In the opinion of Tony Blair’s fans (and probably the man himself) there is an iron rule of politics: Blair always wins. This is partly because he won three elections, but it is also because the essence of Blairism is moving to where the electorate is. The flexibility of Blairism can be seen in his followers’ attitude to government spending. In government Blair invested heavily, but his followers (such as Liz Kendall in her 2015 leadership bid) advocate harsh fiscal discipline. Bear this in mind as our story continues. To see the first part go here.
It was not long after Tony Blair left Downing Street that the storm of the 2008 Financial Crisis started brewing. Around that time I realised that I was completely in the shit. Turns out being in full time education from age five to age 21 only qualified me to answer phones or type addresses into a spreadsheet. Something all my teachers had neglected to mention as they encouraged me sink further into debt.
Getting a job and earning enough to live on was a painful and frequently humiliating experience. I worked for some of the biggest cunts I have ever met, yet felt lucky to have a job at all. The whole thing was underscored with a feeling a pointlessness. When Lehman Brother collapsed, it looked for a while that global capitalism would be over by Friday and the first global water war would break out on Monday.
Meanwhile the iron law of Blair was being tested on the voters. After a mammoth election, that lasted for two days during which I didn't sleep, Cameron rode into Downing Street using Nick Clegg as both the horse and the whipping boy. A centrist, modelled in the image of Blair, had moved the Tory party to where the electorate was: social liberalism and free market economics, with a large side order of austerity. No more luxuries like disability benefits and school construction. This was New Labour without pretending to care about the poor.
It was around this time that I began reading contemporary left-wing commentators, especially the writing of Laurie Penny. Her work was a revelation to me. For the first time, someone I didn't know personally was saying the things I believed in. I was not the one mad person who hated the world out of sense of bitterness. There were others who thought that something was really wrong and we need to do something radical about it.
Penny's writing, among others - too many to name here - opened up my mind to ideas beyond socialism and economic inequality. It was around this time that I became aware of the interlinked nature of oppression and that it is as diverse as people are. I know I was a little late to the party on this one, but at least I made it in the end.
Meanwhile Labour was going through some introspection of its own. Ed Miliband was chosen as leader. A leftish, social democrat had been chosen over a Blairite (his own brother), as a reaction to the long shadow of Blair. There was a belief on the soft left that the financial crash would lead to the rebirth of social democracy and Keynesian economics as an alternative to neoliberalism.
Many people viewed Miliband as annoyingly posh, funny looking, awkward, geeky and thought he was too clever. As I am all of those things, I had a soft spot for Miliband. I thought that he had (some) good ideas and good intentions. His politics were to the right of what I wanted from the Labour Party, but I recognised that Labour was not getting into government on the policy platform of putting those who earned over £500k a year in stocks in Trafalgar Square and letting the public through faeces at them.
University Me was pleased for a chance to go back to Keynesianism and a mixed economy. Miliband was a compromise that both I and (I thought) the country would be willing to accept. Turns out I was wrong on both counts.
The Labour Party (and myself) was struck by crisis when Miliband lost. This was not a moment for social democracy; the cold, neoliberal argument had won out. The iron law of Blair had been proved right again: a centrist with socially liberal, economically liberal views had been chosen over a Keynesian social democrat who wanted a degree of market intervention.
Within the Labour Party, and myself, there was a sense of disappointment in the voters, almost betrayal. From our point of view we had the better candidate; a clever person who had ideas about what could be done to alleviate some of the problems of the post-crash era.
Yeah, he wasn't as flash as Mr PR, Media Personality, but he wanted to make a better country. From our point of view, Miliband was more genuine and had been rejected by voters in favour of a candidate that that was all spin and manipulation. A man who pitted the working poor against the unworking poor, or the disabled against workers or students against everyone else.
This was a turning point. The iron law of Blair looked like it was about to be evoked and the Labour Party would be moved to where the voters were: i.e. harsh austerity and free market economics. No more Keynesianism and intervention. However, that didn’t happen. Jeremy Corbyn happened instead.
Following the defeat there was a general consensus that moving to the right economically was the solution. Then Jeremy Corbyn entered the race to counter this. Pitted against three hopeless alternatives, all of which looked completely unelectable, and offering a change that the party needed after 8 years of soft left policies, he became the favourite. There was also a sense that Miliband had been a compromise; he had accepted austerity and controls on immigration that lots of party members did not want. Yet all the compromise had been for nothing.
I supported Corbyn because I wanted change in the party. I agreed with Corbyn more than any of the other candidates, but supporting him was still a compromise. This was not the move to the left I wanted, but neither did I want Labour to move to where the voters were on austerity, or as I call it: ruining the lives of the poor and the disabled.
The Labour Party led by Corbyn is now in a dismal state, trailing in the polls and likely to lose many seats in an election that comes 20 years after Blair’s historic win. The iron law of Blair appears to be holding. So if it is always true, then why have I always supported the Labour Party’s decision not to choose leaders modelled on Blair?
The iron rule of Blair does not mean that centrist policies and moving to where the electorate is are the right thing to do. In the last few years I have gained a new appreciation for how fucked up the world is. Everything from inequality, to the environment, to child poverty, social care, wage stagnation and worsening public services.. These issues cannot be tackled by a centrist modelled on Blair. Blair had huge political authority after his 1997 win and he could not solve these problems. We need radical change.
The problems outlined above require us to re-examine our thinking across a range of issues. The current tool box of economic policies and political rationales are insufficient to face the challenges of the 21st century. We need radical new ideas in economics, the environment and politics, but also new ideas about how we relate to each other and the world around us. We need to think about value in terms of more than money. We need to think about different people’s experiences. We need these soon before the water rises too far and our society becomes riven with division and hate.
I do not see these radical ideas coming from Corbyn and his ilk, although once I thought they might. I see now that I was wrong about that. I also don't see them coming from politicians who are unwilling to challenge the electorate, especially when the electorate has shown it does not care about rising child poverty and looming environmental destruction. If they did then the Tories would be 20 points behind in the polls.
I can see the appeal of the iron law of Blair. The hope that a moderate, flexible, charismatic leader could save us all. The French are currently hoping the same thing, we’ll see. how it works out of them. If you listen hard enough you can hear an echo of “things can only get better”.
In reality only some things got better - and that progress was quickly undone by the current Tory government. If we follow the iron law of Blair we won’t be able to save ourselves from ourselves. Now, we need to challenge the way things are and not accept them.
It was only a few months after Corbyn became leader that a grand re-ordering of politics took place. It owed something to Blair’s time in government more than we think, but stretched back further into our history. This huge change has broken the iron law of Blair. In the next part I will show why.