Why Starmer’s New Labour is different to Blair’s

The Tories are in disarray and Sir Keir Starmer is heading for Downing Street within the next twelve months. But a New Labour Mark II government will not in any way be a mere repetition of the Tony Blair original, argues JAMES IVENS.

Launching Labour’s 2024 election campaign, Keir Starmer told voters in his New Year address: “hold on to the flickering hope in your heart that things can be better”. The tenor was that the Tories represent cronyism at the top and a cost-of-living crisis below, and Labour is not the Tories. 

Starmer’s Labour has ejected every pro-worker Jeremy Corbyn policy and the man himself. Yet public exhaustion with Conservative governments will still put Starmer in Number Ten. It did the same for Tony Blair in 1997. But far from pleading for ‘flickering hope’, Blair’s campaign was emphatic – his campaign theme song proclaiming, ‘things can only get better!’

Starmerism is Blairism in the epoch of capitalist decay. So what was Blairism? How did it pave the way for Starmer? What differences will its second incarnation have with its first?

What was the Labour Party?

A ‘party’ can mean a tiny network of manoeuvring politicians; a mass movement of social struggle with democratic structures; and many other forms and combinations of forms. In essence, a party is any organisation that facilitates negotiation of common interests – fundamentally, class interests – with the aim of exercising political power.

Workers can set out on the road of political struggle from many starting points, not least the experience of winning improvements on the picket line only to lose them again at the ballot box. What programme is needed to solve the problems facing the working class? How can reforms be made thoroughgoing and permanent? What methods are needed to fight for these changes – and to control leaders which the boss class has an obvious interest in corrupting?

Post-Chartism, Britain’s working class took its first mass step towards united political struggle in a particular way, forming its own party through trade unions and socialist groups federalising into a common electoral challenge. (See, for example, Building A Workers’ Political Voice: Lessons From The Early Labour Party by Christine Thomas, in Socialism Today No.273, December-January 2023/24) This ‘first draft’ for organised workers’ political representation, however, had a contradictory class outlook. The mass working-class ranks had found a way to debate and decide general interests beyond the organically oppositional and sectional outlook that tends to dominate trade unionism; a kind of ‘workers’ parliament’. However, political consciousness had not yet developed to where organised workers could definitely control the party’s upper echelons, which tended to start from or degenerate into (pro-reform) defenders of the capitalist system.

Vladimir Lenin summed up this antagonistic dynamic as a “bourgeois labour party” or “capitalist workers’ party”, taking the phrase from Friedrich Engels. Lenin described Labour in 1920, in the wake of the Russian revolution, as “a special kind of labour organisation of four million members, which is half trade union and half political and is headed by bourgeois leaders”. It was in flux, with ideas and structures reconfigured again and again by the balance of class forces, and in turn acting to help consciousness forward or hold it back.

In a pinch, the ruling class could exploit Labour’s mass working-class social support to have its pro-capitalist leaders hold back revolution or thrust through attacks with less initial resistance. However, the working class had structures to push for substantial reforms – with the potential to discover in practice the limits of the capitalist system and whet an appetite to go beyond it.

This reached its apex in the new world situation following world war two. The Stalinist planned economies came out strengthened and European imperialist powers weakened. The capitalists’ real fear of revolution meant them tolerating a Labour government, headed by the thoroughly reformist Clement Atlee, nationalising a fifth of the economy and building the National Health Service, benefits system, and almost a million council homes. Labour created new institutions, including in local government, with some degree of local democratic working-class control. The workers through their organised pressure had clawed back a tranche of surplus-value for social need and made inroads into the capitalist state. But the capitalists were still in control in the end, reflecting a Labour leadership that ultimately defended the system by balancing against working-class demands. Meanwhile, a long and unrepeatable boom gave strength to the illusory idea that gradual economic growth and social progress could reform capitalism out of existence without revolutionary struggle.

The collapse of Stalinism

The inevitable end of that boom came in the 1970s. The capitalists could no longer tolerate all this expensive social provision, and needed the state returned to its core function: creating the best conditions to exploit the working class. Margaret Thatcher was the Tory battering ram against working-class influence and elements of control. She moved to cow the trade unions with new laws and the defeat of the miners. She slashed spending, reduced the powers of local government, and opened an era of widespread privatisation.

