has been well put by Matthew Parris in The Times. The party has been garnering support among people who see themselves as the rejected, society’s losers. Important though these people are, the policies they favour are not those that will be good for the country’s prosperity and wellbeing. They favour continuity and stability, if not pushing the clock back. Sooner or later this is going to create unbearable pressure at government level. They will either be unable to deliver on their promises to improve local conditions, in which case their voters will move on, or they succeed, in which case the politics of victimhood will play less well, and other parties will find the going easier. The two pronged attack that did for the Conservatives at the Euro elections in 2019 can do for them again – as both professionals and populists close in on either flank. For now the Prime Minister looks likely to bluff his way through this challenge, delivering cheery words but little in the way of substantive results. But the vulnerability remains. Meanwhile Labour, the Lib Dems and the Greens were all able to chip away at the Tory hold in their southern heartlands where well-led locally.

One of the rituals of election post-mortems is commentators to have a go at the Labour Party, criticising it for not listening to its core supporters. Take this piece from Janice Turner in The Times again. And yes, I often join this chorus myself. But when most of these people accuse Labour of looking down on traditional supporters, they themselves look down on Labour’s core support, especially amongst “woke” public service professionals. It needs to be taken with salt. More interesting is the variation on the theme by John Harris in the Guardian, who accuses Labour of too often ignoring local community groups, to rebuild the civic infrastructure it lost when old industries went into decline. This is something that the party seemed to understand under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn, and certainly was important to his effective deputy, John McDonnell, but it is being abandoned by the current leadership.

Labour finds itself in a tricky position. It must extend its base beyond those public-sector professionals and the “new” urban working classes, without abandoning core ideas, like multiculturalism, that are central to its hold on that existing base. I’m sure that Mr Harris is right and that local community politics is part of the answer. But it isn’t easy, and in places they will find that the Lib Dems or Greens will have got there first. Tricky strategic decisions lie ahead, but their position is far from hopeless. The results are not as bad as many are making but, but they do show that the Tory hold on the old “Red Wall” remains tight, in England at least.

The SNP are the other big winners. The challenge for them is clear: navigating the drive towards independence for Scotland. The idea of independence is popular in Scotland, but the hard reality is likely to be less so. Perhaps the UK government’s best strategy is to move the debate onto the nitty gritty and let the SNP get bogged down; but to do that it has to concede a referendum, though not perhaps the referendum that the SNP want. See this interesting article by David Herdson on political betting.com. Losing the last referendum was the best thing to happen to the SNP; that will not be the case for another one. But if the government refuses to concede a referendum, then the SNP will continue to control the agenda.

For the Lib Dems the elections produced mixed results, but hopeful signs outweighed the discouraging ones. The party is making headway against the Conservatives where it has local strength. The Tory drive for the old Labour heartlands increases its vulnerability in its own backyard. But no earthquakes. It is not yet clear how the party breaks through into national scene. The party does not have a sharp brand; this can help in Britain’s electoral system, as a sharp brand deters as well as attracts voters. In Scotland the party held onto all its first-past-the-post seats, and challenged hard for a further one. But it won no seats on the proportional list system. This is ironic for a party that is so keen on proportional representation.

The advantages of a clear brand are shown by the Greens, who generally did well. If Labour starts to dilute its appeal to younger and environmentally conscious voters, the Greens are more likely to benefit now than the Lib Dems. The Greens easily beat the Lib Dems in London, as well as Scotland (where they contested no first-past-the post seats). Still, their claim to be the third party of national politics is overdone. Their predicament is the opposite to that of the Lib Dems – trying to turn a strong national brand into something that wins them councils and parliamentary seats.

Should the non-Tory parties work together to challenge the Conservatives, outside Scotland at least? This can only be on the basis of changes to the electoral system and perhaps other constitutional changes. This has been done in New Zealand. But for that to be viable there needs to be a broad understanding in the public that the system is broken and needs to be changed. For all the whinging I see little evidence of this. Beyond a little sotto voce staying out of each others’ way at the next general election I don’t think this idea will get anywhere.

So the landscaper has changed, but we are only beginning to see where this is leading.

