David Farrar
The week in politics with centre-right blogger David Farrar

David Farrar: Blair had lessons for both National and Labour

Tony Blair spoke at Eden Park recently. Photo / Herald on Sunday
Tony Blair spoke at Eden Park recently. Photo / Herald on Sunday

Tony Blair served as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland for 10 years, and led the UK Labour Party for 13 years.

Prior to his leadership the UK Labour Party was a socialist party, dedicated to nationalising the means of production, distribution and exchange. Blair turned Labour into New Labour and led them to election victories in 1997, 2001 and 2005. In 1997 his majority of 179 seats was the largest ever for Labour. He lost only six seats in 2001.

Blair spoke of the reforms he introduced in the UK, in both education and health. They were bitterly opposed by various vested interests, including doctors and teachers unions. He had a very funny story about how in the midst of the health reforms, he had to have an operation, and just as the anaesthetist was about to put him under, he declared his total opposition to Blair's health reforms. Not the most comforting way to skilfully go off to sleep for an operation.

Blair made the strong case that reform is continual. That even though the public and vested interests might not like reform, it is essential to keep it up. It was at this point I was wishing the entire Cabinet was there, listening to Blair.

The middle of a global financial crisis might not be the best time to embark upon reforms of various sectors, but I think the time has come where National can do better than be more competent and pleasant managers of Labour's health, education and welfare systems. The Government is thankfully looking seriously at reforming the welfare system, but the education system for example badly needs a decentralised performance pay system for teachers. Will National be content with national standards (which are entirely laudable), or will they propose more substantive reforms?

Blair talked of Clement Attlee, who led the Labour Party from 1935 to 1955, and served as Prime Minister from 1945 to 1951. He said that Attlee would find much of today's society almost incomprehensible, as we have changed so much in 60 years. However he suggested the one area he would still feel comfortable is the public service, as their operating model hasn't changed much in all that time.

But it was not just the National Cabinet that I wanted to be there, but also the Labour front bench. Blair spoke with passion (and remember he was a Labour leader) that a return to big Government and a retreat from market economies is not the lesson we take from the global financial crisis. He skilfully made the case for differentiating between one off fiscal stimulus to stabilise an economy during the midst of a crisis, and ongoing government spending.

Blair made it quite clear that the "old labour" way of higher taxes, bigger state, more spending was both bad for the economy but also electorally unpalatable. He said that if Labour had campaigned as "New Labour" at the last election, they might have got a different election result.

If New Zealand Labour genuinely grasped the Blair model of not growing the state, reforming public services, modernising our education funding system, then they'd be surprised at how well they could do. And they even have the ideal person to champion this - he was a devoted disciple of Roger Douglas in the 1980s, when Douglas did much of what Blair also did. Phil Goff needs to reclaim his inner reformer, and portray Labour as the party of genuine reform willing to tackle scared cows such as performance pay for teachers.

* David Farrar is a centre-right blogger and affiliated with the National Party. A disclosure statement on his political views can be found here.

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