“In defence of Blairism, by Tony Blair.” It is hardly surprising that, with a title like this, Tony Blair’s latest venture into political commentary features plenty of his trademark self-indulgent, self-pitying excuses. It is likewise not surprising that Blair has been reduced to writing his own history. After all, who will stick their professional reputation on the line in defence of this man, who bears joint responsibility for two disastrous wars and has become, albeit unfairly, blamed for the worst financial crisis in recent memory?
Nevertheless, I do believe that, beneath all of the hand-wringing and blame-dodging present in Blair’s latest treatise, there is an undeniable kernel of truth to what Blair is saying here that people will inevitably ignore because of who is writing it rather than what they are saying.
It pains me to admit it, but Tony Blair is right that this fixation with principles and ideals is damaging the Labour Party. It is obviously not the case that the principles themselves are the issue, and indeed a Labour with no principles would not be Labour at all. However, Blair is absolutely right to point out that principles should act as a guide for practical action, not as an ideological anchor that impedes progress and prevents debate; ideals should inform rather than dictate the policy of Labour.
And of course people will always say that there is no point in victory for the sake of victory, of becoming your enemy to defeat it. There is, of course, a certain truth to this – Labour always has and always must offer a better way than the Conservatives.
However, moving away from a traditional socialist position doesn’t doom Labour to simply offering a slightly different shade of blue, nor does it doom it to the timid, insipid, centrist-for-the-sake-of-centrist brand of politics offered by the likes of Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper; Tony Blair is right to point out that New Labour was radically different from the Tories. For one, the minimum wage was a truly radical policy that only Labour could have introduced, with the Tories issuing dire warnings of mass unemployment should the National Minimum Wage Act go ahead. Furthermore, the Human Rights Act and Freedom of Information Act also show that within a moderate and realist party, you can still introduce powerful policies and offer a better way than the Tories; the current Conservative government has tried to undermine and repeal both acts
Moreover, whilst massive investment into the NHS and the education system may have failed to tackle the root problems both these systems face – the strain of an ageing population on the former and the anti-meritocratic nature of the latter – it did nevertheless improve upon the quality and availability of healthcare, as well as the GCSE pass rate.
These achievements cannot be forgotten, because they embody what Labour is truly about, and always has been about – helping people.
This cannot be achieved outside of government. As Blair highlights, the moral purpose of Labour is of little worth unless it can be applied practically. And as he also highlights, sometimes it takes more courage to compromise on ideals in the face of reality than it does to cling to them from the safety cushion that is protest, back-bench politics.
And the political wilderness of the backbenches, where protest reigns over governance and idealism over realism, is where Jeremy Corbyn has spent his entire political career. Even Michael Foot, the closest parallel to Corbyn in modern politics, had extensive experience in high-level politics when he became leader of the party.
By comparison, Tony Blair is the most electorally successful leader that Labour has ever had in its 115 year existence. Hate him all you like, but who knows? Perhaps the Labour leader with three general elections under his belt knows a bit about how to win them.
And this is the point that has to be made, because any leader who fails to win an election will ultimately be judged a failure. Unfortunately, for all his principles, the truth is that Jeremy Corbyn is simply not capable of leading an opposition to the Tories. Already, he is leading a capitulation to it. His brand of politics is simply too disparate with those of the electorate for Corbyn to ever lead Labour to an electoral victory. Last month’s ComRes poll puts Labour down two points, and although the Oldham by-election (a result that was never in doubt) has papered over the cracks, it will do nothing to solve the irrevocable disconnect between Corbyn’s ideas and those of the electorate.
Labour lost the last election for two simple reasons: people couldn’t see Ed Miliband as Prime Minister, and people didn’t trust Labour with the economy. How replacing Miliband with a well-meaning but ineffectual, life-long backbencher with poor dress sense and poorer leadership qualities will remedy the first of these problems is questionable. What is not up for debate, however, is that the naïve, anti-business economics of Corbyn and John McDonnell will not remedy this broken trust in economic matters.
“All of it is about applying values with an open mind; not boasting of our values as a way of avoiding the hard thinking the changing world insists upon.”
In such a circumstance, Labour will not win a general election. And through failing to make the compromises necessary to oust the Conservatives – who it must be remembered are also travelling on an increasingly worrying right-leaning trajectory – Labour will not be fighting for the people who need it, it will be abandoning them.
If there is one final point worth closing on, it is this: the principled opposition of the 1980s did not further the cause of left-wing politics, rather it crippled it. The “no compromise with the electorate” approach adopted by Michael Foot allowed Margaret Thatcher to dominate British politics for a wretched decade, and has left us with a country still living in her shadow.
Perhaps some of the changes Thatcher introduced were necessary. The World was moving towards a global economy; British industry was faltering; our economy was flagging. Had Labour properly engaged with these concerns, had properly respected the electorate and the realities of our democracy, perhaps they would have been able to offer their own solutions. Perhaps they would have been able to oversee necessary change without unnecessary cruelty.
What was not necessary, however, was the crippling of the trade unions; the antagonism of the North and of Scotland; the homophobic cruelty of section 28; the privatisation of our rails; the rampant deregulation of our financial sector facilitating the global financial crisis of 2007.
These were the consequences of the last time Labour chose principles over governance, with Labour’s inability to truly oppose the Conservatives in those Thatcher years felt now more than ever – look at how far the Tories have gone already in just the first year of majority government.
Of course, Blair himself would defend and continue some of these Thatcherite policies – there is no doubt that lessons need to be learnt from the failures of New Labour. However, we cannot also forget the mistakes that preceded it, for repeating the mistakes of the 80s is not a vision of hope – it is a delusion. Labour needs to discover how to honour its past without becoming trapped in it, and therefore learn from both its successes and failures to thus truly embrace the modern era. The Britain Jeremy Corbyn envisions died in the 1980s; Labour cannot let its ghost haunt the party any longer.
GCSE and A Level results – Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham/JQC