The further delusions of Tony Blair
Tony Blair’s Comment is Free article on the reason for the riots brought the inevitable howls of derision. Of the 1986 comments posted to date, the vast majority are either too vicious for the moderator to allow through, or focus on whether Tony Blair’s character and/or war criminal record really make him an authority on moral issues. Relatively few people actually seem to have bothered to digest what he actually says. This is a shame, because the article reveals a lot not just about Tony Blair’s deep revisionism concerning his record in office but, more importantly, gives an important insight into one of the very worst aspects of the New Labour paradox - its overbearing managerialism set alongside its refusal to engage with the murky but very real world of policy implementation. As such, the article offers an important lesson for the Centre Left/Left on how to do things better the next time it gets the chance.
For our purposes, this is the crucial section in the article:
Most of them [those involved in the riots] are shaping up that way by the time they are in primary school or even in nursery. They then grow up in circumstances where their role models are drug dealers, pimps, people with knives and guns, people who will exploit them and abuse them but with whom they feel a belonging. Hence the gang culture that is so destructive…..
By the end of my time as prime minister, I concluded that the solution was specific and quite different from conventional policy. We had to be prepared to intervene literally family by family and at an early stage, even before any criminality had occurred. And we had to reform the laws around criminal justice, including on antisocial behaviour, organised crime and the treatment of persistent offenders. We had to treat the gangs in a completely different way to have any hope of success. The agenda that came out of this was conceived in my last years of office, but it had to be attempted against a constant backdrop of opposition, left and right, on civil liberty grounds and on the basis we were “stigmatising” young people. After I’d left, the agenda lost momentum. But the papers and the work are all there.
Let us leave aside the petty jibe that, had Blair remained in office, he would have sorted out gangs and gangs culture by now, so it must be Gordon Brown’s fault. Let us also leave aside for now the evidence, ignored by Blair, that a large section of those who involved themselves in the rioting and looting actions are not actually in gangs, at least under any generally accepted definition of what a gang is (see Shiv Malik on this). Let us instead focus on the Blair view that what is needed to sort out the problems, as he conceives them, is a radical new policy, specific to those who engage in anti-social behaviour, which he devised in his last years as PM and the like of which we had never seen before.
At one level, we can see this assertion as a simple lie by Blair. We need only look at the Social Exclusion Policy Action Team No.8 report on anti-social behaviour, which was published in 2000, for very clear evidence that New Labour policy on anti-social behaviour and gang management was developed very early in the Blair period, and includes all the elements that Blair now says were lacking, and which he wanted to introduce. All the factors that lead people towards anti-social behaviour/gangs, which Blair claims to have just discovered, are clearly set out (see para .1.32 for the ‘Risk Factors’ table), and all the measures that Blair now claims would be a total innovation in policy are present and correct (summarised at para. 6.12) throughout the report - early intervention, a family-focused approach, the use of ASBOs, evicting perpetrators, it’s all there.
But I think there is more to Blair’s article than a simply attempt to cast himself in the best light possible. I think Blair’s revisionist narrative tells us a lot about the New Labour approach to social policy in general. Underlying Blair’s revisionist narrative is New Labour’s core managerialist assumption that if a problem has not been resolved, it is because the policy designed to resolve it was wrong, and a new policy is needed. In most cases under New Labour, this new policy tended to be a shift towards the authoritarian right.
What New Labour’s consistently failed to grasp was that policy as implemented is hardly ever the same as policy devised, and that the main reason top-down policies fail to deliver on their objectives is that policy implementation is mediated by frontline workers,through their engagement with (often reluctant) service users, though in many cases gaming of targets and results allowed objectives to be met on paper, though not in reality. New Labour’s obsession with targets in particular stopped it from realising that the best way to develop effective policy is not to insist a bit harder that frontline workers should be strategic and focused (through the creation of an Implementation Unit reporting directly to Blair), but to trust frontline workers to do their jobs, and resource them appropriately.
I have covered in some detail the effects of New Labour’s failure to understand the dynamics of policy implementation when it comes to Welfare Reform, showing how policy designed to include people from society was bound to exclude people instead. I have also covered how New Labour’s policy centralised Children’s Centre policymaking was great in theory, but ended up alienating those who needed the service most in practice. The failure of New Labour to deal effectively with anti-social behaviour, through the further stigmatization and alienation of a section of people, is just another example.
None of this, of course, provides an answer to how government should deal with anti-social behaviour and gang culture. The issues are deep, the problems intractable, and there is no silver bullet, though I have suggested here that a part of the solution MUST be to recognise that the problems we face today were caused by deliberate government action is the 1960s and 1970s, and that only be taking responsibility for these mistakes will any future Labour government be in a position to give a whole generation of disaffected young people a fresh stake in mainstream society. Such a ‘truth and reconciliation’ process will need to be in addition to the creation of a material environment through decent quality jobs and a public environment which nurture mutual respect.
But before all of that, Milibandian Labour needs to recognise, and reflect upon, some very straightforward truths about what New Labour got wrong, and which Blair continues to get wrong (and it is not even in the Tory hierarchy’s interests even to understand the concepts covered here). Effective policymaking and implementation are not just about ideas on what might work and then announcing the grand plan; they are about handing over the power to make it happen. That should be a central plank of what makes Labour different from the Tories.