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 The first is that Labour is stuck in an outdated policy agenda that does not embrace the true challenges of the modern world.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.