The big winner in last week’s reshuffle was Labour’s old right, not Tony Blair

by Atul Hatwal

Most media reports of last week’s Labour reshuffle described a scene of Blairite triumph: the old master’s grip on the party was being reasserted, his policies and personnel were to the fore, Keir Starmer his willing proxy. It’s an easy story to write, one with familiar beats, but a story that is quite wrong.

It is a symptom of the simplified, bipolar frame through which Labour’s internal politics is viewed: Corbynite left or Blairite right, where all developments are reduced to a zero-sum game of one side winning and the other losing.

What this approach misses is the divide among party centrists between Blairites and the old Labour right, dating back to the early 1990s. There’s certainly much commonality between the two groups across large swathes of policy and on the importance of fighting the hard left, but as that latter threat recedes and the choices of government heave into view, the differences from thirty years ago will become more evident. Last week’s reshuffle marked the clearest possible ascendancy of the old Labour right rather than a move to full throttle Blairism.

Blairites are revolutionaries. Many of the original generation, including Tony Blair, started their political lives on the radical left and moved to the centre; what they retained on their political journey was their restless dissatisfaction with the status quo; social democratic incrementalism wasn’t enough, Britain needed fundamental reform. The focus of this reforming zeal was typically old Labour sacred cows–Labour’s internal structures, the party’s relationship with the unions and public service reform.

The old right is the embodiment of incrementalism. A bit more redistribution, increased public spending and support to bolster the position of unions. This isn’t a faction temperamentally suited to radical upheaval, least of all when it comes to the ceremonies of Labour’s traditions which are intertwined with the union movement and wreathed in emotion and sentimentality.

Think of the contrast between John Smith and Tony Blair.

Last week’s reshuffle might have resulted in a shadow cabinet with five Blair-era special advisers as prospective secretaries of state but it is the division of responsibility that tells us most about the direction of a future Labour government.

Angela Rayner’s new empire is key to understanding the approach of the next Labour government – she replaced Lisa Nandy as the shadow levelling up secretary, but most importantly she retained responsibility for “the future of work”. The newly appointed shadow minister for the New Deal for working people, within her team, is Imran Husain, a member of the hard left Socialist Campaign Group. In Angela Rayner’s X (formerly Twitter) thread introducing her team, a common theme in the posts is reference to the solid trade union credentials of each of her team.

This isn’t a leadership that is set-up to challenge the unions or radically reformulate their role in the Labour movement. No shadow cabinet member is going to brief reporters that Labour needs to break the trade union link as Stephen Byers did in 1996.

So much of the Blairite reforming imperative hinged on the relationship with the trade unions. When Tony Blair spoke to the British Venture Capital association in 1999 and talked about the ‘scars on his back’ after two years in government, he was referring to his battles with unions in reforming public services. In July 2001 when he made a speech on public service reform and said that “no vested interests will have a veto on reform”, it was evident who he had in mind. Just as it was equally clear who he viewed as his opponents, when speaking on public service reform in February 2002, he cast the great divide as between “reformers versus wreckers”.

Tony Blair’s defining moment after becoming leader was to scrap the old Clause IV. The role of the trade unions in terms of blocking his reforms both within and without the Labour party was constantly in his thinking. Not so much for Keir Starmer who has barely said anything substantive on the topic.

The trade unions will always oppose the type of radical public service reform Tony Blair wanted, for obvious reasons, ideologically in terms of the role of the private sector and more parochially in terms of the position of their members. The idea that this Labour leadership is going to take them on and drive through changes where Tony Blair failed, is barely credible.

True believing Blairites in the shadow cabinet, like Wes Streeting and Liz Kendall should beware, when the going get tough on public service reform and friction with the union movement rises, they may find themselves the ones who get going, out of their respective departments.

The real echo of the 1990s is not a return to Blairism but the manner in which Labour is once again following the path of the US Democrats. This time it isn’t Bill Clinton’s New Democrats giving the lead for the foundation of New Labour but Joe Biden’s blue collar, union-supporting version. An older vintage with a lineage that goes back to Franklin Roosvelt, just as the current Labour leadership team is a much clearer lineal descendent of Ernie Bevin and Hugh Gaitskell than Tony Blair ever was.

Atul Hatwal is editor of Labour Uncut

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