This week has been great for late 90s/early 2000s comebacks. Not only was it announced that the Nokia 3310 was to be reborn, but also Tony Blair made a return to front line politics. To say that Tony Blair casts a long show over the Labour Party is an understatement. In some ways the history of the Labour Party since 1994 has been the story of how the party responds to Tony Blair. He won three general elections and redefined politics, but he remains a deeply controversial figure amongst party members and the country.
I have a lot of strong feelings about both Tony Blair and Brexit, which he is using to relaunch his political career. However, in this post I will be objective about Blair, his legacy and why he casts such a long shadow over the Labour Party. I will leave some space for my opinions at the end.
The Blair government did a lot of good. It introduced the minimum wage, grew the economy, reduced pensioner poverty (for which pensioners rewarded Labour by becoming more likely to vote Conservative), expanded education opportunities, reduced unemployment and many other progressive accomplishments. Blair was an optimistic break with 18 years of painful Tory rule. For the party, he represents something more than a list of policy accomplishments, bringing to mind a time when Labour led the political debate and made decisions which affected peoples’ lives. In short Blair reminds members of what it was like to be popular.
Blair’s legacy is a break with the orthodoxies that had governed Labour since the Second World War, with the acceptance of free marketing economics. He also ushered in an area of tolerance and social liberalism. The social conservatives of Thatcher’s era were sidelined; Blair’s was a much more inclusive Britain. Blair’s greatest political accomplishment is David Cameron, a man modeled in his own image who changed the Tory party to look more like New Labour. Cameron’s own greatest accomplishment is making same-sex marriage legal, something that would have been unthinkable both in the Tory Party and the country without Blair.
The shadow that Blair casts over the party is that of a successful leader who was followed by a period of decline. It is the inescapable question of “would we be better off with Blair in charge?” Also, “how can we get back to that time when Labour was the dominant force in politics?” Many of the Clause 1 Socialists, who prioritize winning elections, look to Blair as an inspiration of how turn the party back in to the electoral juggernaut it once was.
There are good reasons for disliking Blair; his legacy is not just economic growth and social liberalism. Blair’s blind acceptance of the free market sowed the seeds of the banking crash, from which we have barely recovered. It also lay behind introducing university tuition fees and PFI, a blight on the nation that we will be paying for generations. Rising inequality, falling productivity, the housing crisis, the NHS crisis, deindustrialization, the rise of low paid casual work and many other long term problems either began with
Labour appeared invincible under Blair, but what is the point of complete dominance over politics if you cannot make the difficult decisions and tackle the big issues affecting the country? At the least, there were wasted opportunities. At worst, Blair deliberately ignored key issues because they were politically inconvenient to tackle.
Then there was the Iraq war. I could write a book on Labour and the Iraq War, but to save space I will say that whatever Blair hoped to achieve with the war it was clearly a failure. Iraq, the Middle East and the World are not safer today because of the war. It is almost impossible to find anyone of any political persuasion who thinks, in retrospect, that the war was a good idea. If Iraq had not been such a disaster, and the party was not wracked with guilty for supporting it, then Jeremy Corbyn would not be Labour leader.
Labour Party members may look back on Blair’s time as Prime Minister with misty eyes, but does the rest of the country? 60% of YouGov users rate Blair unfavorably. Many people do not remember the dynamic young Blair that Labour Party members idealise. They remember Blair as the epitome of a disconnected Westminster elite that does not know or care about events beyond central London. Blair is byword for everything that is modern and rubbish in a soulless way. For many he is remembered more for high spending on benefits and increasing immigration than for the minimum wage or winning elections.
Labour’s Brexit policy is a disaster and that is why Blair’s back. The issue is overshadows everything else. It does not matter that Corbyn has good plans for the NHS and housing when Labour is seen as weak on Brexit, immigration and the economy. Blair is the most prominent public figure making arguments against the government, against Brexit and for a change in Labour’s policy.
These arguments need to be made, but I am worried that Blair makes the situation worse and not better. Blair and his time as Prime Minister is so intrinsically linked with everything that is disliked about the EU: high immigration, a disconnected elite, wasting of taxpayers’ money and policy that meddles unnecessarily in people’s lives. The vote to leave the EU was a rejection of everything Blair stood for and a rebellion against his way of doing politics.
Seeing Blair back in the news made me think that this is a man from a different political age. He did not even have a computer in his office for most of his time in Downing Street. The idea of Labour adopting a Blairite platform now seems completely disconnected to the challenges of the present. Global politics is moving away from the views of Blair and people like him. The most obvious example of this the defeat of Hilary Clinton last year by a Republican who stands against everything the Blair/Clinton centrists stood for.
Perhaps Blair is not unlike this week’s other ‘90s throwback, Nokia’s relaunched 3310 phone. It may well find a place in today’s vastly changed mobile phone market, but it can only appeal to a small niche; it can never again command the huge slice of market share that it did in its heyday.
Even if there is a Blair-like figure who can come forward to lead Labour to victory, they are likely to look and behave nothing like Tony Blair. His way of doing politics is over. His re-launch is an attempt to bring them back as much as it is an attempt to return himself to the spotlight.
Blair casts a long shadow over Labour and it was one the party needs to come to terms with. However, Blair is the past and I want Labour to be focused on its future. You can learn from the past, but you can never go back to it.