Tony Blair was right about some things, however uncomfortable that makes you feel

In trashing the legacy of Tony Blair you are essentially sticking two fingers up at the electorate.

In trashing the legacy of Tony Blair you are essentially sticking two fingers up at the electorate

I think it’s rather optimistic to write, as Conor Pope did on Labour List yesterday, that Tony Blair’s latest speech was “his biggest endorsement yet of Ed Miliband’s leadership of the Labour Party”.

The speech certainly wasn’t hostile; I simply think ‘endorse’ is the wrong word. Blair is of the Labour party and will back the party whoever is leader. The real question is whether he thinks they’re doing the right thing, which is where yesterday’s speech was more mixed.

Judging by the speech, Blair certainly appears to accept that things have moved on from the New Labour years and that 2014 requires a different agenda to 1997. The centre ground has shifted and therefore Labour’s agenda should shift – so not that dissimilar to Ed Miliband’s position, actually.

The difference between the two is found in the degrees to which they believe the centre ground has moved. Blair appears less confident than Miliband that it has moved significantly – as much as the former recognises a change in the political weather, he also cautions against a belief that the public has “fallen back in love with the state”.

“In the end, parties can please themselves or please the people,” Blair warns, adding that “Old ideas in new clothing are still old ideas, and are visibly so when undressed by reality.”

And yet for a not insubstantial section of the Labour Party, anything which Tony Blair now says is almost certain to be drowned out by shrill cries of ‘illegal war’ and snide remarks about the former Labour leader’s ‘fortune’.

Not only has this replacement of thought with slogans become a rather tedious, but it’s also dangerous for Labour: dangerous because there are lessons for the left in the successes of New Labour as well as the failures, as should be obvious.

And despite the naysayers, there were successes.

We all know about Iraq yet we seem to have forgotten Kosovo and Sierra Leone – examples of humanitarian military interventions which worked and worked well. There’s also Blair’s work on the peace process in Northern Ireland, which was started by the Tories but made into something concrete and lasting by Labour.

PFI is lamented at least in part because people have now forgotten what it was like when schools lessons were taught in portacabins. Today the left champions the living wage forgetting that prior to Blair even the minimum wage was considered a left-wing pipe dream.

Workers’ rights also improved under Labour and shortly before the 2010 election the Equality Act was passed, which enshrined in law a public sector commitment to reducing the gap between the rich and poor.

No less importantly, New Labour also ensured that the left triumphed in the culture ‘war’.

When Labour came to office in 1997 the homophobic Section 28 was still on the statute books, preventing local authorities from ‘promoting homosexuality’. By the time Labour left office in 2010 the government of Gordon Brown was championing civil partnerships and had paved the way for David Cameron’s gay marriage bill.

Whatever you think of New Labour, this is not a record that can be crudely dismissed as ‘Thatcherism-lite’. The Blairite ‘third-way’ is also as much the consensus today in Miliband’s circle as it is Blair’s. There are certainly differences in emphasis, but no serious person in the Labour Party wants full state control of the economy. It didn’t work and the world moved on. In that respect at least, Miliband is a die-hard Blairite.

There is a startling statistic that those who wish to wipe the New Labour years from record ought to consider: it is now 40 years since a Labour leader (excluding Blair) last won a General Election. 40 years. Let that sink in for a minute. The last time an election was won by Labour-minus-Blair Leonid Brezhnev was leader of the Soviet Union and Richard Nixon was about to be impeached. That’s how long ago it was.

If we take anything from the Blair years (as I hope I’ve persuaded you that we should) it ought to be this: being radical means being in power, not sitting on the side-lines carping. Eschewing pragmatism in favour of ideological purity is a luxury afforded only to that class of people who are sheltered from the effects of Tory governments by a thick layer of money.

Russell Brand may enjoy telling people not to vote, but then he’s probably never had to rely on a Sure Start centre; and he definitely doesn’t have to rely on the existence of a minimum wage to make ends meet.

A desire to move on from the Tony Blair years is one thing, and is perfectly understandable. But to seek to completely trash Blair’s legacy is to essentially stick two fingers up at the electorate: it was they who voted New Labour into office in three successive elections, after all.

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40 Responses to “Tony Blair was right about some things, however uncomfortable that makes you feel”

  1. robertcp

    Yes okay. Miliband appears to have learned the correct lessons from the New Labour era, which thankfully is now history.

  2. swatnan

    I wouldn’t trust Tony not to change his allegiance in the same way as he changes his socks and religion. I was at Progress, and yes Tony, was gushing forth all the achievements, but I still felt Labour could have done two and a half times more if it hadn’t been so focused on presentation. Politics is not just about winning elections, although it does help if you do.
    He never quite got round to answering my question on ditching this 2 State solution nonsense for a One Stae Palestine, along the NI model. And I doubt if anyone believed his answer to the FT that his assets are just a few million; my guestimate vis £20m, which could pay off all the debts of the Labour Party and leave enough change to get EdM elected. Lets see him put his money where his mouth is.

