Brown, Blair, and Labour's legacy in Britain
After a 13-year run, Britain’s Labour Party is out of power. How should we assess its legacy?
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To win elections henceforth, a left-of-center party had to reach a much wider set of voters, including those who had never endorsed the party in the past. Labour could no longer be a class-based party. In Tony Blair, not a Labour tribalist by any description, the party seemed to have found the perfect leader to help further this aim.Skip to next paragraph
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Party of the 'intelligent state'
During its years in government, Labour’s policies evolved over time. Some core threads remained the same, however.
Economic prosperity, against the backdrop of the globalized marketplace, had to have primacy of place – it was seen as the precondition of effective social policy. An increasingly prosperous economy would generate the resources to fund public investment without the need to increase tax rates.
Labour sought to break away from its previous predilection for tax-and-spend. “Prudence” was Gordon Brown’s watchword as Chancellor of the Exchequer. Prudent economic management could generate the resources needed both for increasing levels of social justice and for rising welfare spending.
In each of these areas, Labour had to struggle against a disastrous inheritance from the Thatcher years. Inequality had increased more steeply in the UK during those years than in any industrial country save for New Zealand (which had also followed Thatcher-style policies). The welfare system had been starved of investment and was threadbare. Investment in public services, coupled to reforms designed to make them more flexible, geared to job creation, and more responsive to the needs of their clients, became a guiding thread. Labour should not be the party of the big state, but of the intelligent state, interacting creatively not only with markets but with civil society.
A further important strand of New Labour policy was this: Do not allow any issues to be “owned” by the political right – instead, seek to provide left-of-center solutions to them. This position became a focus of attacks by critics worried about implications for civil liberties, but was vital to Labour’s longevity in power.
Social democrats fell from government in many other countries because of their failure to develop a comparable standpoint. In the past, the left tried to explain away, rather than directly confront, questions to do with crime, social disorder, migration, and cultural identity, as if the concerns citizens felt about them were misplaced or irrelevant. It was assumed, for example, that most forms of crime resulted from inequality; once inequalities were reduced, crime would inevitably decline. Without denying the connection, New Labour broke away from such a view. Mr. Blair’s formula “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was not just a slogan, but was offered as a policy principle.
It might seem a long distance from these concerns to a further strand of New Labour thinking – the need for an activist foreign policy – but it is not. Because of increasing globalization, domestic and foreign policy overlap far more than in previous times.
Increasing levels of migration, for example, reflect the yawning division between rich and poor in world society. Britain faces no visible threats of invasion from other countries, but must be prepared to assume an active role in the wider world. Interventionism is a necessary doctrine when national sovereignty has lost much of its meaning and where there are universal humanitarian concerns that override local interests. Transnational terrorism, itself a creature of globalization, becomes a threat far greater than the more local forms of terrorism prevalent in the past.