Blair is a model for Starmer’s Labour

Blair is a model for Starmer’s Labour

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Tony Blair’s Labour government was elected on Thursday May 1 1997. The next Monday, a bank holiday, I was on duty in the FT’s economics room. Nothing happened on bank holidays, so I showed up at 11am, to be greeted by a colleague shouting: “They’ve made the Bank of England independent!”

This sounded insane. All British economics wonks back then agreed that the bank should be independent to set interest rates, and all agreed it would never happen. Chancellors liked cutting rates before elections. There were no votes in renouncing that power. Then Labour did it, a non-partisan act that lastingly improved British governance.

Keir Starmer’s Labour should take Blair’s Labour as its model. True, political issues have changed. True, New Labour was terribly flawed, but less than any other modern British government. Its basic assumptions still work. Listen to experts. Try to grow the economic pie. Give more of it to the worst-off people and public services. Don’t worry about ideological purity. These would be banalities except that the outgoing Conservatives rejected all of them. British real wages haven’t risen since 2006.

New Labour did get lots wrong. Most spectacularly, Blair joined the American invasion of Iraq. But in the scheme of things, his blunder scarcely mattered. Without him, the US would have wrecked the Middle East alone. It’s also true that New Labour’s “light-touch regulation” of the City worsened the damage of the 2008 financial crisis. Later Blair tarnished his own legacy by his money-grubbing after Downing Street, including for brutal autocracies.

But so much did work. New Labour instituted the minimum wage. It shovelled fortunes into public services. If you think it was all wasted, watch the clip of audience members in a TV programme in 2005 complaining to Blair that their doctors’ appointments were scheduled too soon. NHS waiting lists tumbled under New Labour before rising under the Conservatives. If you see a magnificent public building in a rundown British town, it was probably built by the Victorians or New Labour.

The list could go on. New Labour slashed homelessness, largely because it prioritised the unpopular issue. Policies such as Sure Start to help children under five were modelled on international best practice. In 2005, a friend told me he knew the UK had peaked when his postman bought a second home in South Africa.

New Labour was also reasonably competent. “Say what you like about us, but we had some very clever people,” says a veteran of that era who has just joined Starmer’s government. Days after London’s 7/7 terrorist attacks in 2005, I interviewed a senior Tory who professed relief Blair was running things. “Frankly, we’re pretty well governed,” he said. Blair left office in 2007 to a standing ovation from the Commons. True, he benefited from Britain’s longest unbroken period of economic growth from 1992 until 2008. But growth was unbroken partly because Labour mostly obeyed Barack Obama’s edict: “Don’t do stupid shit.”

Then came the Tories, bearing evidence-free ideology. They gave us David Cameron’s scorched-earth austerity, Brexit and Liz Truss’s uncosted “mini-Budget”. Rishi Sunak’s fruitless signature project of sending asylum-seekers to Rwanda at maximum expense ended last week.

Most British voters aren’t very ideological. Fascism, communism and libertarianism never took off here. Instead, the electorate values competence. Surveys suggest the Tories were voted out chiefly because they lacked it.

Starmer’s early appointments show a Blairite appreciation for expertise. His prisons minister has experience rehabilitating prisoners. The attorney-general is a barrister, a King’s Counsel. The science minister was previously government chief scientific adviser. Ideally, as under Blair, ministers will stay in post long enough to learn what their departments do, instead of being constantly reshuffled for party management purposes.

Starmer’s right-hand man, Morgan McSweeney (or perhaps Starmer is his right-hand man), came up under New Labour and absorbed the notion that government should clean up rubbish before dreaming big. Starmer rarely mentions Blair, who is toxic in Labour circles, but he speaks to him often. That will continue in government. The Tony Blair Institute, funded partly by Blair’s money-grubbing, has become probably Britain’s biggest ever think-tank. Last year it employed 850 staffers, more than Blair commanded in Downing Street. He has said he’ll put these resources at the government’s disposal, “in the sense of advising and introducing and all of that”.

Critics dismiss Blairism as simplistic “deliverology”. Perhaps, but today’s UK could do with a spot of deliverology.

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