Tony Blair’s greatest mark on history - aside from the stain of Iraq - was in twisting Britain’s historical Labour Party into New Labour. This glitzy top-down and supposedly ‘post-political’ political party was able with 43 percent of the vote to sweep the Tories out of office in 1997 and end eighteen years of Tory rule. And yet again in 2001with the same share of the vote, Blair’s triumph was repeated. Though the promotional image of New Labour differed from that of the Conservatives giving an illusion of difference, Blair’s politics in socio-economic matters at any rate were very much Thatcherism under new management. Ideologically anchored only in waffle about ‘third ways’ and nebulous concepts such as ‘responsibility,’ the electoral coalition which sustained New Labour was always precarious. In the 2005 election Blair secured a mere 35 percent of the national vote – and fewer votes than the Tories in England, - but was returned to office thanks only to Britain’s majoritarian electoral system. No post-war British government has ever been returned with less support.
By the early summer of 2008 New Labour was in tatters chalking up only 23 percent in opinion polls. The collapse can best be probed by looking at the two electoral groups that coalesced to propel Blair into office in 1997: Middle England and the mainstream working class.
Middle England is a politically defined social group which comprises skilled and better paid manual workers, the self employed and middle-rank white-collar workers across the small towns and countryside of southern England and the Midlands. Between 1979 and 1992 this group was won over to the Thatcherite project. Two key factors explain its shift to New Labour in 1997, and its subsequent return to the Tory fold in the late 2000s.
The first is economics. The recession of the early 1990s culminating in the Black Wednesday debacle was attributed to Tory economic mismanagement, just as today the collapse in the housing market, the onset of recession and the surge in utility, fuel and food inflation is laid at new Labour’s door.
The second is image. The defeat of the Major government in 1997 was also the result of a shift in values and identification. New Labour emptied itself of ‘workerist’ imagery; the ex-public schoolboy Blair symbolised urbane bourgeois values, which were also manifest in such men of the age as Peter Mandelson. Imagery of this kind proved more attractive to Middle England than did the petty-minded nastiness of high Thatcherite Toryism symbolised in men like Norman Tebbit. Yet after Blair’s resignation in 2007, new Conservatives leaders such as David Cameron and Boris Johnson came to represent those urbane bourgeois values better than does Gordon Brown, Blair’s grey former deputy. (Much of motivation behind the move to replace Brown by David Miliband over the summer is the latter’s public image as a suave bourgeois.)
Middle England is thus extremely fickle in its political identification. Both the Conservatives and New Labour fight for this group which is the determining constituent in Britain’s first past the post elections. For Middle England, unlike the mainstream working class, it makes little difference to their economic interests which party runs British capitalism; hence the capriciousness of their voting preferences.
The mainstream working class
The core of the Labour voting working class is centred on the low paid particularly in the large cities, the older industrial areas of northern England, and in the Celtic countries of Scotland and Wales. Whereas Middle England is returning to the Conservatives, the working class vote is fragmenting over a wider spectrum.
With New Labour having designed itself to woo Middle England, the working class lost historic Labourism as its electoral home. In the economic upswing which lasted till the mid 2000s, a combination of apathy and voting New Labour prevailed. However, Brown’s bungled attempt at the beginning of the current recession to endear himself to Middle England through increasing tax on the very low paid to fund tax cuts for the better off raised the fundamental question in the working class: what is Labour for? That question was posed even more sharply in the late summer with double-digit increases in utility charges coupled with food inflation exceeding eight percent. Suddenly and obviously, the working class became poorer both in absolute and relative terms. Imposing a two percent pay ceiling on public workers has further rubbed salt into the wounds.
Such disorientation has led to a flight from Labour particularly within the white working class. In England and Wales the local elections in May 2008 and the Crew by-election saw, in addition to a move to the Conservatives, a small but growing attachment in certain localities (e.g. London, Stoke) to the fascism of the BNP. In places which were historically more solidly Labour (e.g. Sheffield) the Liberal Democrats have been the main beneficiaries. In Scotland New Labour’s collapse was even more dramatic with the SNP capturing Labour’s third safest seat Glasgow East in a by-election in July.
Blair’s New Labour was founded on replacing policy with spin, on portraying neo-economic liberalism as ‘cool’ and everybody’s friend and on believing you could win and win again by outflanking the Tories. With a long upswing in the trade cycle ‘Teflon Tony’ oiled his way though two general elections, and even after the Iraq war lies he scraped through in 2005. But now devoid of purpose and support the Labour Party stands at the precipice of electoral disaster. Everywhere, except perhaps in Scotland, the collapse of New Labour has led to a shift in electoral support rightwards. This is indeed the tragedy of the age.