Owen Jones: Time to demolish the Blair myth

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The Independent Online

You will struggle to find more devout supporters of Tony Blair than those at the top of the Conservative Party. "I can't hold it back any more: I love Tony!" Michael Gove once exclaimed. David Cameron famously described himself as "the heir to Blair", and senior Tories refer to him as "the Master". As Blair took to the Leveson Inquiry this week, his admirers went a bit weak at the knees. He is certainly an exceptional public performer. Along with Cameron, he is rare among prime ministers for his polished charisma.

But the Tories really love Blair not because of his undoubted political skills, but because they think he was "one of us", albeit trapped by the Labour Party. And, in reality, Labour's current opposition to what the Coalition is doing is hobbled by the fact that Blair laid the foundation for so much of it.

Take the privatisation of the NHS. Under Blair, private sector involvement began to flourish and a commercial directorate was set up in the Department of Health. Gove is now expanding Blair's Academy schools programme, and free schools are a logical extension of them. The Coalition trebled the tuition fees that Blair introduced. Across public services, Blair expanded the role of the private sector – though not as fast as he would have liked, thanks to internal party opposition.

But Cameron is taking this "reform" (the Blairite and Tory code word for "privatisation") ever further. In his memoirs, Blair effectively backed Cameron's cuts programme, and argued that Conservatives would "be at their best when they are allowed to get on with it – as with reforms in education". "They will be at their worst" not when their cuts would be hammering communities Labour exists to represent – but rather when they were first to compromise with "the Old Labour instincts of the Lib Dems". If we were to define "Cameronism", it would surely be Blairism liberated from the shackles of the Labour Party.

Blair accepted the fundamentals of the Thatcher settlement: low taxes on the wealthy, weak trade unions, the dominance of the market over all. His great departure from Thatcherism was a desperately needed boost to spending on public services. Nothing remains of this as a principle in British politics. It is left to arch-critics of Blair like myself to defend a big chunk of his government's economic record from his own supporters. And contrast how the poorest fared with previous Labour governments. Four years before the crash, the income of the bottom third began declining. Under the Labour governments of the 1960s – which Blair delighted in defining himself against – the poorest 10 per cent saw their real incomes surge by 26 per cent, compared with a 16 per cent rise in median incomes.

His defenders argue that Labour could not have won without him. It is a myth. Black Wednesday in 1992 finished off the Tories, and Labour enjoyed subsequent massive poll leads under John Smith. Of the five million votes that Labour lost in its 13 years in power, four million went awol under Blair's leadership.

It wasn't "Middle England" that deserted the party. According to Ipsos MORI, while middle-class professional support for Labour declined by five per cent between 1997 and 2010, support among skilled workers plummeted by 21 per cent.

His influence is certainly "very firmly felt" among his adoring Tory fans, as they build on the foundations he laid. But Labour's leaders would be best advised to leave the swooning to Cameron's acolytes. Blair was fortunate to lead Labour just as Tory Britain imploded; but the old Blairite formula offers nothing to those who want a real alternative to the Conservative crusade.