What is ‘uber-Blairism’ anyway?

3:44 am - September 5th 2008

by Sunder Katwala    

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Charles Clarke upset a lot of people in his own party yesterday. Clarke’s New Statesman piece ended with a veiled threat, but it was pretty clear unveiled in his Today programme interview this morning. But, as Clarke admitted, the real meaning was that the Cabinet does not agree with him that Brown must go. The pre-conference coup is off. I wrote more about this at Comment is Free yesterday.

Clarke is fundamentally right about one thing: Blairism is over – and throwing around labels of Blairite and Brownite misses the point.

But let me enter a caveat. I am not happy to entirely let go of the useful term ‘uber-Blairite’ does describe a particular view within the party – even if it is necessary to hunt pretty hard to find anybody who holds it.

There are two possible definitions.

One is about public politics. This is about those who still define New Labour in negative terms: not Old Labour. If it sounds like something. But the party need not live in the fear of the ‘no compromise with the electorate’ Labour party of 1983 or the shadow of its 1992 election defeat forever. That approach can not renew Labour after a decade of New Labour if the model is ‘think of something the Labour party won’t like and double it’. Nor can it challenge the shift of the Cameron Conservatives, to find out if it is rhetorical or real.

The Tories have gone for a £2 million threshold on inheritance tax (they talk about the have-nots, but they always prioritse the have yachts) but that does not mean it would be clever for Labour to out-bid them. The weakness of this ‘negative revisionism’ is that it risks being in favour of ‘reform, reform, and more reform’ – but without a clear expression about ends as well as means, how are we to decide which reforms we are for and against?

The other is more precisely ideological: the belief that New Labour’s mild and muted social democratic agenda has tested the state to destruction. The carrier of the uber-Blairite flag is probably ex-SMF Director Phil Collins. Having been the most articulate champion of ever more choice, personalisation and reform of the public services Collins might be proud to carry the banner.

Collins is no fan of the Fabian Society, having recently described the Fabian tradition as a poisoned well. But the number of MPs or party members who share his analysis that the Labour party must declare social democracy dead can be counted on the fingers of one hand.

On either definition, David Miliband is not a Blairite, still less the super-charged uber-Blairite version. From pretty different perspectives on right and left, Spectator editor Matthew d’Ancona (who says Miliband is more Blairesque than Blairite) and myself both agree that he is a good way further to the social democratic left than that. (My full analysis of Milibandism was published on OpenDemocracy during the summer – and the have been running a thought-provoking series of responses on their excellent Our Kingdom blog).

I have discovered that James Purnell does not fit the uber-Blairite mould either, though that may surprise many on the Tribune-wing of the Labour party. I interviewed him recently for the Fabian Review conference special. One or two people who have taken his public image at face value might be surprised by what he has to say when we publish that in a couple of weeks time.

That strengthened my view that the generation of 40 and 30-somethings in the Labour Party have no interest at all in carrying the personal allegiances of 1997 around for the next twenty years. Which is lucky – as I doubt Ed Miliband wants to lead a rival army to take on his brother.

If there is one thing a ‘Next Left’ is about, it has to be about coming up with new answers, not thinking the work was done a generation ago.

The Fabian Society has begun a modest new blog called ‘Next Left‘, and will be covering the conference season and other ideas and debates.

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About the author
Sunder Katwala is a regular contributor to Liberal Conspiracy. He is the director of British Future, a think-tank addressing identity and integration, migration and opportunity. He was formerly secretary-general of the Fabian Society.
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Story Filed Under: Blog ,Labour party ,Realpolitik ,Westminster

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Reader comments

I used to be quite political. Now I feel removed from things. This is simply because I’ve lost faith in how we manage problems. I often think to myself, “if I feel like this, probably others do too”

To perk-up my jaded political pallette, to quote Bonny Tyler, I need a hero. Not a Fascist, not a rabble rouser and not a tub thumper. I need someone who is believable, clever, articulate, has integrity and, importantly, says what they think.

Some chance huh ?

I’ve got a hero for ya, JVP. I predict that she will tonight win election as the first-ever Leader of the Green Party. Her name is Caroline Lucas, and everyone is going to be hearing a lot more about her now… She is all the things you ask for above…
Meanwhile, Charles Clarke, seemingly a true uber-Blairite, has loudly cried that Labour is at present headed for ‘utter destruction’. What he hasn’t admitted is that he personally is destined for electoral destruction unless Labour’s fortunes improve. For, judging by this year’s local election results, Labour is now in dire straits in his own seat, Norwich South – while the Green Party is in pole position to gain the seat.
Since May, Labour have only lost even more support! The Green approach, which by contrast is winning so much support around here, is centred upon social justice (which New Labour have palpably not delivered) and sustainability (which New Labour simply have no clue about).
As our Deputy Leader, we will almost tonight certainly elect Adrian Ramsay, Charles Clarke’s opponent for the Parlimentary seat in Norwich South. Within this context, and within the context of the public’s growing utter unfondnes of Labour, it is we think likely to take much more than any change of Leader to change Labour’s fortunes in general and Mr. Clarke’s in particular… Lucas and Ramsay are about to cause serious trouble especially for this uber-Blairite…

3. Mike Killingworth

The Green Party will not gain Norwich South – the Tories will.

As it happens I do think Social Democracy is dead, and so I suspect would the original Fabians were they here to-day. They saw it as an engine for the slow strangulation of capitalism – what’s happened has been the reverse. (The provision of a welfare safety net, not that Labour seems to believe even in that any more, does not require a “social democratic” Party, any more than liberal social legislation does.)