Labour pays the price for internal party democracy

We don’t have a complete body yet, but the post-mortem has started. (Credit to The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush for the post-mortem without a body metaphor, which I find very appealing). The Conservative victory in the traditionally Labour seat of Hartlepool is not especially surprising, but the scale of that victory is greater than expected. Looked at in a broader, longer term perspective, though, and it is quite startling.

The scale of the result was not because the Tories did unexpectedly well (most people thought they would hoover up the Brexit Party’s substantial vote), but because Labour’s vote share sank from 38% to 29%. An independent candidate picked up nearly 10%, and that seems to be were most of the Labour loss went – though a string of other candidates picked up about 1% each. That included the Lib Dems who sank back from 4%; they had been in second place no so very long ago.

The first thing to say about this is that the Brexit referendum of 2016 has proved an astonishing political success for the Conservatives, if an unintended one. It has fractured the Labour Party. At first many of their voters went to Ukip and then the Brexit Party. The Tories then undermined and demolished these insurgent parties and scooped up the bulk of their votes. The party has been brutal to its own Remainer supporters, but has managed to keep many of these in tow – though as Hartlepool as on one of the most Leave-supporting areas of the country, the by-election itself does not provide much evidence of Remain-supporting Tories staying with the party. Now that the country has left the EU, the politics of Brexit are much easier for the Tories to navigate. Remainers can still be painted as bad losers, unpatriotic and metropolitans sneering at the working classes, while Remain supporting politicians have no convincing policies to rally around.

But Labour’s failure has deeper roots than Brexit. It is often attributed to the party’s estrangement from its working class base. It certainly seems to be true that what might be called “traditional” working class voters have been deserting the party for some time. These may be characterised as white, less educated and less physically or socially mobile people, often living in towns rather than big cities. And yet this is a shrinking demographic, and Labour’s hold on the more modern version of the working class voter (living in big cities, insecure job, rented accommodation, often with an ethnic minority background) looks as strong as ever. Labour is also missing out on a substantial non-metropolitan middle class vote, which is well represented in places like Hartlepool. Back in the 1990s these voters used to be called “Middle England”, and were the particular focus of Labour leader Tony Blair. Mr Blair proved very successful at this, but his success was denounced as treachery by many Labour activists. In the end Mr Blair, a consummate Metropolitan if ever there was one, was losing this demographic, especially because of his liberal approach to immigration.

But Labour’s rot turned toxic after 2010, after they lost power, and with the selection of Ed Miliband as its leader. This was about the time that I started this blog, and there was still some engagement on social media between Labour and Lib Dem supporters, before we fractured and disappeared into our separate bubbles. Those Labour supporters proved right about the Lib Dems, and how long-term the damage the Coalition would be to the party. But we proved right about them, when we suggested that Labour neglected Middle England at its peril. This was denied furiously. Labour supporters were convinced that their route to victory would come by consolidating their support amongst “progressives’, including people who had been too disillusioned to vote previously. They did not need to convince people who had voted Tory to change their minds; the collapse in the Lib Dem vote would be to their benefit. Tory and Lib Dem hating became a signature theme, along with increasingly shrill condemnations of “austerity”.

In fact at the next election in 2015 Labour succeeded in winning the Conservatives a majority in their own right, by scaring many Lib Dem voters into their arms, and by undermining the Lib Dems in Tory facing seats. That, of course, is not how Labour activists saw it, and they doubled down by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as their new leader. The relatively strong Labour performance in 2017 seemed to vindicate this. But Labour success was as much due to mistakes made by Tory leader Theresa May as the ability of Mr Corbyn to mobilise new voters. Mrs May still made headway with her strategy of pressuring Labour in their heartlands. There followed a further two years when the party hollowed itself out, ending in the disaster of the 2019 election. Hartlepool has shown that the Tory victory then was no flash in the pan.

