“We Won’t Look Back to the 1970s”, or, Why Blairites Must Never be Allowed to Regain Control of Labour

Copied below is the full text of an article written by Tony Blair on March 31, 1997, “We won’t look- back to the 1970s”. The article was written in the run-up to the 1997 General Election and was intended to counter Tory smears that Labour would return the country to the 1970s – an era of militant trade union struggle.

Under his leadership, Blair explained, Labour would not reverse the anti-trade union legislation introduced by Margaret Thatcher, boasting that “the changes that we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world.”

Blair dismissed the idea of returning to the closed shop, where trade union membership was a requirement of employment, as “nonsense”. He also answers the concerns of capitalists by pointing out that the bosses will retain their ability to “dismiss people on strike” and he reassures them that employees will not “get full employment rights from their first day.” As for union recognition, Blair points out that New Labour “rejected the TUC proposals, which were for wider rights of representation”.

Blair appeals to the capitalist press that the Labour Party is a party transformed with all MPs “now selected by a party membership which has doubled in the past three years. There are no small committees or pressure groups in charge. Those days are gone.”

The fact that prior to Tony Blair’s election as leader the party membership had collapsed, following the witch hunts against the left, is left unsaid. Subsequently, the party’s membership fell to record lows as the extent of New Labour’s betrayal became clear.

A close up of a logoDescription automatically generated

A graph showing Labour Party individual membership, excluding affiliated members and supporters (1928–2018).

As for there being “no small committees or pressure groups in charge”, this was quickly revealed as nonsense with the establishment of the National Policy Forum. The 2001 book by Liz Davies, a member of the Labour NEC from 1998 to 2000, entitled Through the Looking Glass: A Dissenter Inside New Labour, provides an explanation of the function of the National Policy Forum:

“The champions of ‘Partnership in Power’ claimed the new National Policy Forum would put an end to deal-making behind closed doors. In reality it has reduced the policy-making process to one exclusively shaped by deals done behind closed doors.

“The National Policy Forum meets in secret. Its deliberations are not open to the media or to Party members (unlike annual conferences)… Reports of the proceedings are issued in heavily edited form by Millbank and cannot be challenged or corrected by participants.”

The late Tony Benn echoed this, stating that the National Policy Forum is composed largely of New Labour flunkies and is designed to prevent real issues from coming to the national conference. When, for instance, motions considered unpalatable by Labour right wingers have been raised, such as those to renationalise the railways and Royal Mail, they are ignored by the Policy Forum, and therefore not raised at conference.

The idea that “pressure groups” would lose control over policy making was also a lie. Between 1997 and 2002 alone, Labour accepted more than £12 million from arms and defence companies. Connections with the unions, or working class “pressure groups”, by contrast, were minimised. Little wonder that Blair gained the backing of the billionaire press baron Rupert Murdoch.

Right wing social democracy: then and now

Of course, the geopolitical context of the 1990s meant that Tony Blair was more blunt about his support for capitalist interests than his successors are today. The collapse of Soviet Communism and, with it, the idea of a planned economy was celebrated by the capitalist class as the “end of history”. This backdrop, where no alternative to capitalism remained, facilitated the rapid rightward shift of traditional social democratic parties around the globe.

Today, however, capitalism is in crisis and people are increasingly looking for an alternative. With socialist and anti-capitalist ideas ascendant, Blair’s successors must couch their language more carefully. They nevertheless maintain the same commitment to the rule of big business and the outright hostility to socialism.

Jess Philips, Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy… each are looking to re-establish the authority of right-wing social democracy within the Labour Party. As evidenced by the death of Labour’s sister parties around the world, who failed to provide an alternative to austerity and paid the ultimate price, today there is only one destination for right wing social democracy.

Labour members must mobilise now in defence of socialist ideas in their party and, ultimately, to transform Labour into a weapon of struggle.  This means fighting to democratise the party, including the reintroduction of mandatory reselection to enable members to have a democratic say over their own parliamentary and council representatives.

This also means transforming Labour into a movement-building organisation. This is absolutely essential because mass movements provide a base of support which the capitalists must recognise in negotiations: in such instances, big business is not just negotiating with politicians but also with the labour movement, which is uniquely placed to shut down the economy altogether.

Successful mass movements demonstrate in a living way how gains can be achieved. One of the reasons why the Labour Party failed to convince the public that their plans were viable was because they focused too much on socialism as a prize rather than a method.

History is rarely made through parliament alone. It is on the streets and in the workplaces that Labour can carve a new way forward and this, in turn, will put them on a far firmer parliamentary footing.

We won’t look back to the 1970s.

Tony Blair says union scare stories are just Tory lies.

