Wednesday 23 February 2011

Is Tony Blair secretly backing the No2AV cause?

That intriguing claim is made by Benedict Brogan, in a post which seems unnecessarily rude about some of the stalwart members of the Labour tribe who find themselves supporting the No campaign. As Brogan blogs:

Conservatives are contemplating the prospect of defeat. The penny has dropped. To begin with, they have noticed, rather late in the day, that they are locked in an embarrassing coalition with some of the most unattractive dinosaurs of the Labour era. The No campaign says that Lord Prescott, Lord Reid and Margaret Beckett are needed to persuade Labour voters to oppose AV, but plenty of Tories worry that their presence on the platforms and the TV screens will be a toxic reminder of a failed administration that was booted out barely 12 months ago. It is said that the campaign has even turned down a discreet offer of help from Tony Blair, for fear that he might make things worse.


I have no further information about how Blair plans to vote on AV - and whether the David Cameron-backed campaign would really turn down his support for fear that the ex-PM's support could further toxify their campaign.

It seems to me unlikely that Blair could get to May 5th without even indicating how he plans to cast his own vote. Given that Blair is now a rather polarising public figure, different people will have different views about whether Blair's support would in fact help or harm the Yes or No cause. (On balance, I would guess that a Blair intervention for No could help to legitimise a No vote with traditional Labour voters, who like him more than left-liberal activists who are already on the other side, though it would doubtless also offer the Yes side a chance to ramp up a "change" message against the same old politicians).

But however those tactical considerations come out, and whatever Tony may now think, it seems to me clear that the intellectually correct "Real/Continuity Blairite" position in the AV referendum is a Yes vote. If Jack Straw can be Yes to AV, surely Tony Blair could too. The thinking end of post-Blairism - such as Andrew Adonis, Peter Mandelson, Roger Liddle, James Purnell, Phil Collins, Progress et al - is strongly on the Yes side of the argument, often in alliance with many unusual allies on the Labour left.

But the post-political Blair of The Journey is a more conservative figure, who often eschews positions which Young Blair thought both popular and right in 1995.

If he is against AV, this would be a further example. Donald MacIntyre writes in his Mandelson biography of the first unofficial/authorised text of Blairism - the Mandelson/Liddle "The Blair Revolution" of 1995 that Blair was happy to be associated with AV at the beginning of his party leadership.

"Blair also approved the passage recommending a change to the Alternative Vote electoral system - which implies that he had already started to make a mental leap to this halfway stage towards a more proportional system. Mandelson would subsequently say that electoral reform was one of the few points of difference between Blair and himself; but the idea was Liddle's. Mandelson's ignorance of electoral systems was almost total"

But nor would it be so surprising for Blair to now have a different gut instinct about electoral reform. For he would always have preferred a Lab-Lib cooption where electoral reform was not the necessary price of consummating the dalliance.

That was because Blair was particularly suspicious of the argument of Robin Cook and external voices like David Marquand that this could help to root Labour more firmly on the centre-left. On this view, electoral reform risked becoming an alternative to ultra-modernisation and what he saw as the essential price of an electable Labour Party.

Blair also sets out in The Journey his view of why he thinks bridging the Lab-Lab divide was "absolutely desirable and entirely worthy, [but] entirely beyond reach". Essentially, Blair had become a pluralism-sceptic by the end of his time in office, essentially because of his fear that the need to have broader and cross-party support would make strong Blair-style visionary leadership more difficult:

My fear, amply borne out by events when the LibDems ended up opposing our public service reforms on what were basically Old Labour grounds - however they tried to dress it up - was that while we could agree on the easy stuff - or, if not easy, the stuff that didn't touch voters' immediate lives - they would shy away from the painful but thoroughly necessary changes in schools, hospitals, pensions and welfare, which most directly touched voters' lives, In other words, for me, the question was: is this cooperation for real? In the end, I'm afraid it wasn't, not through a lack of good intentions or good faith on Paddy's part - he was totally straight about it throughout - but because of what I thought was their lack of the necessary fibre to govern. In the ultimate analysis, the LibDems seemed happier as the 'honest' critics ... It will be fascinating to see whether the coalition conceived after the 2010 coalition holds. It may, since the LibDem desire for electoral reform is so intrinsic to them.

For Blair to vote no to AV would be one further final disavowal of the Blair-Ashdown project, particularly when the vote is on AV and not even the more proportional majoritarian system of AV+

What we can say is that the early, popular and pluralist Blair would have been very confident about the Alternative Vote and that the later Blair wariness reflects a view that increased public pressure on MPs under electoral reform would have made it harder to do things in power which proved unpopular, but that he believed were right.


Or as post-political Blair puts it himself in The Journey (p 659).

The difference between the TB of 1997 and the TB of 2007 was this: faced with this opposition across such a broad spectrum in 1997, I would have tacked to get the wind back behind me. Now I was not doing it. I was prepared to go full into it if I thought it was the only way to reach my destination. 'Being in touch' with opinion was no longer the lodestar. 'Doing what was right' had replaced it.


Paul Prentice said...

Why shouldn't Ben Brogan be rude about Labour dinosaurs? He's a Telegraph hack after all...

He's right on this of course - defeat for the No camp is a highly likely possibility and the image of Labour stalwarts teaming up with 'old' style Tories is not an appealing one for the electorate. Everything about that front for the No campaign just screams 'old politics'.

Anonymous said...

Having passed 2 laws which can effectively abolish elections without discussion in Parliament*, I think it's quite a stretch to suggest that Blair believes even slightly in democracy.

And yes, this would place him firmly in the No camp.

*Civil Contingencies Act (Part 2) and Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act.

T.N.T. said...

Tony Blair's "journey" in politics has been from moderate conservatism to hardcore Conservatism... so it's no surprise that the guy is a reactionary on electoral reform along with anything else. If I were running No2AV the last thing I would want is this toxic figure joining a desperate campaign to drag it down further.

But then, No2AV have made tactical errors about everything so far in their campaign, so why stop now? I fully expect the Blair permatan to be wheeled onto stage in the No cause sometime soon.