  3. chris g

    nice one no matter what we think of Tony he was better than most and did do a lot for the betterment of the working class

  4. Kryten2k35

    Like him or not, Blair’s government oversaw the biggest rise in living standards for the lower and working classes in a generation. For that, I will always be thankful.

    Even post-Iraq war, I would’ve preferred Blair to these Tory scoundrels in government.

  5. Leon Wolfeson

    “I still felt Labour could have done two and a half times more if it hadn’t been so focused on presentation.”

    Agreed. Also, they never fixed many of the fundermental issues such as the rate of house building.

  6. Leon Wolfeson

    Er? Miliband is racing to outdo the Tories in many areas!

  7. Leon Wolfeson

    The real story is not this. It’s how New Labour bled core votes (to “not voting” through the elections. And how Miliband, every time he moves right, bleeds votes.

    Why are you trying to set Labour up to lose? That’s how I see it, period.
    If you can’t hang onto basic ideology like not letting people starve…

  8. Tezza

    And now thanks to the financial mismanagement of Blair’s government we will see the biggest fall in living standards for the lower and working classes in a generation.

  9. Tezza

    I am sure the Iraqi working class completely agree with you!

  10. Tezza

    Yes better than most other tyrants in the last 50 years. At least he didnt start a world war. Although with the shit he is spewing at the moment it seems he wants to start a new Holy War against muslims. A lot of lives are being saved by him not being in power

  11. Tezza

    Basic labour ideology is that of the vested interests of trade unions.

    That is not representative of the people as most people are not in the RMT or NUT.

    Milliband is correct to move away from the unions.

  12. Asteri

    Nu Labour was not ‘Thatcherism lite’ it was a continuation of Thatcherism, doing things even that woman would not have dared do. The whole culture of unpaid internships and zero hour contracts with maximum power to the employer is a result of Thatcherism influence on Blairism. What did Labour do to stop this or reverse the Tory policy of privatizing public services? Britain becoming one of the most unequal nations with one of the most unhappy populations in the western world is hardly a great achievement for the left. None of the Thatcherite legacy has been reversed simply because Labour was too terrified to confront the institutions Thatcher had empowered. Labour spent 13 years sucking up to corporate power, the Murdoch empire and the City of London and for what? On top of all that they shared the Tories hostility to electoral reform and devolved local government. No wonder the likes of Gove are open lovers of Blair.

  13. robertcp

    I am inclined to give Miliband the benefit of the doubt and hopefully we will find out if I am right after next year’s election.

  14. Kryten2k35

    Oh, yes, of course, because Blair’s government caused the global financial crisis. Keyword: Global.

    And, let’s not forget that the financial sector put such a great case for deregulation forward, the Tories fell over themselves to vote in favour.

    In fact, most governments went ahead and deregulated their financial sectors.

    The only people responsible are banks.

  15. Kryten2k35

    “A lot of lives are being saved by him not being in power”

    Care to elaborate?

  16. sarntcrip

    ALOT OF ASSUMTIONS MADE ABOUT THE LIFE OF BRAND

  17. sarntcrip

    PERHAPS BLAIR WAS OF HIS TIME,HE HAS HAD HIS TIME NEW LABOUR SOLUTIONS
    WILL NOT DEAL WITH TODAY’S DIFFICULTIES OUR BROKEN ECONOMIC AND SOCIAL INSTITUTIONS REQUIRE A DOSE OF REAL LABOUR TO BRING THEM AND THE WEALTH OF THE NATION BACK INTO A PROPER ALIGNMENT WHERE IT IS NOT ONLY THE HUGE CORPORARTONS AND VERY WEALTHY WHO BENEFIT FROM ECONOMIC POLICY

  18. sarntcrip

    I’M SURE THE LIBYAN WORKING CLASS AND THAT OF MALI ARE GREATFUL FOR THE MEDDLING OF THE CAMERON GOVERNMENT

  19. sarntcrip

    HIS EDUCATION POLICY OF 50% TO UNIVERSITY WAS A TAD OVER DONE BUT GAVE HUNDREDS OF THOUSANDS THE CHANCE TO GO TO UNI THEY WOULD NEVER OTHERWISE GOT

  20. sarntcrip

    LABOUR WAS STARTED BY TE TRADE UNIONS SO THAT IS HARDLY A SURPRISE
    AND AN ETHOS OF FIGHTING FOR DECENT WORKING CONDITIONS AND FAIR PAY IS NOT AN ETHOS TO BE ASHAMED OF PR MOVE AWAY FROM

  21. sarntcrip

    SMARM OVER SUBSTANCE TOGETHER WITH AN ATTITUDE OF KEEP THEM FRIGHTENED AND IN THEIR PLACE BY DEMONISING SECTIONS BULLYING OTHERS OF OUR OWN SOCIETY THERE WERE ONLY EVER A HANDFUL OF FOOD BANKS UNDER LABOUR WHEREAS NOW THERE S ONE OR MORE IN EVERY TOWN AND CITY IN THE COUNTRY AS WAS NEVER SEE BY A LABOUR GOVERNMENT EVER

  22. Asteri

    Labour’s university policy was always hidden behind the idea that it was progressive and empowering for the working classes. Which it wasn’t. If they cared so much about the underprivileged they would not have carried on the Tory’s policy of getting rid of apprenticeships and undercutting the jobs market to attract desperate foreign minimum wage labour, which is what corporate interests wanted. Since there were hardly any job opportunities for school leavers, encouraging the university option was a convenient way to hide youth unemployment. Far from being empowering, the result has been to devalue university education and only strengthen the position of the elite universities. Yet again its the already wealthy, privileged and the well connected who come out the winners as they still have the advantages.

