Upstream or down?

James Thompson asks, does Labour need Tony Blair or is he a salmon out to sea?


If only Labour would come to its senses, ditch Corbyn, and get a business friendly, centrist pro in like Blair – goes the refrain. This is the only way Labour has won elections, at least in our recent history, and the only way Labour can win again. Why can’t these deluded Labour activists just get with the programme?


When Tony Blair jettisoned Clause IV of the Labour Party constitution, many thought he was simply drawing a line under the historical baggage that had helped them lose four consecutive general elections. Clause IV seemed like an anachronism and a pipe dream of a small group of left ideologues and all plans to nationalise had already been abandoned.


What was much, much more significant is that Labour had capitulated to global finance capitalism and entered into a Faustian deal with the City of London. Labour raised taxes (after their first term in office) which allowed them to do great things which changed lives for the better. Dramatically reducing child poverty, properly funding the NHS, Sure start etc. are all great achievements that should not be dismissed or sneered at. The quid pro quo for all this was that the City remained free of regulation (that may have averted the financial crash) and the richest and therefore the most powerful in our society remained unchallenged, becoming much, much richer. This is exactly what they wanted.


The New Labour narrative was that a ‘third way’ had emerged, where all our interests had magically converged. There were no longer obvious lines of antagonism, so no need to revoke Thatcher’s union busting legislation. The interests of capital were somehow in complete alignment with the needs of labour and with a new centrist party at the helm. A rising tide lift all boats – and other such platitudes.


It is at this point I want to introduce the central metaphor of the piece. The salmon has one goal – to build up strength so that one day it may make the heroic journey upstream to reach its spawning ground and procreate. Old Labour’s central goal was to challenge the interests of the rich thereby changing society and in the interests of normal working people. It is a monumental challenge, but, like the salmon, it periodically achieves its goal against the odds. The salmon makes slow progress, swimming upstream, overcoming barriers like water falls and weirs. But what if one day, it decided to swim downstream instead? It would be able to swim so much faster if it was swimming with the flow of the water instead of against it! Why, it would take hardly any time to reach the end of the river! “Weeeeeee” it goes. It travels a great speed. It thinks it is making great progress.


When Blair and the New Labour project had run out of river and found themselves in the open sea again, he handed over to Brown and went on the international lecture circuit earning tens of millions of pounds. He left Labour out to sea, making the task of spawning in the tributaries of its birth, high up in the hills, seem ever more impossible and implausible.


I tell you what Labour needs – another stupid salmon to lead us nowhere. Of course, the task ahead is herculean, so what we need is someone who doesn’t really understand the point of doing it at all. He will lead us to certain victory!
The point is, New Labour won as least as much because of the legacy of Old Labour as the party that would stick up for the majority of normal working people, as for the new centrist stuff Blair brought in. You can only benefit from abandoning your core principles once. Like selling your family silver, this is a one way deal.


There is a counterfactual argument to be had about whether Labour needed to become New Labour to win the 1997 election. Certainly, some people feel that the Tories had become so moribund by that time, that any Labour party would have won without sacrificing its raison d’etre.


Labour is now trying to head back up the river once again – setting out to challenge the rich and powerful just enough to mitigate against the worst excesses of global finance capitalism. It has just got past the estuary and the task at hand is looking as daunting as ever. But it has rightly realised that there is no alternative to swimming against the flow if it is to fulfil any purpose at all. This is all it can do, and in hindsight, perhaps all it should have ever done.

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