Last week marked 20 years to the day since New Labour routed the Conservatives and won the largest majority in the party’s history. With a colossal 418 seats Tony Blair and his team entered Downing Street promising a new dawn, a new chapter in the history of the UK. 20 years on, how is it possible that Blair’s 43 per cent vote share has fallen to the 29 per cent at which Corbyn currently polls? In part, this must be down to the fact that Labour are so keen to rebel against their own record, to grovel to the media and denounce New Labour, in a confusing, contradictory, and self-destructive tide of sweeping populism.
The 1997 Labour election win marked the first time in almost 20 years that the party had won power. The victory was heralded as a landslide, and New Labour went on to win a further two consecutive elections, first in 2001, and then again in 2005. At the outset, Blair’s popularity was undebatable. He represented a brand of politics that seemed to appeal to the masses: to allow economic liberalisation, globalisation, and the proliferation of business in the UK, but ensure that the less fortunate were protected, by investing heavily in schools, hospitals and other public services. Blair was also a strong advocate for gay rights. He passed bills on civil partnerships and the right to adopt, and repealed Section 28, an act that had prevented LGBT people from serving in the armed forces. As his first term began he was likeable, charismatic and seemingly sincere, handling key historical events early into his time in office, such as the death of Princess Diana, whom he memorably labelled “the People’s Princess”. New Labour seemed unstoppable. So what went so badly wrong?
To ask anybody even vaguely interested in politics this question is to hear the same answer repeated back again and again: Iraq. From the outset, let me make my viewpoint clear: the Iraq War was wrong. Apart from the fact that there were no weapons of mass destruction (as had been claimed), the fact that the UK parliament voted to go to war without the backing of the UN security council is questionable to say the least. What is perhaps even more alarming was its apparent willingness to cling to the coattails of President Bush during his reckless and devastating War on Terror.
But the increasingly widespread idea that the blame for this lies solely with the Labour party is patently wrong, and Labour are only damaging themselves by conceding on this front. Parliament voted, in an overwhelming majority, in support of the Iraq War. 412 votes for, 149 votes against, with a greater proportion of the Conservative Party voting in favour than Labour. With the benefit of hindsight people criticise the fact that Iraq was invaded on the premise that Saddam Hussein was in possession of weapons of mass destruction, given that it later turned out to be untrue. So was Parliament misled? Yes, it was. But was it intentional? No, as the Chilcot inquiry found.
Instead it was discovered that the intelligence on which Tony Blair based his argument was not accurate, which is a working possibility of all intelligence. Blair argued using the intelligence that was in his possession (which was, to the best of his his knowledge, correct), and then parliament voted.
But Iraq is not the only contentious New Labour decision. The party were further criticised for their inability to adequately regulate the banks, but this was a failure that was happening the world over, and was thus part of a picture much wider than any UK government.
The problem, therefore, is not that New Labour made mistakes; all political parties make mistakes. It’s the party’s handling of them as time passes that’s the problem, something that other parties seem to be so much better at. You wouldn’t catch Theresa May denouncing Cameron, as Miliband, McDonnell, and Corbyn have denounced Blair. Especially given that Blair received so much pubic support, even at the 2005 election that followed the invasion of Iraq.
While there are many elements of the New Labour cabinet I don’t support, I don’t think that public persecution is the way forward either, and far less do I believe in defining the current Labour cabinet as ‘not New Labour’. Surely politics is more about progression and learning from past mistakes, rather than disowning an entire era on the back of unnuanced, relatively baseless populism.
New Labour presided over one of the most transitional phases in modern history and they did so whilst still retaining dignity for the poor, and making some huge leaps forward in civil rights. Labour are too quick to forget some of these triumphs and too hasty to subscribe to their universal condemnation, a trend that will inevitably only lead to self destruction.