Head in the game or heart on the sleeve

pashankyAs the Labour Party idolises a left-winger, Paul Cruikshank celebrates two great left-wing politicians who cut poverty, revitalised public services and took the people with them.


“Tony Blair and Gordon Brown were the most important left-wing politicians in the UK since the 70’s. Discuss.”

Over my lifetime, I have experienced in a very real sense two different kinds of UK government. Both have affected real social change across the country, but only one has done it in a way I like. For some, this wasn’t enough. This is what is at the heart of the Labour leadership election.

My brother has recently become politicised (thanks to the independence referendum of all things – he was very strongly pro-union) and has taken a great interest in American politics – mostly, I think, thanks to Tumblr. He has recently told us that he supports Bernie Sanders for the Democratic nomination because he has the best policies. I agreed with him, but told him that I wanted Hillary Clinton to win instead. He asked why and I replied, simply, that he wouldn’t stand a chance of winning, but Hillary would. He complained, as many people new to politics do, that I should stick to principles and should vote for who I thought was best, even if it would be harder for them to win.

In some ways, I feel sympathy for this view. Bernie Sanders as President would be a revolutionary in American terms (if he could get anything in his platform through a Republican Congress). But though the disaster hairea that is Donald Trump is leading the Republican field, when faced with a choice between a leftie and oblivion, I’m not convinced that the US would vote to survive.

Which brings us back to the question I’ve set myself. Since the 1970’s the Labour Party has had 6 leaders that have faced an election: Callaghan, Foot, Kinnock, Blair, Brown and Miliband. Of that list, spanning 50 years, only 1 won a General Election. And out of that list, he is the one spoken of least fondly. Despite leading Labour to its first (and second and third) election victories after years in the wilderness of opposition, should he ever appear, he is hated and questioned. Why?

Iraq aside, which is a millstone around Labour’s collective neck, what did Tony and Gordon’s Labour Party do that marked them out as right-wing? They funded the NHS and cut waiting times. They spent money on schools that was badly needed. They introduced the National Minimum Wage, which so improved the pay of so many people. They created Tax Credits which, while an IT nightmare, supported so many people and helped them out of shoestring budgets. All this while devolving to the nations, reforming the Lords – and the minor achievement of bringing peace to Northern Ireland.

What he is blamed for, it seems, is what he didn’t do. He didn’t fund the NHS enough and dared rely on private investment to build hospitals sooner. He improved schools, but dared experiment with academies. He introduced too low a minimum wage, and tax credits were good but didn’t stop kids in Drumchapel being poor. And he didn’t devolve enough, and the Lords still exists and the fact there still is a Northern Ireland for peace to be brought to shows the real imperialist intentions. If we were really a Labour party, we would have been much more radical. In short, we bottled it.

But we were in power. Tony Blair realised that a centre-left Labour government can do more than a far-left Labour opposition. No matter how amazingly redistributive and socially-reforming a Labour Party manifesto is, it doesn’t matter one bit if we’re not in government at the end of it. We’ve just had a reminder of this.

When I look at the story of the Labour leadership contest so far, I worry that we have already forgotten just how terribly frustrating opposition is. As I write, Brian Eno (that committed Labour supporter who voted Lib Dem in 2010) is speaking at a Jeremy Corbyn rally stating that “electability isn’t the most important thing”. What matters is wanting to do good things, not actually getting the chance to do them, apparently. So long as you are ideologically pure, you are fine, but should you temper (not change!) your principles for the niggling purpose of “getting into government” – then you do not belong in the the Labour Movement.

If this is our outlook, then I may never see another Labour government. We shouldn’t give up our goals and aims and principles, but we must convince the voters that they should be put into practice. We must not forget who we are in the pursuit of power, but we must gain power by getting people to look at us.

The halls that Corbyn has packed out; the supporters he has encouraged; the members he has brought; the people he has swayed – how many weren’t already Labour people? How many has he pulled from elsewhere, even from the Greens or the various socialists? The answer, I give with 100% certainty, is: not enough.