But the biggest defeat was the collapse of Stalinism. Those regimes were brutal dictatorships, caricatures of socialism. They were also a living example, albeit distorted, that some alternative to capitalism was possible, resting on a nationalised, planned economy. After 1991, consciousness was pushed back: the idea that socialism might even be possible became distant at best. Working-class leadership and organisation was set back too. All these processes fed into each other.

In mass workers’ parties across many countries, this meant a transformation of post-war reformism – defending capitalism by moderated accession to working-class demands and state intervention – into counter-reformism, turning the whole ship towards private capital and the market. Right-wing leaders destroyed the democratic routes for workers to push them, while adopting the same basic programmes as the traditional capitalist parties. Tony Blair became the champion of this new breed within Labour.

This ‘bourgeoisification’ process ended the century-long battle between class forces inside Labour, in the bosses’ favour. The party even rebranded as ‘New Labour’. Still, the ex-social democratic parties, now wholly capitalist, were not the same as the traditional capitalist parties. Labour retained vestigial features, including trade union affiliation, a handful of left-wing reformist politicians locked in what Blairite Peter Mandelson called a “sealed tomb”, and the massive but dissipating historic loyalty of a class that had won the welfare state through it. The balance had shifted so fundamentally, however, that these features were transformed from imperfect channels of working-class influence into barriers to the working class breaking away and building towards political representation under its own control.

Blair’s political counter-revolution

Blair’s best-known change was to Clause IV of the rulebook. Labour wrote a commitment to socialism into its constitution in 1918, responding to the irresistible attraction of Russia’s workers taking power: “the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange, and the best obtainable system of popular administration and control”. This was more than a symbol. It was an effective anchor against the pro-capitalist leadership in debates – for example, in the 1970s and 1980s, over the tempo and nature of nationalisation rather than over public ownership itself.

The revolution’s imprint on Clause IV did not long outlast the counter-revolution against the planned economies. Labour conference 1995 replaced “common ownership” with Blair’s commitment to “the enterprise of the market and the rigour of competition”. John Monks, the then general secretary of the Trades Union Congress, would observe that “the debate on the centre-left is no longer about socialism versus capitalism. It is about different kinds of capitalism”.

More important were the guards against collective working-class influence. Capitalist-workers’ Labour had always had filters; Blairite Labour made them fortresses.

For example, trade union general secretaries had a ‘block vote’ in Labour equivalent to the size of their membership. Many cast it more conservatively than their ranks wanted, and Militant, the predecessor organisation of the Socialist Party, campaigned to democratise it. Nonetheless, union leaders are more vulnerable to the mood of their workplace base than insulated parliamentarians. Labour in the 1990s cut it, in stages, from 90% to 50% of conference votes.

The block vote was removed from leadership elections too – if the left could even participate. By the time Blair stood down in favour of Gordon Brown in 2007, left leadership candidate John McDonnell could not even win enough nominations from MPs to get on the ballot, showing the depth of the transformation.

Conference agreed to transfer the power to design programme away from itself to the new ‘National Policy Forum’ (NPF). Union representatives composed just 15% of the NPF relative to career politicians and other delegate categories dominated by the right. The NPF in turn was led by the Joint Policy Committee dominated by Blair’s MPs.

John Prescott, Blair’s deputy prime minister, correctly saw the most important blow as ‘one member, one vote’, brought in by Blair’s predecessor John Smith in 1993. Previously, parliamentary candidates were selected by delegate meetings representing local union and party branches. This could mean detailed, informed input, potentially representing active engagement by hundreds or thousands of workers in their own organisations, selecting delegates through considered debate. Instead, it became a straight ballot of individual members, not the richer, structured discussion through workers’ forums.

Equivalent transformations took place in fields such as party branch meetings, local council candidate selections and policy formation, and more. The clique already at the top had restructured the party so it was effectively self-selecting, in a mirror image of Stalinism. This was a general shift to the passive, individualised form of democracy the capitalist class uses to generate social approval. The active, collective form of democracy that the working class reaches for in its own organs of struggle and power, including the unions, was decimated and unhooked from influence.