A lot of the responsibility for this disaster rests with the two leaders, Ed Miliband and Jeremy Corbyn. But both were elected by the party membership and the membership placed them under particular pressure, though party processes on policy. These processes are usually referred to as “democracy”, which the party prides itself on. The Lib Dems, and I assume the Greens, are just the same, and indeed often criticise Labour for not being “democratic” enough. As you will notice, I am extremely reluctant to use the word “democracy” in connection with the processes by which members of a political party exercise their rights. Political parties are self-selecting groups of people, who can leave at any point, and who may be expelled if they annoy other members too much. Democracy is about broader society and the inclusion of people who don’t have a choice about whether they belong. This is one of the paradoxes of our political system: political parties are an important and necessary part of the democratic system, but they themselves are fundamentally not democratic. The Conservatives are so successful because their members have the least influence over leadership and policy out of all the main parties.

The Lib Dems and Greens have little choice but to give their members a strong say over what their party does and who leads it. They are insurgent parties that need to offer reasons for members of the public to join and stay with the party. For Labour it is different. They aspire to be a national political institution: part of a two-party system which shares nearly all the important political power. The party has an institutional assumption that political parties other than themselves or the Conservatives are a damaging distraction that no politically responsible person should support. But a successful institution of that nature can’t be over-fussy about about political values – it constantly needs to be thinking about recruiting support from any group of voters it can. That’s an exaggeration; the two big parties do have core values running through them. But whereas the Tory Party can dump a large part of its core support (in the case of the Remain supporting political elite) in a drive to recruit Middle England voters, Labour has been unable to pull off a similar feat since the days of Mr Blair. The membership naturally wants the party to focus on people like them; they cannot be counted on to take a cold hard look at the facts. It was the Labour membership, not the leadership, that fought tooth and nail against Brexit. That was seen as betrayal in Brexit-supporting parts of the country, though it did help Labour drive back a real Lib Dem threat in places like London. Mr Corbyn then compounded the trouble by appearing incompetent and unpatriotic – and yet the membership enthusiastically backed him as their mascot, preventing MPs from removing him when they could see all too clearly the damage he was doing.

That membership may now be chastened, and more accepting of compromise. Labour’s position is far from hopeless. They can still win the next election. They have a secure base among the metropolitan middle class and the “new” working class. They have strong support among younger voters, and escalating property values are creating a growing class of people excluded from the Tory dream. The Conservatives are not widely trusted. But in order to win Labour must go after groups of people who normally vote Conservative, and pressure Tories in areas where they had previously felt secure. That will mean taking Labour into places that it is not comfortable about. To date I have not seen any sign that anybody in in Labour’s higher echelons understands that. Perhaps the shock of these elections will jolt them into decisive action.

Joe Biden has made a strong start

“Cometh the hour, cometh the man,” is what I wrote when Joe Biden was elected US President last November. I had a good feeling about the man because Mr Biden looked to be somebody who confronts the world as it really is, rather than on some projection based on conviction, as more partisan politicians do. It is going better than I expected.

In that post I said that the new president needed to do three things: revive the economy, get on top of the virus, and put pressure on the Republicans. On all three counts he is doing well. He has been lucky, but he has helped to make that luck. We can now see that this is the job he has wanted to do all his political life. He was ready for it. It turns out that being a Vice President is good preparation for the Presidency, especially at the start. The last Vice President to make it to the top was George Bush Senior in 1988; he proved very effective at the job, even if he was less effective at the politics. Before that we might remember Richard Nixon and Lyndon Johnson, also very effective operators. Mr Biden knows how the machinery of government works and was well prepared by the time inauguration came, notwithstanding the tardy cooperation of the outgoing administration.

Mr Biden has also proved an adept politician. He made a good start before he took office when the Democrats took both the Senate run-off elections in Georgia. The Republicans had been favourites. How much he can take personal credit for this is hard to say – but he clearly didn’t get in the way. That gave him control of the Senate by the narrowest possible margin. He has used it skilfully. His biggest achievement has been pushing through a massive economic stimulus bill. He now has two more ambitious efforts involving massive outlays: an infrastructure plan and welfare reforms. He has not sought to build bridges with the Republicans, in the way that Barack Obama wasted so much time doing, but the measures are likely to go down well with many Republican voters, especially the ones that switched to Trump in 2016 and 2020. I can’t see that the welfare changes stand much chance, as they look too strong for conservative Democrats in the Senate – but they should help keep up the pressure.

