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
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 individualHowever, 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accepts radical individualism as a given, and dismisses what he sees as the only alternative, the collective state, as out of date.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.”