The same, only different – from Tony Blair to Keir Starmer

“The same, only different.” This is the advertising slogans I remember most clearly from the later 20th century (the 1970s most likely). I can’t remember what it was for, and a Google search doesn’t help. It was not one of the era’s more successful slogans, evidently. The advertiser was trying to say that its product had been improved, but without saying that it had been rubbish beforehand, or to put off loyal customers. I have often used it in connection with the Labour Party led by Tony Blair in the mid 1990s. As Sir Keir Starmer attempts a relaunch with a big speech today, it seems appropriate again, as indeed I was saying last week.

The same as what? In my original analysis of Mr Blair, I meant that the Conservatives. The party was making a pitch to “Middle England” voters who had been voting Conservative, and needed to reassure them that his party stood for a was a triumph of style over substance. Labour’s policies, notably on taxation and spending, were almost the same as the Tories. The key differences could be confined to four points that could be put on a small pledge card, alongside a fifth that said there would be no increase to income tax. Tories worried about putting “clear blue water” between them and Labour, but when they tried, Labour either immediately adopted the policy themselves, or let the Conservatives dig deeper into a hole with an unpopular policy. It was an extraordinarily disciplined effort, resulting in the most spectacular election victory of modern times, but which left the party with a weak mandate to actually do anything radical.

On reflection the slogan also applies to Mr Blair’s message to party activists. His policy stance displayed a marked turn to the right, in favour of the neoliberal orthodoxy. But Mr Blair maintained that the party retained its ultimate objective of getting a better deal for the working classes; it was just the tactics that were changing. He wrote the slogan “For the many, not the few” into the party constitution.

Mr Blair’s highly managed approach to politics invited distrust, but in both these messages he was as good as his word. In his first term he implemented austerity policies just as severe as the Conservatives were proposing, and was careful about raising taxes. In 2001, when the public had got used to Labour being in charge, he won another big election victory, but took a distinctly more socialist approach. Over the next two terms, Labour ramped up public spending and invested in public services. Anybody who did not think this approach was of the left only has to compare it with what followed. The problem was that he, and Gordon Brown his Chancellor and successor, and just as much an architect of this strategy, chose to avoid raising taxes on income and spending, and instead focused on the bubbly capital markets. When the crash came a massive hole was left in public finances. Mr Brown’s progressive cuts of the basic rate of income tax to 20% were a massive misjudgement.

What of Sir Keir? It seems to that he is trying a similar trick. His speech today was long on vague talk of transformation and a “fork in the road”, but his policies sound distinctly close Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, which are a distinct turn to the left for that party. He made working with business a central theme, and stressed sensible management of the nation’s finances. But the comparison with Messrs Blair and Brown does him no favours. These two offered the public clear messages of what they were about, especially Mr Blair. Even before he was leader, he offered us “Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”. As the election approached it was “Education, education, education”. On the radio this morning the Shadow Chancellor Annaliese Dodds was offered the chance sum sum up what Labour now stood for in a sentence. She waffled; I really can’t remember what she said.

But it is early days and this is not the mid 1990s. The Tories then were led by the uncharismatic John Major. Often the public go for opposites – so the best way to oppose the charismatic Mr Johnson might be something much more competent and mundane. It worked for John Major in 1992 after all, contrasting with his predecessor, Margaret Thatcher, as well as the Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Still, clarity of message can’t hurt. The real test of that is that it must upset people, especially on the left. Only then will the public understand that Labour has moved on from the crazy years of Jeremy Corbyn, and that the party will deliver what Mr Johnson say he wants to do, but is too chaotic to succeed. The same, only different.

One thought on “The same, only different – from Tony Blair to Keir Starmer”

  1. “She (Annelise Dodds) waffled; I really can’t remember what she said.”

    That sums up my feeling too! And I’m a member of the Labour Party. It’s not just her, of course. Why would anyone want to vote Labour at the moment?

    All parties need to “move on” from what you term the “crazy years”. You’ve suggested that the Blair/Brown government unravelled because they had their economics wrong. Yes, they did but not in the way you suggest. Reducing income tax possibly had some small effect on inflation but it was neither here nor there in the wider scheme of things. To understand what happened you might want to look at the sectoral balances not just in the UK but in the USA and the EU too.

    Everywhere, prior to the 2008 crash, was doing relatively well. Economies were zipping along fuelled by privately borrowed money. It was well out of fashion for governments to want to borrow themselves. The EU set hard and fast rules to try to prevent it. However these all ignored the rules of basic arithmetic which themselves determine the surpluses and deficits of the sectoral balances. If you want ‘crazy’, try to do anything of significance without being able to do your sums.

    If the UK or USA, for example, is running a trade deficit someone in the UK or USA has to be doing some borrowing. It’s stupid in the extreme to expect that the private sector can sustain the sort of borrowing we saw in the boom years. There will come a point when they don’t want to borrow any longer, and we have a 2008 style inflexion point. Then the onus will fall on government, and as we saw. So what do you do then?

    It was even more stupid and crazy to try to fix the ‘problem’, if that is even the right word for it, with neoliberal and austerity economics. It is quite possible to have a successful economy which is of the left just as it is one of the right. The neoliberal mistake the right make is to think they can have smaller government by trying (but failing) to have balanced budgets. The neoliberal mistake the left makes is to think they can only get their spending money by going after the rich.

    There’s no immediate prospect of another 2008 style crash. The conditions are quite different. But, we still could see a slump, if governments in the UK, EU and USA don’t get their fiscal policies right. If governments start to fret about what you’ve termed “a massive hole…. in public finances ” we really will be in trouble. I don’t think the Tory government will make that mistake. Even those on the right like John Redwood are sounding decidedly Keynesian at the moment. I expect their priority will be to avoid just such a slump if only to avoid bringing their Brexit project into disrepute.

    I’m not too sure about Joe Biden. I am more pessimistically sure about what will happen in the EU. The Covid bill will end up being in the trillions of euros and it will land on the doormat of German and Dutch voters and taxpayers. Yanis Varoufakis is predicting it will bring about the end of the eurozone and EU too. He could well be right. But even if he isn’t I doubt the Germans and Dutch will want to take on board the lessons they should have learned on what fiscal policies a common currency requires for it to work successfully. So, there is bound to be more strife between the richer and poorer EU countries. Large fiscal transfers, from rich to poor, are necessary and they have to be in the form of grants rather than loans. The latter are simply unrepayable in any case.

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