Blair’s social counter-reforms

Many hoped Blair was a ‘secret socialist’ who would turn left in office, but a politician does not cut loose from working-class influence with the intention of serving the working class. Blairism peddles the myth that moving right won support; this is an inversion of reality. Blair exploited rising poll numbers to move right, as his memoirs tacitly acknowledge.

The Tories after 18 years in power were so hated for their attacks, dogged by scandal and dysfunctional, that the largest opposition party could only poll better. There was a palpable atmosphere of hope invested in Blair, but this belied a diminishing social base. New Labour swept to power in 1997 with a massive 179-seat majority – on a turnout actually smaller than all previous post-war elections. It continued to fall, with Blair and Brown shedding five million Labour votes over 13 years.

In his autobiography, Blair would sum up his programme as no repeal of anti-union laws, no renationalisation, no tax hikes for the richest, no abolition of grammar schools, no ‘unilateralism’ against broader Western imperialist interests. Nonetheless, life was better for many. New Labour got lucky. They inherited what Mervyn King, governor of the Bank of England, summed up as the “nice decade”.

Britain suffered twelve quarters of negative growth within Thatcher and Major’s tenures, with unemployment peaking at 11.9%, but this turned around from 1992. Unemployment continued falling while Blair was in office, to a low of 4.7% (until the 2007-08 crash), and he suffered not one negative-growth quarter in a straight decade. Chancellor Gordon Brown boasted, wrongly, that Britain’s “stop-go, boom-bust, unstable cycles” were consigned to “the old days”.

But the returns were not evenly felt. Average income did rise among the very poorest households. For much of the working class, however, this was a ‘silent boom’, with real incomes crawling forward – partly mitigated by ballooning consumer debt, storing up future problems. Meanwhile, Britain’s richest 1% doubled their wealth in Blair’s first seven years. Mandelson notoriously told the bosses: “We are intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich”. The end of his sentence, “as long as they pay their taxes”, is often omitted – because it was untrue; New Labour happily took donations from billionaire tax dodgers.

To maximise returns during recovery, British capitalism needed to expand its domestic market and mobilise more of the workforce. With the boom’s financial cushion and reduced class combativity, Blair could help in this by restoring investment in pensions and benefits without inviting generalised struggle.

Blair rationalised dole offices and merged them with job centres, previously wholly separate government departments. This transformed welfare from a safety net into a stick to beat claimants into work. The minimum wage, a more welcome innovation, was the carrot to that stick. Still, it was set at a level that guaranteed bosses decent profits more than workers a decent life, and with tiers and exemptions helping employers divide the workforce.

The biggest increase in state spending since the second world war – relative of course to Thatcher’s slash and burn – became a tool to implant private capital into public institutions. Most of Blair’s counter-reforms originated under the Tories but first became widespread under New Labour. Rebuilding took place through ‘public-private partnerships’ which outsourced more and more elements. Central was the infamous ‘private finance initiative’. Private contractors built much-needed hospitals, schools, roads and more – cutting corners all the while, then leasing them back to the state at extortionate rates while neglecting unprofitable maintenance. Even today, many crumbling hospitals spend more on PFI liabilities than drugs.

Thatcher had found she “must take more power to the centre to stop socialism”, seizing control from local government and national services to detach working-class influence. Blair did the same to Labour Party structures to lock out the retreating left. He could then decentralise some of the public sector instead to continue Thatcher’s process of privatisation.

Schools and hospitals were wrested from integrated state coordination through systems like the ‘foundation’ model. They became islands responsible for their own systems and budgets, outsourcing to cut costs, selling each other services in an expansion of Thatcher’s nonsense ‘internal market’ – even borrowing from private finance.

Thatcher built more council homes per year than Blair did in his entire government. He doubled down on Thatcher’s individual ‘right to buy’ with mass transfers of council estates out of local authority control. Major had balked at the idea of charging students for university, judging it too provocative; Blair faced serious opposition but forced through tuition fees.

