To the disaffected supporters of the UK Labour party

posted 30 November 2009

I had a conversation with Owen on his Facebook wall over the weekend about Tony Blair and the Labour party, spurred by an off-handed comment of his that Tony Blair had deliberately lied to the nation about Iraq.

I genuinely believe that Blair never intentionally lied about Iraq, and more generally that Labour has got a lot of mostly undeserved flak from a lot of ex-Labour supporters. Since the UK seems to be heading towards an inevitable victory by the Conservatives, a fact that deeply distresses me, I figured I'd make my own small case on their behalf.

Firstly, on the subject of Iraq, someone else chimed in:

But how was he [misled by US intelligence], when we went through the dossier and found it so full of holes it was like a macro of a tea bag? Either he knew it was a crock, and lied about that, or he lied about being competent to judge it.

I think he took the US at their word and didn't give a toss about the dossier. In fact, I'd be surprised if he even read it. The US are the UK's closest allies and the US military is the best in the world; when they tell you something you believe them -- or you did in 2001, at least. That was a gigantic mistake, so I'm not going to say he wasn't incompetent. But I don't think he's a liar.

Fundamentally I just don't see any upside for him in lying. Why would he do it? It destroyed his political career and ruined his public image, which was the thing he cared about most. He had no grudge against Iraq like Bush did; he did it because he thought it was the right thing to do, and he was terribly, terribly wrong.

At which point Owen broadened the argument to general disaffection with Labour, which I believe is what happened in the electorate at large. Iraq became the cause celebre for a large chunk of Labour supporters who were actually upset about a totally different issue -- or rather, a series of small issues that had built up over time. Iraq was just the straw that broke the camel's back. From Owen:

But the impression that always came across was that Blair was most concerned about his place in history and in sticking to Dubya like glue.

To me, it showed that, whilst Blair obviously had sincere principles, that those principles were less aligned to mine than I'd thought.

That and the other authoritarian securicracy measures (not all post-9/11, things like ID cards and the terrorism legislation) were the main things that lead me — and many left-wingers like me — to feel betrayed by the whole New Labour project.

In 1997, I genuinely believed that things could only get better. By 2003, I had become so disillusioned with New Labour (and British politics more generally) that I no longer believe we could have that Obama moment, promising genuine change we could genuinely believe in. After all, isn't that what the New Labour project was meant to be all about? Whereas, 12 years later, it seems more clearly to be the removal of socialism from the British political spectrum, signing up to "the power of the markets" and neoliberal economics, to authoritarianism and to a control-obssessed presidential style of government.

All of these are things for which I can't see myself ever being able to forgive Blair, Campbell and Mandelson.

There's a lot of truth in this. Fundamentally, Blair's candidacy and the entire New Labour project was about becoming electable by shifting the party dramatically toward the center, becoming a center-right party, while still giving lip service to the very strongly leftist party it had once been, so as to keep support of unions and other strong voting blocs of the left. It was an amazing confidence trick, but there was no way they could maintain the illusion for long. They simply did not vote for the party they thought they had; a sense betrayal was the only rational response.

That said, the center-right party called "New Labour" did a lot of good, spending the economic dividends from reforms enacted by (whisper it) Thatcher on things like education and health care. By moving to the center-right, Labour also forced the Conservatives to shift further right, producing extremism and defections that left them leaderless and rudderless for more than a decade. It was a brilliant move.

So of course Labour have signed up the the power of the markets and deregulation: they're a center-right party, that's what they believe in. The difference between me and a large group of UK voters is that I was quite happy to vote for a center-right party, while they still can't believe they did, and are very angry about it. But for the most part, the bulk of the electorate was okay with it, or at least liked it better than the alternative -- at least for a while.

The two places it broke down were Iraq -- again, no question, a horrible mistake on Blair's part -- and, as Owen mentioned, the system of targets and centralized measurement Labour tried to use to get value for the money they were pouring into social services.

Labour's mistake in the second was to believe (or hope) that anything measured would improve, instead of the much harder job of enacting real reform. But the reforms they needed would have been far too jarring for the left to handle -- shaking up the NHS and teaching would be political suicide -- so they had few other options. Essentially, it was to keep the support of people like Owen that the targets were invented, but it eventually failed because it meant the services produced very little value for all the new money spent on them.

So on Iraq, Britons are totally within their rights to feel angry -- but, again, I think it was incompetence rather than malice. The left can also feel like they were betrayed -- but, on actual issues of governance, did Labour really do that badly? What would they prefer Labour did that the Tories are now promising to do? It seems like even if they were tricked into voting for Labour, it worked out pretty well. A party that was actually as leftist as the loudest of Labour's current detractors would like has no hope of getting elected in Britain, where the population as a whole is very much center-right.

Labour are still being punished for Tony Blair's mistake, as well as Gordon Brown's charm-free personality and dissatisfaction with the general economic climate which can't really be laid at their feet -- in fact, the UK's response to the credit crisis is generally agreed to have been pretty competent, level-headed and as effective as possible in the circumstances.

Now the UK looks set to throw away a center-right party with a strong commitment to social services in favour of a party that, despite Cameron's mirroring of Blair's strategy with a strong push to the left, is still very much against them, and whose economic leanings are towards the kind of laissez-faire capitalism that gave birth to the credit crisis in the first place. Brown is a poor leader of the party and should be replaced, but the party as a whole is still the one that would be best for Britain. It's too late for this election, but I hope it only takes the UK one term of Conservative government to figure that out.