  23. Sean Lynch

    I can’t believe you cite PFI as one of the things Blair was right about. We borrowed just over £54bn and will repay just over £301bn – http://www.theguardian.com/news/datablog/2012/jul/05/pfi-contracts-list. That’s an interest rate of 557%, albeit we do get some other services for that money. Even so, Wonga would be embarrassed to charge those interest rates. New Labour could easily have let departments, councils, or event central government issue bonds – like lots of European countries do – to acquire the funds to build new hospitals, school and train stations. We would have paid back a fraction of the cost.

  24. Leon Wolfeson

    I’m inclined to listen to what he and his shadow ministers say, and he’s been working very hard to come across as just as bad, overall, from my perspective.

  25. Leon Wolfeson

    You ignore where labour came from. You ignore what is in workers interests. You ignore the left-wing voters with nobody to vote for.

    Keep saying moving right and away from the workers is good, though.

  26. Leon Wolfeson

    Repeating far right policy on blaming the other?
    When that’s been debunked repeatedly?

    Sigh.

  27. robertcp

    We shall see unless the voters decide to give the Con-Dems another five years.

  28. Leon Wolfeson

    It’s labour’s to lose, and they are at present.

  29. Leon Wolfeson

    It’s labour’s to lose, and they are at present.

  30. Leon Wolfeson

    Keep blaming Blair for everything, when it’s your beloved Tories whose austerity is smashing this country’s economy. You can’t take responsibility, no, that’s not the done thing eh?

  31. Brian Robinson

    James

    I accept that we should try to look at Blair’s legacy in the round and not focus exclusively on Iraq. Indeed I’m sure we will do so – in good time.

    However have you read any of Thomas’s Piketty’s recent book ‘Capital in the 21st Century’? He seems to place Blair’s Labour years firmly within the same economic time-line as Thatcher’s Tories; with minimal changes to social capital and similar outcomes to tax and market controls. Old ideas in new clothing are still old ideas BUT it is important not to throw them out simply because they are old – as I am now, having been a Labour party member for over 40 years.

    On balance I believe Blair missed an opportunity, with 10 years in power, to radically shift the economic and social narrative in the UK away from a preoccupation with monetarism towards a new discussion about social reform. Labour could have reversed Thatcher’s confused narrative about society (or lack of it – as she saw it) towards a more egalitarian, cooperative approach. Instead Blair continued to espouse the hyper-competitive, freedom-obessed, individualistic view of human beings which, I believe, led directly to the 2008-14 crash.

    There is many things to learn from the Blair years but avoiding ‘old ideas’ – your frame – is not one of them

  32. treborc1

    But actually the rich returned to the top of the richest list in 100 years and the poorest became a dam sight poorer . The riches went back to the Victorian period of being filthy rich under labour while the poorest sadly lost a dam sight more. It was Thatcher that actually made the poor better off. hard to believe but true.

  33. treborc1

    W4ell of course it hard to know which Tory party your talking about these days with Miliband agreeing with most of the cuts. and austerity

  34. Leon Wolfeson

    No, I don’t get confused over names, thanks.

  35. bugedone

    The Blair government did a lot of good, as you say. It wasn’t all TB though: Brown was probably more responsible for the extra money to the health service. Criticism of PFI is with PFI, not the money being spent to rebuild or refurbish crumbling schools and hospitals.

    On the other hand I do think Blair (and Mo Mowlem) deserve a lot more credit for Northern Ireland. It is true that progress had been made under Major, including a cease fire from the IRA and Loyalists, but a lot of that had gone into reverse by 97 when Major needed the Ulster Unionists to keep him in power. Tony Blair helped fix that.

    But for me it was the post-9/11 authoritarianism that caused me to stop supporting him. “The rules of the game have changed” he told us, who were previously unaware there even was a game or what those rules might have been. We all had to agree to ID cards and being surveilled 24/7 by GCHQ, MI5 and Special Branch or we were with the terrorists. Tourists having their cameras confiscated by anti-terrorism police; peaceful protesters being rounded up and harrassed; protest being banned from within 1km of Parliament within permission from the Met Police. Iraq be blowed, that’s the reason I (and many others) turned against him.

  36. robertcp

    You sum up Blair’s legacy very well.

  37. robertcp

    I had forgotten that the later Blair era was so bonkers!

  38. Kryten2k35

    Miliband has no say over the DWP or Budget.

  39. Kryten2k35

    No, that’s happened under the last 5 years of Tory government. That didn’t happen under Blair.

  40. Peter Stanford

    Blair brought peace to Northern Ireland. We need him now in the middle East to bring peace there.

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