Politics dying a death by focus groups

New Labour’s legacy is not progressive – it is narcissistic. And has affected our politics too

 Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivers Progress’ inaugural annual Philip Gould Lecture on July 21st in London –   Labour “has to be progressive and base policies on reality, not a delusionary view of the world”, he sid .   Photograph: John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Former British Prime Minister Tony Blair delivers Progress’ inaugural annual Philip Gould Lecture on July 21st in London – Labour “has to be progressive and base policies on reality, not a delusionary view of the world”, he sid . Photograph: John Stillwell - WPA Pool/Getty Images

Sat, Jul 26, 2014, 01:31

Tony Blair gave the inaugural Philip Gould lecture this week. Gould is credited in Blair’s speech as the inventor of New Labour and of the Third Way. Gould also wrote a moving book about his impending death from cancer, which he embraced with great courage.

While he did not invent the “government by focus group” strategy, he certainly took it to new heights in New Labour, and did enormous damage to politics.

The damage done to politics is exemplified in Blair’s speech. After paying tribute to Gould, Blair explained what motivates a progressive politician, and there was little with which one could take issue: giving children opportunities, helping the sick, lowering crime rates in poor communities.

The word community was mentioned very little after that. Iraq was mentioned in one phrase – “whatever you think of the controversies post-9/11 and particularly Iraq”. He went on to praise his work in Israel, and the work of “my” Faith Foundation. He also told us “my Africa Governance Initiative does fantastic work helping some of the poorest nations on earth put in place competent systems of government”.

There is a whole article to be written about that phrase that slides over so much responsibility – “whatever you think of the controversies post-9/11 and particularly Iraq” – given the impact of the Iraq war on what is happening in Gaza.

State and individual

However, let’s concentrate on what Blair said about the state and the individual. “No political philosophy today will achieve support unless it focuses on individual empowerment, not collective control. The role of society or the state becomes about helping the individual to help themselves, and to gain control over their own lives and choices.”

Notice the two alternatives – collective control or individual empowerment. Notice what is missing – communities, co-operatives, families.

He accepts radical individualism as a given, and dismisses what he sees as the only alternative, the collective state, as out of date. He said: “So when we look at the Britain of 2014, we should be the radicals, but radicals not playing to the gallery of our ideological ghosts but to the contemporary stadium of the progressive majority.”

“Playing to the gallery” is normally used in a pejorative sense. An Oxford Dictionaries posting defines it as “to act in an exaggerated way in order to appeal to popular taste”. A website dedicated to explaining idioms to those learning the English language goes further: “If someone plays to the gallery, they say or do things that will make them popular at the expense of more important issues.” However, Blair was adamant. “In the end, parties can please themselves or please the people.”

Blair is right that the old divisions of left and right make little sense in a world faced with the challenges of climate change and finding alternatives to our carbon-addicted lifestyles. But what is frightening about the man is that he does not see that “pleasing the people” and maximising their individual consumerist-influenced choices inevitably leads to events such as the financial crisis. It is also incompatible with dealing with any of the current challenges facing us, including climate change.

He slid right by the global recession, just as he did facing the consequences of his decision to go to war in Iraq. Of the recession, he said only: “We didn’t spot it coming, in common with almost everyone else.” The reason was that he and New Labour were busy playing to the gallery.

The policy of governing by focus group has nearly destroyed politics. It has elevated “These are my views, and if you don’t like them, I have others” to the status of a governing philosophy.

While I have more affinity with left-wing policies when it comes to social justice, the left has always had a blind spot when it came the importance of intermediary associations, everything from the family to voluntary organisations (with some exceptions, eg unions).

The left tends to see the primary relationship as being between the individual and the state. No surprise, then, when the state is viewed with suspicion as a manipulative bureaucracy, that it is replaced only with individualism.

The intermediary associations like family, at their best can teach us sharing, unselfishness and higher values. The family is assaulted on one side by the market, which rightly sees it as a bulwark against rampant consumerism, and on the other by ideologies that just don’t get its importance.

New Labour’s legacy is not progressive – it is narcissistic. And it has affected politics in our country, too.

Enda Kenny was applauded by the media for abandoning promises to the anti-abortion groups, and bullying dissidents. He was criticised for abandoning commitments to gender equality in favour of geography, but it is the same “principle” at work – do whatever is necessary to maintain power. If that means jettisoning values once seen as central, so be it.