Earlier this month, grassroots Labour Party organisation Momentum prompted contention by claiming via Twitter that ‘[Tony] Blair favoured deregulation of the banking industry – leading to one of the worst crashes in modern history’.
The tweet was a response to a video featuring former Labour Prime Minister Tony Blair, defending his and the New Labour government’s record on tackling inequality and improving social mobility. Blair’s own comments followed repeated charges from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn that ‘for decades, we’ve been told that inequality doesn’t matter’; Britain has been ‘hit by decades of failed economic policies’.
In their unwavering loyalty to Corbyn, Momentum may be playing into the hands of their true adversary: The Conservatives and, increasingly, the Brexit Party. By touting the persistent trope (also a favourite of the Conservative Party) that Blair and Brown’s governments were responsible for the economic crash, Momentum risk reinforcing the perception that Labour can’t be trusted with the economy. MPs and members towards the centre of the party will surely be concerned over the impact of this image on Labour’s electoral chances.
Momentum’s attack on Blair overlooks the undeniable progress that was made by the only Labour government Britain has seen for the last forty years, instead lumping the Blair and Brown years in with neoliberal Margaret Thatcher.
Though not an accurate measure of political or societal wellbeing, responses to Momentum’s tweet were overwhelmingly condemnatory, with many respondents making such remarks as ‘I bl**dy loved living during New Labour’s time’; ‘Hand on heart I can say that the least prosperous of my constituents were significantly better off’. Not only does Momentum’s tone towards the previous Labour government degrade their achievements and play into the hands of the Tories, it also undermines those who voted Labour at the time. Surely such behaviour can only discourage the electorate from supporting a Corbyn government now?
Tweets alone, of course, cannot be relied upon to attest to the successes of the Blair and Brown Labour governments. The Institute for Fiscal Studies have shown that between 1997 and 2010, poverty decreased, child poverty dramatically so. New Labour also introduced Sure Start centres, of which there were over 3600 at the programme’s peak. A study has since found that the work of Sure Start centres saved the NHS £5 million. The national minimum wage was the work of New Labour; as was the Good Friday Agreement.
As was the Iraq War: the perennial issue with perceptions of New Labour generally, and Blair in particular. And no defendant of Blair can deny that the Iraq War was a colossal mistake, the effects of which continue to be felt throughout much of international politics and the Middle East today.
But must the Iraq War remain the defining legacy of thirteen years of Labour governments? Certainly, it is an event in global history that should not be forgotten, including probing closely into how and why the UK came to be involved. Nevertheless, too many Corbyn supporters (and they often are) insist on focusing on the Iraq War to the detriment of Labour’s future electoral prospects. By overlooking the many successes of Blair and Brown, especially in indulging such accusations as Labour being responsible for the 2008 crash, Momentum are playing into the hands of the Conservative Party. As Harriet Harman succinctly put, “If we don’t say the last Labour government was good, why would anyone vote for the next one?”
Momentum’s perception of Britain’s political landscape it simply too binary. A majority of voters fall outside of the strictures of the Conservative or Labour parties, or even the left and right wing, instead voting according to their own morals and views on particular issues. The fierce us-and-them mentality of Momentum – an attitude applied even to those within their own party – does not reflect the political reality for most of the electorate.
While Momentum are occupied with bringing down past Labour governments (and those who voted for them in the process), the Conservative Party are choosing between Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson: both men with a public record that could cause Corbynites and Blairites alike to break out in a cold sweat.
Hunt oversaw the NHS as health secretary through a time of intense turmoil, brought on by austerity and repeated attempts to force junior doctors into longer hours for less pay. Hunt’s actions brought on strikes across the NHS, including emergency care.
Johnson, meanwhile, has had a series of indiscretions that would have forced a less popular politician into early retirement long ago. One of Johnson’s recent gaffes involved British-Iranian woman Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, who he mistakenly claimed was ‘simply teaching people journalism’ – a remark cited as proof that the mother of a young daughter was enacting ‘propaganda against the [Iranian] regime’. Outside his ministerial roles, Johnson has compared Muslim women to bank robbers and letterboxes and used vulgar language to suggest that investigations into historic child sexual abuse were money wasted.
Can Hunt, a man who forced thousands of healthcare professionals into strike action, be trusted with the rest of our public services? Do Johnson’s inconsiderate remarks about Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, or the burka, reveal internal Islamophobia? These are the sorts of questions Momentum ought to be asking, as well as questioning the Tories on their continued use of economic cuts since 2010.
Of course, it is possible to criticise Tony Blair at the same time as forming an effective opposition in Westminster. But by consistently attacking the Labour governments of the late ‘90s and early 2000s, Momentum may be forcing an electoral victory for Corbyn further out of sight. Undoubtedly, the Labour Party has changed, in many ways for the better – not least of all by dramatically growing in membership since Corbyn’s ascent to the leadership. Without ignoring their failures, the party ought to acknowledge New Labour’s successes as part of the legacy of a united Labour Party.