Sunday 14 July 2019

Labo(u)r and its leaders: Britain and Australia

Published as ‘UK paves way’, Geelong Advertiser, Monday, 23 April 2007, p. 17

Tony Blair is coming to the end of his period as leader of the Labour Party and Prime Minister of Britain, while Kevin Rudd is just beginning his leadership of the Labor Party and aiming to be the next Prime Minister of Australia.

Blair has been under attack primarily because of his support for George Bush and the war on Iraq, despite the evidence that he tried hard to prevent a unilateral invasion by the United States.

When he realised that Bush was going in anyway, Blair, like John Howard, decided that his country’s national interests required it to stand by its major ally, right or wrong.

Blair has also been criticised regularly for relying too much on smooth speechmaking and spin to disguise policies which would not have been out of place had they been implemented by the Iron Lady, Margaret Thatcher.

Another strike against Blair is his replacement of his party’s dependence on the trade unions by pitching to big business, the wealthy and the middle ground, sometimes with more than a hint of the sleaze in its dealings, of the kind which helped bring down John Major’s previous Conservative administration.

So it is a powerful list of criticisms, but it misses some of the enormous positives from his lengthy period in office, a rarity for Labour Prime Ministers in the United Kingdom.

He won his first election with a visionary statement about New Labour which would be clearly distinct from not only the Conservative opposition, but also from some of the hoary myths of its own past.

Early on he and Chancellor Gordon Brown, still touted as his successor, introduced minimum wage legislation designed to protect the lower ranks of the working class from the exigencies of free-market capitalism.

The British economy has grown steadily in the Blair Labour years without the crises which seemed endemic before and unemployment is relatively low.

At the end of his period in office it looks as if he has finally presided over power sharing and the prospect of peace in Northern Ireland, an intractable issue which had baffled all of his predecessors since the troubles re-erupted in the 1970s.

In between he has kept the United Kingdom together, yet allowed for devolution in Scotland and Wales, reformed the House of Lords, and maintained a generally progressive influence in Europe.

He commissioned the Stern report on climate change and has set targets for structural reforms to implement its recommendations.

So it is a much more mixed record than some of his critics will allow and above all he kept the party in office so it was able to implement its policies.

There is perhaps a lesson here for Australian Labor.

Not that it should be looking for a Blair clone, but Kevin Rudd needs to articulate not just individual new policies but a clearly distinct vision for a Labor alternative.

Labor needs a vision which appeals to a sense of justice and fair play, at home and abroad; a vision which recognises the strength of Labor tradition but is prepared to modernise that in ways which benefit the diverse groups which make up modern Australian society.

The party also needs a leader who will stand up to its major ally when necessary.

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