The Britain that Tony Blair inherited had the Thatcher’s handbag all over it and New Labour desperately wished not the shake the carefully laid foundations of Thatcherism opting to stick to Conservative spending plans rather than ‘rock the boat’. Blair’s programme for the 1997 election confirmed the left’s worst fears by endorsing all of Thatcher’s free-market reforms of a deregulated, non-planned, largely privatised economy with a flexible labour market, marginalising the trade unions and local authorities, while publicly disowning Left-wing catchphrases such as redistribution.
New Labour let it be known that they had developed in to “the party of business” a position traditionally held by the Conservatives. They dumped the “tax and spend” policies that had characterised previous Labour governments forever, they embraced Thatcherite economics, they shed their commitment to traditional Labour policy and Blair himself seemed almost desperate to come across as Thatcher’s heir.
To his credit he concluded, earlier than most around him, that neo-liberal reforms of the 1980’s could not and should not be undone. Instead he believed that, in order to appease the left of his party, his task was to soften some of the rougher edges of the Thatcher reforms, the same reforms Major had embraced but without her style, charisma or sheer luck. Blair however had all three.
He attributed Major’s humiliation in 1997 not to a failure of policy, but to the natural ending of a political cycle and a leadership which had degenerated into sleaze and indiscipline. Thatcher’s ‘You turn if you want to the Lady’s not for turning’ was replaced by Blair’s ‘I have no reverse gear’. Thatcher’s Falklands was supposed to be imitated by Blair’s Iraq. As we know Thatcher’s war made her premiership, Blair’s broke his.
However unlike the Tories Blair did push for a much stronger relationship with the European Union, he pushed for a more socially liberal society with enduring changes such as the introduction of civil partnerships and he encouraged the project of devolution. Perhaps Blair’s greatest social achievement lies in his introduction of the minimum wage admittedly opposed by the Tories and big business. In this light it is clear that New Labour did and does retain some features of traditional Labour policy. However is this more convenience than conviction?
New Labour is a mishmash of socialism and Thatcherism, with the latter taking precidence. It is because of this that New Labour is a difficult beast to define. The true implications of New Labour being Blue Labour are subtle and lie in the fact that for all of his ‘ non conservative’ reforms one key feature remained: he never once challenged the basic tenets of Thatcherism – private ownership was preferable to the state, the unions should be kept in check and profits were good. Thus one can conclude that the social reforms he introduced were not out of personal conviction but political convenience and a change in times. He had to pursue some form of social agenda in order to appease the rank and file of his party, and of course a national minimum wage was always going to be populist. Also the strong and stable economic conditions born out of the Thatcher reforms gave him the ability to pursue strong social policies.
Under New Labour, as under Thatcher, the wealth of the top 10% of the country saw its share of the national wealth soar out of all proportion to the rest of the population and it became apparent that Thatcher’s yuppie generation became the pre-cursor to the Blair/Brown super rich. Whilst Blair was more blatant in his respect for the Thatcher legacy even Gordon Brown, a key architect in the New Labour project and fierce former critic of Thatcher, has been more comfortable to express his admiration for the Iron Lady. In September 2007 he went far beyond protocol by escorting her from her car into Downing Street placing a guiding hand on her back, posing for photo-ops and presenting her with bouquets. Barely a week earlier Brown declared: “I think Lady Thatcher saw the need for change. I also admire the fact she is a conviction politician. I am a conviction politician like her.”
So what does this tell us? Despite all their social reforms, despite all their clever rhetoric of being the party of the people, Labour is a fictitious political entity born out of the Thatcher reforms. They have shed almost all of the principles and ideologies that make them ‘Labour’ and in turn find themselves nothing more than a pale shade of blue. They owe their electoral success to the Conservatives and the Conservative policies that have served them so well. John McDonnell summed up the Labour Party’s fraught relationship with Margaret Thatcher. “I would never let her across my threshold. If this is an indication of Gordon Brown’s political heroes, or his estimation of a person’s character, I almost despair.” The left does despair because the left understands that their party is nothing more than a pale imitation of Thatcher’s but with a softer face.
Policy wise New Labour clearly appears a pale shad of blue. However the fundamental difference between us and them is that Thatcher and the Conservatives did nothing by deception. New Labour do everything by deception. That is why they can never be true blue.