I’ll follow up a copule of links and come back for another bite of this cherry.

Uber-Blairism is defined by three core beliefs:

1. That the party’s stance on any major issue should be defined against the views of its core supporters.
2. That there should be no ideological constraints on how far to the right the party is allowed to drift in the cause of outflanking the Tories,
3. That Gordon Brown is a useless twat.

5. Mike Killingworth

B*gger. “Couple”, of course, not “copule”…

6. Mike Killingworth

What Collins has to say about the State is fair enough, as far as it goes. But his analysis is pitifully lacking in any attempt to address what is patently a larger problem: the decay of citizenship. He wants individuals to be empowered, to have choices – well, put that way, don’t we all? – but in order to bring that about it is not enough to attack the State.

It is also necessary to consider why citizenship (never a very healthy plant in this country) is in such decay – why we have a society which values only consumers and investors (to borrow an idea from Robert Reich). Sure, lots of people, not least Gordon Brown, bang on about the self-actualisation that work can provide. They remind me of feminists praising women’s solidarity – it’s to cover up the fact that the default position is precisely the opposite. In truth, for at least 90% of the population work is a means to an end. If it were not so, employers wouldn’t look to early retirement deals as the first port of call when they need to shed labour. And engagement in citizenship is, for most people, subsumed into the “work” model. What – you want me to put something in? Not me, mate, I’m a consumer – I take out, I do. And the whole of the media tell me I’m OK to think so.

Twenty-odd years ago I was tempted to conduct a social experiment – to go down to the Labour Exchange (this was in south London as it happens) and offer people either £50 cash in hand for a day’s work or £10 for nothing. It never got beyond a “thought experiment” – all my friends agreed with my suspicion that I’d never be able to hire anyone.

It is this attitude that the left needs to turn round. And we won’t do it by producing knocking copy against the State.

This is an excellent article. Whether now or after the next election, the challenge for us will be to define a new progressive programme for change which is post-blair/brown

8. Don Whitehead

Citizenship decays because society grows more unequal, and the winners insist on privilege. Mostly defined by being able to buy what they want.

Wealth = Respect. The poor don’t count, so they fell no allegience to “society”. Nor do many of the young. Ironically Thatcher was the first to push this idea, “No such thing as society”.

The labour party was based on an ideal of inclusive citizenship. New Labour is in favour of different levels of “citizenship” according to position in the economic pecking order, in other words Macmillan type toryism. This reflects the shift to the right of the whole political spectrum, pushed there by the dominance of right wing views in the media.

Another problem for Labour, is how they chose a new leader once Brown goes. Most of the members who joined after the death of John Smith have left, along with many party stalwarts. Even some unions are beginning to reconsider whether funding labour is the best use of their political funds. Labour needs to stop worrying about its electoral future, and start attacking the tories on POLICIES not personalities, but for that it needs to define policies that will inspire confidence in the vast majority of people in the UK, whose gross annual income is below £25k

“The weakness of this ‘negative revisionism’ is that it risks being in favour of ‘reform, reform, and more reform’ – but without a clear expression about ends as well as means, how are we to decide which reforms we are for and against?”

Sanity breaks out in the Labour Party…

10. Sunder Katwala

Thanks for comments.

Mike Killingsworth opens up an interesting (and quite important) disagreement. I will try to come back with a proper post about that.

Paul Linford’s post made me laugh. To some extent, the positioning (“should be defined against the views of its core supporters”) is usually a more primary motivation than the ideological anti-state argument. I’ve responded to his longer post on the Fabian blog

JIVP – I don’t know about “heroes” but since you are looking for somebody who is “believable, clever, articulate, has integrity and, importantly, says what they think”. He is far from the only one for me, but I think John Denham meets those particular tests which you set. Not so much of a tub-thumper or self-promoter though. So does Vince Cable in the LibDems. From what I know of Caroline Lucas, she does too.

And there are a good number of Tories who are clever, articulate and have integrity: my disagreement with them is that they have different values and beliefs and goals from me. Michael Gove is articulate and has integrity: he just has rather right-wing views on the role of the state and is a (self-confessed) admirer of the neo-cons on international issues.

One of the problems with politics is that if we are not confident about expressing our own distinctive values and positions, then we instead claim to be more competent (or better managers), or try to destroy the character or integrity of our opponents. (This is a little more difficult when the opposition’s strategy is to deny their own convinctions: Osborne would have integrity as a Conservative who believes in smaller government). It also follows that the right response to uber-Blairism is to set out a social democratic argument as to what Labour’s core beliefs in extending opportunities, narrowing inequalities and the role of the state in achieveing that, and to try to take the personalities out of it.

Back on our side, I think Ed Miliband should score reaonably highly – he is a little more coded and discreet in what he says publicly than I would like (a large part of that is a sense of responsibility about coordinating the manifesto). This isn’t an exclusive list or necessarily my favourite politicians: I am responding to the particular adjectives you offered. But so do lots of lesser-known politicians. I am looking forward to Chris Mullin’s book “a view from the foothills”. He is a good example (from the Campaign Group left of the Labour Party) of quiet integrity in politics, which is much more prevalent in politics than most people think.

And a lot of that is about the priority many people would – like JVIP – give to the “says what they think” issue, which is about the balance between collective responsibility and individual views. David Lammy was arguing here a while ago, the constraints need to be looser. That’s definitely right. But there are good reasons why there is such a thing as party, and collective responsibility within Cabinets and Shadow Cabinets.

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