Corbynistas have gotten into the habit of calling their opponents “Blairites”. In some cases, this is unwarranted not because it is a smear, but because it is an unjustified compliment.
I mean this is two different senses.
One concerns immigration. Chuka Umunna thinks the UK should pay the hefty price of leaving the single market if necessary to impose immigration controls. And Rachel Reeves thinks Labour should listen to voters “legitimate concerns” about immigration – without telling us what exactly these are.
This desire for immigration controls fits uneasily with Blairism. For all his faults, Blair has always been pro-immigration. Back in 2005 he said that rising immigration was “precisely what one would want and expect”. And even the latter-day debased Blair says that “immigration is good for a country.”
And whilst he too speaks of voters “legitimate concerns”, he at least spells out what these might be, rather than using the phrase as a dog-whistle. For example, he says voters sense that immigration is uncontrolled and that some incomers don’t share our values.
Herein, though, lies the problem: these concerns raise awkward questions. How do we reconcile voters’ desire for control with freeish markets? If hostility to immigration is motivated by fears they have different values, why are Poles being attacked as much as Muslims? If, as Nick suggests, it is based upon people valuing “the familiar and the local” why did they vote for the wrenching change of Brexit, and why is hostility to immigrants strongest in the least lovable parts of the country such as Margate or Harlow?
At his best, Blair did not pander to voters’ basest instincts but rather succeeded in reconciling sensible(ish) policies with public support. There’s little evidence that his epigones are doing this. Triangulation had three points, not the one.
Which brings me to the second way in which so-called Blairites aren’t really Blairite.
In the 1990s, Blair had the wit to see that the economy had changed and that this needed new social democratic policies. For example, tax credits and university expansion were based in the recognition that globalization was reducing wages at the bottom end of the labour market and increasing demand for graduates; the stress on economic stability was intended to offer footloose companies the security they needed to invest in the UK; the stress upon debt sustainability was meant to placate bond vigilantes who were demanding high returns on government debt. And so on.
Blair’s talk of newness and modernity wasn’t just tiresome spin. It was a recognition that social democracy had to acknowledge new economic realities. This is the case now. Today’s new realities are zero productivity growth and secular stagnation that require pro-growth policies; negative real interest rates that render activist fiscal policy feasible as well as necessary; job polarization that makes social mobility harder; the failure of top-down managerialism; and the shift in inequality from a high 90/10 ratio to a high take by the 1%.
Although John McDonnell has shown signs of seeing these, “Blairites” seem not to. Although David Miliband writes of secular stagnation, he doesn’t seem to have much idea what it entails for leftist policies.
We should therefore get out of the habit of calling Labour’s right “Blairites”. They don’t deserve such a good name.