Thursday, June 28, 2012

Reforming Political Parties (Blair's Lessons, part I)

No, I am not obsessed with Tony Blair. (Well, not too much.) But I am reading his book, and my blogging tends to reflect what I am reading. And I am finding Blair’s perspective on politics both refreshing and—in light of our own political drama—instructive. The book itself is quite long, and if I have one complaint it is that his narrative keeps getting in the way of his political insights (most writers have the opposite problem). He can be in the middle of an elaborate name-dropping description of the minutiae of internal party politics and then mid paragraph drop a gem like “The single hardest thing for a practicing politician to understand is that most people, most of the time, don’t give politics a first thought all day long.” Or regarding answering questions from constituents: “You may think: Well, if it’s simplicity that’s required, you don’t need a whole lot of detail. Wrong. The simplicity is not born of superficial analysis. It is simple precisely because it is the product of being worked through.”

What I have found particularly both fascinating and relevant, though, are Blair’s reforms to the Labour party. He took a proudly socialist party that was largely dependent on the dwindling influence of the labor unions and modernized it, dropping the call for state ownership of capital and expanding beyond the union base. He describes the transition this way:

In my view, we needed a complete, top-to-bottom reorientation of our programme and policies. In particular, we needed to separate conceptually a commitment to our values (timeless) from their application (time-bound). So, of course, we should and always would fight for social justice; but in today’s world that didn’t mean more state control. And on issues like defence and law and order, being tough was not striking a pose but a sensible reaction to the threats of the modern world, whether globally or in our street corners.
* * *
The essential problem with Labour in the post-war period was that it had lost touch with its basic purpose. That purpose was always, at heart, about the individual. A more powerful state, unions, social action, collective bargaining—all those were means to an end: to help the individual gain opportunity, to let him or her overcome limitations unfairly imposed by poverty, poor education, poor health, housing and welfare. It was all about opportunity not in general but in particular: for you, as an individual. That echoed and captured something deep within human nature: the desire to be free, to be the best you can be.
The problem for all progressive parties was that by the 1960s, the first generation of those helped in such a way had been liberated. Thus on the ladder of opportunity, they didn’t want more state help; they wanted choice, freedom to earn more money and spend it. They fractured the homogeneous class base. They started to resent the freeloaders they paid for. Above all, they wanted a different relationship with the state: as partners or citizens, not as beneficiaries or clients. The private sector, driven by the markets, shifted fast under such pressures. The public sector got stuck. This is why by the end of the 1970s, Thatcher and Reagan were able to push forward major change.
For me, New Labour was all about understanding this social evolution. It wasn’t at all about changing the basic values or purpose of progressive politics; on the contrary, it was about retrieving them from the deadweight of political and cultural dogma that didn’t merely obscure those values and that purpose, but also defeated them.
What is more, it wasn’t about “coming to terms” with such evolution. It was about rejoicing in it, recognizing that this was not an unfortunate reality that we had to learn to acknowledge in order to make progress; it was progress.

Blair succeeded in freeing the Labour party from that backwards thinking and reinvented it to reflect modern realities. The result was a party that won elections, making Blair the first Labour Prime Minister in eighteen years. But it took him quite a few years to set up.

The lesson here is that Blair did not run against his party from the outside. Instead, he slowly worked his way up the party leadership until he took it over and then used it to propel both himself and his party into power. To a large extent, the party made the politician, not vice versa as is so often the case in the American model. Part of this reflects the different governmental model between the United Kingdom and the United States; the UK is parliamentary, which means parties are stronger than they are here.

But Blair’s model is something that I think could be implemented here, at least to some extent. He started his political reforms as party reforms, and he started his party reforms from the ground up. He didn’t try to take over the party mechanics in one election, or start with the most powerful position. There is a lesson for us in that. If we who are politically active are dissatisfied with a party, abandoning it may not be the best way to encourage it to change its platform. Instead, pushing for reforms from within can lead to a stronger party in the long run. Tony Blair’s example shows us that.

To be continued...

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