Results from recent regional and local elections should bring a few cheers to those, like me, who have long distrusted New Labour. While the letters in Tony Blair nearly form an anagram for Tory Plan B (if we replace i with p), David Cameron certainly follows in the deceptive footsteps of our Tone, as the gutter press once affectionately referred to the current prime minister. In Scotland the SNP has done surprisingly well, but thanks to last minute scaremongering by the terrible twins of the Scottish tabloid press, the Daily Record and Scottish Sun (both fervently anti-independence and ultra-Blairite) and possibly a wee bit of election rigging here and there, New Labour have just one fewer MSPs than the minority SNP administration. In Wales Plaid Cymru have made impressive gains outside their traditional heartland, but once again New Labour has hung on with the prospect of a coalition with the LibDems. So basically despite New Labour getting just 27% of the vote nationally, it's business as usual for the Blairite agenda. However, one thing is certain New Labour's lead actor is moving on to pastures new as a keynote speaker on the US conference circuit. More important New Labour under Gordon Gold-dumping Brown may well not win the next election, paving the way for Mr Cameron's entry into the world of international theatrics.
To understand New Labour's legacy we need not look so much at the legislation they did pass, some mildly positive such as devolution for Scotland and Wales or the introduction of the minimum wage and some negative such as greater surveillance of private citizens, but at their role in enabling the underlying socio-economic and governmental trends that have transformed our society. All these trends trace their roots to changes that took place long before Tony Blair had even become leader of the Labour Party, the unrestrained consumerism of the late 1980s, which in turn had been a reaction to the pessimistic realism of the late 70s and early 80s. The early Thatcher government preached "back to the basicsÃƒÂ¢Ã¢Â‚Â¬Ã‚Â at school, better housekeeping with large reductions in social welfare spending, privatisation and high interest rates forcing thousands of traditional manufacturers into liquidation. For a few short years some on the left saw this as a sign of the final collapse of British capitalism. Gone were the days of jobs for life handed down from father to son, tight-knit communities built around single industrial activities like car manufacturing or coal mining. We saw the birth of a new service-oriented economy centred around the naked accumulation of capital and the shameless promotion of a consumerist lifestyle. Of course, the welfare state of the 60s and 70s did not disappear, it simply adapted to a new era and to meet new challenges. Indeed after the initial Thatcherite shock therapy, the Tory establishment began to sing a more reconciliatory tune. Despite the worst fears of some pundits state education and the beloved National Health Service survived the Thatcher and Major years albeit with a steady drift towards private provision, but few doubted where the Tories' true allegiances lay.
So what are the greatest achievements of Tony Blair's junta:
- Transfer of interest rate varying powers from a nominally elected Chancellor of the Exchequer to a bunch of unaccountable bankers at the Bank of England. How anyone could spin this as mildly progressive is beyond me, yet Blairites and Brownites alike frequently cite this as the foundation stone of the period of unprecedented consumer growth that followed.
- Introduction of tuition fees for higher education, while simultaneously encouraging corporate and state entities to require degrees from everyone from hairdressers to environmental safety officers (read refuse disposal workers) and promoting absurd Mickey Mouse degrees.
- Selling half of the UK gold reserveswhen the yellow metal was at an inflation-adjusted historic low, leading to a temporary boost for the US dollar,weakening the Euro and losing over Â£2 billion in 5 years .
- Deregulating TV advertising and allowing the merger of major commercial networks.
- Granting planning permission to large supermarkets to open more and large superstores, further eroding the dwindling market share of independent family-run stores.
- Deregulating gambling and booze.
- Deliberately subverting EU attempts to regulate adult pornography, gambling and violent video gaming, both multi-billion pound industries linked to UK businesses though often officially based abroad.
- Regulating the culturally ingrained habits of millions of private citizens such as smoking.
- Increasing surveillance of private citizens.
- Overseeing a huge rise in the prescription of psychoactive drugs for mood disorders, while co-financing the promotion of new personality disorders.
Austere back-to-basics Thatcherism transitioned seamlessly to Cool Britannia Blairism, a non-entity as Anthony Blair himself has no real convictions other than his career, through the medium of MTV-style culture. Millions had been conditioned to associate homophobic, Tory-voting, church-going besuited businessmen with the old guard, and thus positively welcomed the new guard of casually dressed supercool metrosexual advertising execs. People see these products of the nouveau riche as somehow progressive, reminiscent of rebelliously philanthropic movie stars re-enacting the cultural revolution of the late 60s and early 70s. If there is any remnant correlation between conservative values and tastes and class, then we'll find much more old-fashioned mores among the provincial working classes and lower echelons of the traditional managerial classes, than among the emerging globalised ruling elite, stretching from Glibraltar-based gambling tycoons to CEOs of funky new media companies. The money is in fun culture, not in what we tend, disparagingly, to call Victorian values. Apparently it is easier to manipulate the masses if they are lulled into a false sense of joy and diverted from critical analysis of the doctrinal system. For some progress is measured in terms of the effective presentation of abstract rights and outlawing outmoded nasty habits and pursuits. So if progress means gay marriage, smoke-free pubs and an end to fox hunting, you'll be superficially pleased with New Labour's record. Instead we have dysfunctional family units with kids increasingly isolated, over five million adults on psychoactive drugs with side effects far worse than cigarettes and nearly one billion animals slain every year to meet our voracious demand. In this context New Labour's progressive achievements are very minor indeed and pale in comparison to their services to the US-centred corporate and military establishment, especially their friends at GSK, Tesco, BA Systems and KPMG to name but a few.