Saturday, 25 September 2010

If you want to learn from Tony, don’t listen to him now

Labour’s new leader could learn rather more from Tony Blair’s success in opposition and his strong first term in office than what he now writes about it with hindsight. This is my opening editorial in the Fabian Review conference special, along with our cartoonist Teal's inimitable take on the Blair memoir. (Image used by permission of Adrian Teal: please respect copyright; for permissions, please contact The full Fabian Review issue can be read online and we look forward to seeing members and Next Left readers during our fringe programme at Manchester Town Hall from Sunday.


Tony Blair was Labour’s most electorally successful leader because he knew that it takes a broad electoral coalition to govern Britain. That ‘big tent’ contained multitudes; his talent for creative alliances eventually stretching beyond rational comprehension. How strange then that the ex-Prime Ministerial memoir now takes such pride in shrinking it almost to a defiant minority of one.

Tony wanted Paddy’s Lib Dems in his government; now he fears their “old Labour” instincts, suggesting the Coalition may be boldest and best when the Tories get their way. Jon Cruddas, a Downing Street staffer in Blair’s first term, offers a beguiling “reheated Bennism”. Even Alastair Campbell is “old Labour on policy”, especially education. At this rate, Blair may prove to be the man to find a winning coalition for old Labour after all.

Blair’s advice to “move not a millimetre from New Labour” is a ‘stop all the clocks’ political recipe which the early moderniser himself would have rejected. New Labour won two landslides, before squeaking home a third time thanks to Michael Howard’s unelectability. In 2010, we ran as New Labour and we lost as New Labour, as Peter Mandelson could testify.

Labour’s new leader could learn rather more from Blair’s success in opposition and his strong first term in office than what he writes about it with hindsight.

The original New Labour coalition united most Labour opinion and reached beyond it. Though very cautious, Labour ’97 did not run from popular causes when these might sound leftish. Being emphatically pro-business did not stop New Labour voicing much greater anger about unearned rewards from ‘fat cat’ pay in privatised utilities than could be heard over the financial crash a decade later. Nor about putting a windfall tax on privatised utilities, or facing down vociferous political, press and business opposition to the minimum wage; or, at least once, making a transparent case that more NHS spending had to be paid for from tax. Establishment opinion opposed devolution and freedom of information. Each of those fights did shift the political centre leftwards, in ways which endure in 2010, even as other issues shift right.

These reflected an argument about what was wrong with Britain: too divided, not enough responsibility (including at the top), too little sense of what we shared in common. It was (all too quickly) after 1997 that values-based arguments took second place to a narrower appeal to specific electoral segments, where mythologised caricatures of Mondeo Man and Worcester Woman represented life in the ‘middle’.

Labour’s new leader would do well to look at how Blair – just as Cameron has – introduced himself to the public in broad brushstrokes, resisting demands to flesh out policy detail too early. (It is necessary later, as Cameron rather neglected.) Gordon Brown’s speeches were always ‘policy rich’ from his first days yet never articulated what his overall argument for ‘change’ was about. This lesson applies now to deficit reduction as much as any other area: Labour must first argue why it would make different choices, then present credible alternatives. That requires signposts and symbolic examples, but not a shadow spending review.

The new leader must now address the country – yet must act urgently in the party too. David Miliband has argued that “party reform stopped on May 2nd 1997”. Labour needs a deep cultural overhaul of how we do politics if members and supporters are to again believe their voices count, and be mobilised as a campaigning force. If that doesn’t happen before 12 months are up, it will never happen at all.

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