Cooper, Burnham and Kendall are all members of the Labour Party for exactly the same reason I am, and the same reason Corbyn is: they want to help the poorest and create a fairer, more equal, more socially just Britain. They want a strong NHS, a great education system, and a welfare state that supports the poorest in society. The difference is that they all accept that the public, generally, are not socialist. Not in Wales, not in Scotland and definitely not in Middle England.

If they cannot support Miliband, they cannot, in the space of 5 years, elect Corbyn. And, quite frankly, I want a Labour government. A Labour government is not a Tory-lite government. It might not do all you want, but would Brown’s “Red Tory” government have done all the Coalition government did? Would Miliband’s government have done all what the Tories are planning now? If you say yes, you are either lying, being disingenuous or a Cybernat.

If Corbyn is my leader come the end of next month, then I will support him to the hilt. I will try to convince people up and down my nation and my country that they should vote Labour in 2020 and make him PM. And will love that campaign because our manifesto will be all I want it to be (and possibly more). It might help us a bit in Scotland (but not as much as people think it would), and I will be able to sleep easy with my conscience clear – but if I wanted to do that I’d have joined the Greens. I will sleep easy, but I will be up all night at the count on 7th May 2020 with a heavy heart as we once again fail to bring the country with us. We return to the opposition benches, once again leaderless, and once again wondering if we just weren’t Labour enough.

I would rather be in power doing some of the things we want, than be in opposition wanting to do something. And that is why Tony Blair (and Gordon Brown) were the most important left-wing politicians in the UK since the 70’s. They did it.

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6 thoughts on “Head in the game or heart on the sleeve

  1. So you get the minimum wage and its topped up by tax credit which leaves you paying full rent and council tax.
    At which point you are still struggling.
    The other answer would be not to take the tax credits and get a full rebate on rent and council tax.
    You do the math and then come back and tell me about poverty.
    If you can’t discuss poverty at the coal face then i question why anybody is actually a member of the Labour Party.
    Put it another way, how much money would you need to live on each week to have any quality of life with a starting point that your living in social housing and your an unskilled worker.

  2. The way I see it, is Blair and Brown gained power on the back of an unpopular Tory government, but also on the image of people like John Brown and Robin Cooke, two men (plus others) who exuded honesty and a fair deal for all. But the number of votes they garnished diminishes with electoral time.
    Blair and Brown rendered Labour as largely unelectable till memory of their time in office fades. Hardly a plus for Labour.
    Paul, you may wish to wonder why Hillary is in with an electoral shout in her late 60’s, when much younger people like, Blair, Brown and Darling, now see “making a buck” as more important than public service—-which is where we came in !

  3. Graham. Apologies that you have to pay of something !! Most ordinary people do. Gavin, not sure who John Brown is, but Iraq was the sole reason for the biggest loss of Labour support. If not for that, I believe we would be in Labour’s fifth term by now.

    1. Sorry Ian, it should have been John Smith.
      Blair shed votes in every election he fought as Leader.
      He appeared to be desperate to impress Bush, so if it hadn’t been Iraq, then it would have been another daft “adventure” given the nature of the people surrounding George W.
      Harold Wilson showed Labour could win elections yet keep its distance from US militarism.

  4. A lot of people appear to have forgotten the extent to which New Labour’s 1997 triumph was a team effort. People were to a large extent voting Labour *in spite of* Blair (I always instinctively distrusted him, from his time as shadow home secretary), but because they trusted people like Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, and Donald Dewar. The first New Labour government was a diverse group of clever, experienced, committed people, a million miles away from the vacuous spad-ocracy monoculture we are left with today, and which is Blair’s true legacy.

  5. What little change labour did achieve under Blair/Brown was achieved in an over leveraged system reliant on cheap money in a casino economy. When that collapsed, the people who paid were those at the bottom of the heap, not the “…filthy rich..” about whom labour were “…deeply relaxed as long as they paid their taxes.” Which they didn’t.

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