Administering the discoordination and redundancy of marketised services demanded a big expansion of needless management layers and costly bureaucracy. Meanwhile, across public services, businesses took up more and more space on governing boards relative to management, staff, service users, local politicians and so on.

There were disagreements within Blairism; for example, Brown had opposed letting foundation hospitals borrow independently of the state, and proposed a graduate tax rather than tuition fees. These differences were not fundamental but over how best to progress a pro-market programme. At most, there were dying echoes of the old, post-war right wing – such as in Welsh Labour, whose ‘clear red water’ distancing from Blairism signalled a more measured evolution towards neoliberalism, in the context of a far weaker private sector.

Foreign policy was no different. Blair was a fierce servant of the ‘special relationship’ with the United States; most notorious were the devastating invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, shoring up Western capitalist power and profits in the Middle East.

Millions took to the streets against the Iraq war, showing that the working class will fight even with consciousness seriously set back. There were also strikes under Blair, including by the Fire Brigades Union and rail union RMT, with a so-called ‘awkward squad’ of trade union leaders representing some resistance. Very importantly, the RMT took part in early, tentative steps towards non-Labour political representation. The overall trend in militancy, however, was still down, with class confidence low and many attacks masked by the boom.

Another masking factor was New Labour’s superficially progressive attitude to social issues. Blair relaxed Britain’s vicious anti-gay legislation, for example – following a long-standing shift in social attitudes rather than leading it, this was still a step forward. But with no fundamental class differences between the Tories and New Labour, and most trade union leaders locked into Blair’s dead-end for working-class representation, some concluded the far right was the only alternative. Blairism’s linking of progressive social rhetoric with attacks on the working class, instead of joint struggle for better conditions for all – as well as latterly scapegoating migrants –gave false confirmation to this. The British National Party became the second-largest grouping on Barking and Dagenham council in 2006.

First as tragedy, then as farce?

Blair and Brown spent down much of Labour’s post-war hoard of residual working-class loyalty. In opposition, Ed Miliband’s ‘austerity-lite’ tail-ending of Tory policy did nothing to restore it. Only Jeremy Corbyn’s anti-austerity appeal – in 2017, the biggest swing to Labour since the post-war landslide – even began a process that could have reversed that. It has taken 13 years out of power for hatred of the Tories to accrue to the point that Blairism can return to government.

History can repeat itself but never in the same way. Corbyn’s surprise ascendancy to the Labour leadership, the result of serious and one-off miscalculations by the right – to ‘lend’ him enough MPs votes to be nominated, and then to open up the selection to non-Labour Party members as £3 ‘registered supporters’ – recreated only the potential for some kind of mass workers’ party. It was not a capitalist-workers’ party but ‘two parties in one’ – an intact Blairite party with an inchoate new left formation sitting above and below it. Corbynism mistakenly did nothing to challenge the Blairite edifice; when the right vomited Corbyn out, Starmer did not need sweeping changes to consolidate his control.

Starmer constrained the already-weak influence of Labour’s individual membership, where the pro-Corbyn sentiment was strongest although nothing like as organised as pre-Blair. It is now even harder to deselect sitting MPs as Labour candidates, and leadership hopefuls need twice the number of MP nominations to get on the ballot. Moreover, rules are one thing – power is another. The party machine before, during and after Corbynism was utterly dominated by Blairism. Most of Starmer’s purge has been possible through straightforward expulsions of lefts and exclusions from candidate shortlists, without the bitter, lengthy struggles that marked the old capitalist-workers’ party.

Still, the right could sense that Corbynism had indicated rising class anger, and worked quickly but in stages. It was never true Starmer would just be “Corbyn in a suit” as one former Labour aide put it. His parliamentary record had included abstaining on the Tories’ benefit cap, opposing an inquiry into Blair and the Iraq war, and backing right-wing candidate Owen Smith in the ‘chicken coup’ attempt to oust Corbyn in 2016. As shadow Brexit secretary, he was architect of the perception that Corbyn would overturn the referendum decision against the bosses’ EU, a key factor in the 2019 defeat. Starmer ditched Corbyn’s broadly anti-imperialist foreign policy as soon as he entered the leadership race. Foreign policy is an extension of domestic policy; every time Starmer and his frontbench have seen an opportunity, or felt the slightest pressure from the bosses, another Corbynista demand has disappeared. Like Blair, Starmer’s every policy statement has been a signal to the capitalist class: we are (once again) safe for you.