And the next point about Mr Biden is that he takes decisions, even tough ones, quickly. This is part of being ready for the job, but it is a strong contrast with Mr Trump and Mr Obama, and especially the former’s gaggle of squabbling advisers. A striking example of this has been the decision to withdraw the US military completely from Afghanistan by 11 September. We might well think this is wrong (The Economist argued that keeping on a small commitment would be value for money), but it happened quickly.

But is he taking America in the right direction? One criticism is that he is just rehashing failed policies from the 1970s. This is put quite eloquently by Gerard Baker in The Times. Mr Biden wants to throw a lot of public money at problems, promoting federal agencies and trade unions, in a striking reversal of the prevailing wisdom since Ronald Reagan came to power in 1980 – even if the practice never quite lived up to the rhetoric. There does seem to be something quite old and familiar about this approach. Mr Biden has been compared to Franklin Roosevelt and Lyndon Johnson – falsely because he doesn’t have enough Senate votes to be anything like as ambitious as this pair. His infrastructure plans recall Dwight Eisenhower. These policies just led to stagflation in the 1970s, it is said. But context is all. Big government worked well enough in the 1950s, with the rise of light manufacturing and the bureaucracy of the consumer society – all those salesman, account clerks and insurance administrators. But in the 1960s and 1970s, the economy and society suffered a number of problems. First came the Vietnam war, which the US government refused to finance through taxation, causing the postwar world financial infrastructure to buckle. Then came the malign effects of union inflexibility, which meant that consumer price rises fed through quickly into wage inflation, creating a wage-price spiral. And then came the shock of escalating oil prices in the 1970s, the first important symptom of environmental constraints on the US model of growth. Combine these with big government and you got stagflation.

That was then. Now is a very different world. The wage-price spiral has been broken by the growth of globalisation and the impact of technology. A new world financial infrastructure has emerged. Environmental constraints are being embraced rather than denied. And anyway since 2008 the developed world seems to have been suffering from deficient demand. Interest rates have been cut to rock bottom; there does not seem to be enough positive pressure in the labour market. Nominal jobless rates may look low (slowing for the pandemic), but pay at the lower end is propped up by minimum wages, job insecurity is rife, and people are dropping out of the workforce. Throwing public money at problems could be quite beneficial at such a time, even if it was harmful in the 1970s. And excess public spending is much more likely to get the money to where it is needed that tax cuts.

Still, you don’t have to be on the political right to worry that president is taking things too far. Predictions of a rise in inflation are widespread, though an awful lot of people seem to think that this will work in a similar way to the late 20th Century. One way or another interest rates are likely to rise – a sign of a better balanced economy after all – and this could have some fairly scary consequences in a financial system that seems to take low interest rates and booming asset prices as one of the fundamental rights of man. But it could take some time for any problems to emerge.

A second criticism is that Mr Biden is taking his radicalism too far. He has spoken of bringing America together and healing the partisan divides. But in many ways he is doing the opposite. Much of the Republican base – the wealthy rather than the populous part of it – was horrified by Donald Trump, whose grip on that party shows no sign of weakening. But they will be even more horrified by fear of tax rises, and will doubtless find themselves returning to the party fold. That does not matter that much in terms of votes (these are the top 1% after all, even if you have to add in larger numbers who fancy their chances of entering that elite) – but it means lots of campaign funding to promote misinformation and damaging memes. The Republicans scared a lot of people into voting for them in Congressional races last year by portraying the Democrats as being taken over by the “radical left”. It won’t be too hard to paint Mr Biden’s policies in that light.

A big challenge will come in 2022, when the mid-term elections come. Most commentators already seem to have written the Democrats’ chances off, following what happened to Mr Obama and Mr Trump at the same points in their presidencies. But that can’t be in the plans of a consummate politician like Joe Biden. He clearly feels that his policies can peel away a lot of voters from the Republicans.

And that will make American politics very interesting over the next year and a half. Mr Biden has started well, and he means to keep up the momentum.