Let us hope that this week we can get back to arguing over the issues that will determine Britain’s future: hospitals, schools, crime, the jobs and industry of the future. Of course we in the Labour Party will keep up the pressure on those aspects of the Conservative Party’s behaviour that have been suppressed by closing down Parliament early, but as the campaign we are launching today shows, we will do our best to make the election positive.

However, beneath the “sleaze” headlines, another battle has begun. The Tories want to make trade unions the equivalent of the tax issue in the 1992 election. This means that the grossest misrepresentations of fact and policy will be made, and that lies will be repeated again and again in the hope that they will stick.

The newspapers have good reason to be sympathetic to this attack. There were appalling abuses of union power in the old Fleet Street days, but the idea that I would ever permit those days to return is fatuous. After all, new Labour is new precisely in rejecting those excesses.

And yet that is the Tory case, and so alarmed are parts of the media at anything that links the word “unions” to Labour that this Tory campaign is being given a coverage that it does not merit in any sense. So yesterday the papers were littered with Tory propaganda reprinted as fact. It was said that there is a “secret deal” between Labour and the TUC to set up a new agency to oversee union recognition. False. No such deal has been made. It was claimed that if non-union employees work in a firm where a union is recognised, they will be forced to join and pay dues. Nonsense. The position will remain as it is now. That employers will not be able to dismiss people on strike. Untrue. That employees will get full employment rights from their first day. Wrong.

Let me state the position clearly, so that no one is in any doubt. The essential elements of the trade union legislation of the 1980s will remain. There will be no return to secondary action, flying pickets, strikes without ballots, the closed shop and all the rest.

The changes that we do propose would leave British law the most restrictive on trade unions in the Western world. The scenes from Grunwick, Wapping or the miners’ strike could no more happen under our proposals than under the existing laws.

As for union recognition, we have rejected the TUC proposals, which were for wider rights of representation. Instead, we propose that where a majority of the relevant workforce decide in a ballot that they wish to be represented by a union, they should have that option. At present they have to take, and can lawfully take, industrial action to secure recognition. We are proposing the more orderly route of a ballot. Of course drafting questions will arise – for example, what will be the “relevant workforce” – and these will be determined, after consultation, in government. But such definitional issues arise already, for example under equal pay legislation, where female workers have to compare themselves with the relevant employment. They also arise in determining the scope of ballots for industrial action.

Even more ludicrous is the blood-curdling over the so-called “strikers’ charter”. At present, under the Tory law, people who take unofficial strike action can be dismissed without recourse to an industrial tribunal. Even if lawfully on strike, they can be dismissed and there is no power to order reinstatement. So any employer can dismiss all or part of the workforce without being compelled to take people back. But if the employer dismisses employees selectively, there is a right to present a claim for unfair dismissal. The claim, of course, may not succeed. That is for a tribunal to decide. The anomaly is that if an employer selectively dismisses some of his workforce, a claim can be mounted, but not if he dismisses them all.

Under our proposals the situation will remain exactly the same, except that we seek to correct this anomaly. There would be nothing to prevent the employer dismissing people, and still no power to force their reinstatement. What there would be is merely the right to present a claim. The idea that this is the end of civilisation as we know it is simply a lie by a Tory party that is desperate.

I have staked my political reputation and credibility on making it clear that there will be no return to the 1970s. Indeed there is little appetite among trade unions for such a thing. As for the Labour Party itself, it is a party transformed in structure and politics from those days. All MPs are now selected by a party membership which has doubled in the past three years. There are no small committees or pressure groups in charge. Those days are gone.

Why is it important to state all this even now, even when the Tory campaign appears to be imploding? Because it is essential that we move on from the debates that disfigured British political life for almost half a century. The future of the workplace lies in partnership between workforce and management, not conflict. Increasingly, the distinctions between the two are being eroded. In the global economy, it is high quality goods and services that are needed. This means we need a skilled, flexible and adaptable workforce, competing on ability, not low pay. That is why the focus of Labour’s new approach to industrial relations is not re-running the union battles of the past, but investing in people and improving the education system.

Naturally the Tories want to refight the election of 1979, rather than fight that of 1997. All they have left now is to try to scare people, to terrify them out of doing what otherwise people know to be right. Our task at every turn is to make hope overcome fear. The country should not be presented with a choice between staying as it is under the present Government and returning to the past under Labour. New Labour was created for that very reason: to offer a different and fresh alternative.

Blair, Tony. “We won’t look back to the 1970s.” Times, 31 Mar. 1997, p. 20. The Times Digital Archive. Accessed 28 Dec. 2019.

A close up of a newspaper

Description automatically generated


Thomas Barker is an independent journalist and PhD student in Aesthetics and Politics. He can be reached at https://durham.academia.edu/ThomasBarker