Starmerism in the 2020s will not have the easy ride enjoyed by Blairism. It will inherit a capitalist economy in lasting crisis, not temporary recovery; reserves of working-class loyalty that are near-empty, not emptying; and working-class consciousness and militancy that is rebuilding, not disintegrating.

The economic growth that preceded Blair’s election was around 2.8% a year, with a positive trend continuing during his decade. The run-up to Starmer’s tenure has been stagnation, averaging 0.2% in five years, with the most optimistic projection foreseeing some anaemic ‘recovery’ before stabilising at a pitiful 1.75%. This is without knowing the scale of destruction the next recession, unavoidable at some point, will incur – including the possible return of Thatcher-scale unemployment. British capitalism’s complacent attitude to productive investment is not the easy fix Labour makes out. Globally it is plumbing new depths, with UK productivity growth stagnant in particular – and with no more eastern bloc to collapse which, along with the opening up of China, brought 1.2 billion people into the world market in the 1990s.

Hence Starmer’s shadow chancellor, Rachel Reeves, chanting the mantra of “economic and fiscal responsibility”. Her ‘fiscal lock’ on budget plans puts the bond traders in the driving seat. Her ‘fiscal rules’ – that Labour “will not borrow to fund day-to-day spending and we will reduce national debt as a share of the economy” – are indistinguishable from Rishi Sunak’s. They mean ‘austerity forever’. Starmer will not be able to mask his attacks on the working class like Blair. Privatisation drives will continue nonetheless – for example, his health spokesperson Wes Streeting has committed to still more outsourcing of NHS services to private hospitals.

At the same time, this lack of cushion will compel Starmer to make some concessions to try to defuse anger. Where Blair kept all the Tory anti-union laws, Starmer may well make good on his pledge to repeal 2023’s Strikes (Minimum Service Levels) Act. Even sections of the capitalists consider its untested weaponry too provocative, and there will be plenty of restrictive laws left on the books. This is also an attempt to buy temporary peace from trade union leaders whose inflation-burdened members have no choice but to push for action.

However, neither this, nor any faintly promised micro-hikes in taxation and spending, can overcome the downswing and satisfy working-class anger. The hard school post-2007, the experiences of Corbynism and the pandemic, and the lack of another way out, have put the post-Stalinist decline in consciousness into reverse, albeit from a low level. Even the outgoing Tories have only had a first taste of it. Starmer will have to face down turbulent class relations in a way that could look more like Thatcher than Blair – but with a working class less swept up in the post-war promise of gradual improvement, experiencing losses and wins and testing ideas and methods at a faster tempo. Starmer is failing tests even before coming to power – like the widespread horror at his pro-imperialist opposition to a ceasefire in Gaza. On social issues, he has acted more to shore up transphobia as a tool of division than acknowledge progressive views.

The ever-more-distant memory of post-war reforms will be shattered by Starmerism in power. Labour could crumble in fairly short order from electoral monolith to unstable presence in a more fragmented national politics. Starmerism could also face greater splitting pressures in power. The tiny ‘hard left’ around the Campaign Group shows no signs of fight, but will have to choose between Starmer’s knife and workers’ struggle in due course. The so-called ‘soft left’ – presenting itself as ambassador for the working class in right-wing Labour, an inversion of its real role – includes some cannier politicians like Manchester’s Andy Burnham, with a local power base not directly tied to Starmer’s patronage. Divisions like those seen between the Tory leadership and ‘Red Wall’ Tory MPs can break out within Starmerism too.

None of this signifies any return to the Labour Party of the past, either capitalist-workers’ Labour reformism or boom-time New Labour equilibrium. The working class is left both without a mass forum to learn how to cast off capitalism and its agents, and increasingly free of the Blairite barrier to creating one. There will setbacks, surprises and delays – but the stage is set for explosive debates on working-class political struggle.