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Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair speaks to Labour Party supporters during a campaign stop in Tamworth, England, on May 3, 2010. (David Jones/Associated Press)
Britain's former prime minister Tony Blair speaks to Labour Party supporters during a campaign stop in Tamworth, England, on May 3, 2010. (David Jones/Associated Press)

Gerald Caplan

Goodbye to New Labour at last Add to ...

No party has ever deserved a whipping more than the British Labour Party. Okay, that's wrong. Think of the Republicans after Bush, the Canadian Tories after Mulroney, the British Conservatives after Thatcher.

Let's try this. No party with claims to represent the underdog, to stand for social justice and greater equality, to see politics as the best instrument for social change, has ever deserved to get the boot more than the British Labour Party just has. Its defeat - and surely it was defeated - was not merely because of the public ineptitude and sheer weirdness of its leader, Gordon Brown. Under Tony Blair's long tenure, and continuing under Brown, a moral rot overcame the Labour Party and ate away at its very soul.

It's true that both Mr. Blair and Mr. Brown seemed genuinely concerned with Africa, yet given their overall performance that now feels more like an aberration than a redeeming feature. Mr. Blair and his key henchmen loved the rich, loved the impulse to greed, and New Labour enthusiastically embraced the ethical nihilism of Wall Street's fictional Gordon Gekko.

It seems like ancient history now, but British influence was a crucial factor in every aspect of Canadian life for the first century of our existence. This included the evolution of the political left. My generation grew up on a diet of Labour Party policies, strategies and personalities. The American left was too marginalized and eccentric to have much to offer us, its major presence being as a bogeyman inflated by the usual right-wing demagogues.

The old CCF, and for a while its NDP successor, were inspired by the British version of democratic socialism. David Lewis, for years the party's most influential intellectual, had lived in England, knew all the Labour leaders, indeed had a chance to run as a Labour MP and surely become a cabinet minister there. It was David who fashioned the Canadian party in Labour's image, and many of us continued for years to monitor British politics closely. The model of the NDP, built on the crumbling body of the old CCF, was in fact the British Labour Party, and the guest speaker at the NDP founding convention in 1961 was Hugh Gaitskell, leader of the Labour Party.

For many of us, Labour's leaders - from old Keir Hardy to Nye Bevan - were heroic figures. Mr. Bevan was the hero we most worshipped, a Welshman of impeccable proletarian background who grew up to be an eloquent, principled, cultured figure, a role model for us all. We could all see ourselves as natural members of the Fabian Society, Labor's independent intellectual wing, mostly university-based, churning out exciting, workable, egalitarian policies for a new postwar Britain.

Of course there were disappointments along the way. Mr. Bevan ended up opposing unilateral nuclear disarmament. Harold Wilson sold out the Africans of old Rhodesia and refused to condemn the Viet Nam war, while the party tore itself to shreds over nationalization issues and the role of trade unions. After all, this still was a socialist party, where Solidarity Forever was often as not more a prayer than a reality. But still, Labour formed governments regularly - more than we Canadian lefties could boast, unless you lived in tiny, lucky Saskatchewan - and they spoke our language. Always suspicious of the opportunism of American Democrats, for many Labour was our second political home.

Then came the Blair revolution with his New Labour government. Mr. Blair and his closest aides, some loathsome beyond words, didn't much like poverty, it's true. But they had no trouble with inequality and positively embraced the filthy rich. You reap what you sow. Here's how a Guardian article recently summed up New Labour's overall record:

The government "accepted the whole Thatcherite economic settlement, has seen an increase in social and economic inequality, worshipped wealth and fawned on high finance at home and abroad, passed a vast array of repressive laws, … allowed Rupert Murdoch to dictate its foreign policy, and took Britain - with flagrant dishonesty - into a needless, illegal and murderous war in order to support the most reactionary American president of modern times."

After 13 years of Labour government, London is the most unequal city in the rich world and the 1,000 richest Britons are three times better off than when Labour came to power. Up the workers, comrades.

Besides arguably being a war criminal for his role in the invasion of Iraq, which he continues to justify, Tony Blair couldn't do enough for his many posh friends. Take the corrupt deal between British arms giant BAE and the impoverished east African country of Tanzania, enabled personally by Mr. Blair. Despite opposition from his cabinet, Mr. Blair insisted that extravagantly expensive military radar be sold to a country that needed none. Who won? BAE got a fat contract. Several Tanzanian officials got fat bribes. And Tony Blair pleasured yet another of the fancy corporate supporters he so cherished. Tanzania, as collateral damage, was further impoverished. Mr. Blair's dedication to African development had major limits.

The moral rot demonstrated at the very top by Mr. Blair swiftly infected his troops. A perverse sense of entitlement overwhelmed the entire political class. The billionaire chair of David Cameron's "new" Tory party, and one of its most generous contributors, pays little taxes at home since his official domicile, conveniently, is not in Britain. But who expects more from the Tories? Far more dishonourable are all the Labour MPs who got caught enriching themselves by shamelessly exploiting House rules that allowed them to rip off the public purse for their personal expenses. The real Labour Party must be hanging its head in shame.

Just when we thought it couldn't get any worse, it did. A few weeks ago, three former senior Blair ministers were exposed selling themselves as lobbyists to U.S. corporations for outrageous amounts of money. The new Lobbygate scandal lived down to the lowest possible expectations anyone might have held for members of a workers' party.

If I had been living in Britain, as I once did, for the first time in my life I would have voted Liberal Democrat, not for the putative left-wing candidate. I wouldn't have been alone. It appears millions of genuine British progressives could not hold their noses Thursday and vote Labour if it meant sanctioning the government's performance over the past 13 years. We can only hope the party will learn the right lessons from its well-deserved repudiation.

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