Tony Blair talks candidly about New Labour, devolution and winning elections

When Charles Clarke met his old boss with academic Toby James, the ex-PM was as brazen as ever

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Indy Politics

TOBY JAMES: By what criteria do you think we should evaluate party leaders in Britain? Does the need to win elections force leaders into trade-offs between achieving bigger visions and staying in office?

TONY BLAIR: Well, I think that there will always be something in politics about being sufficiently competent in the business of politics so that you are able to win, and that will involve compromises, trade-offs and so on. But I don’t think that is what defines leadership. What defines leadership is the ability to set a clear direction and to follow it – overcoming those obstacles. For me, the thing about leadership is that you may need to engage in compromises, but those compromises should be tactical. You should never be compromising the big strategic objectives of your government. Otherwise, why are you there?

My theory of politics today is that leadership is very, very difficult because of the noise – the wall of noise (conventional media, multiplied by social media) – and leaders often find it difficult to work out how they lead because there are so many pressures on them not to take difficult decisions to push their country forward. But my theory is that the public in fact understands that is what leadership is about – and wants it.

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Tony Blair meets troops as he arrives in Basra for a visit to British soldiers in Iraq (AFP)

There is also another phenomenon, which is very different from the past: parties have become more partisan at the same time as the public has become less partisan. You see this in the US; you see this in the UK. One test is, therefore: are leaders prepared to get above their party? They have got to lead them and they have got to be with them and so on, but, in the end, the people don’t want a party leader, they want a leader of the country.

The single most important element of leadership in today’s world is an ability to shape and change and form a country in a way that gives it a sense of what it is for the future. You can say that about virtually any country in the world today. A really important thing for a country is that it has got to know its place in the world. It is what, while I was in government, I used to call the “What’s it all about, Alfie?” question. What are we trying to do here? For a country like Britain, what are its strengths? They are its creativity, the English language, its history – and its people are, on the whole, pretty decent, strong-minded and enterprising. So how do you then create a domestic policy agenda that allows those attributes to develop? That is why the education agenda is so important in a country like the UK.

The other question is: how do you go out and form alliances in the world that help to maximise your influence and power around the attributes that you have? This is why being anti-immigration is so crazy for a country like Britain, because if you are a creative, open-minded nation, then that is a resource. And to be isolationist in foreign policy is a disaster, because the whole point of your USP is that you are out there in the world.

My point about British politics at the moment is that the kind of, what I would call, strong centre-ground position is not reflected among the political parties as much as it is among the public. What is the role of the leader in those circumstances? It is to try to bridge that divide.

Now, maybe I was lucky. One of the things I often wonder about is: what if I had been leader of the Labour Party when they had spent just four years in opposition? It might have been a different task! After 18 years of opposition, all but the dumbest could work out that we were obviously doing something wrong. So the space was there for someone to say: “Look, I know where we are going; we are going this way.” And it seemed to work; people were more or less happy to go virtually anywhere.

CHARLES CLARKE: I was reflecting on the chapter on Clement Attlee. There did not have to be a general election in 1951: he had one because he was worried about the health of his members. The King wanted an election as he was going on a foreign trip to Australia and he wanted it all sorted out before he went off. Attlee was a deep loyalist to the monarch, so he got some core points wrong on the winning electoral strategy test. I would say that you were always focused on winning the next election, as was Neil Kinnock.

TB: With Attlee, you see, I don’t think they noticed early enough that the public was moving on from the rationing era after the war. They did not quite get that the public did not just want a continuation of the time when “the state must protect us”. Six years on from 1945, the public had moved on from that, frankly.

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Leader of the Labour Party Clement Attlee chatting with workers during a tour of his constituency in 1944

TJ: What would you say were the biggest challenges you faced in developing a winning electoral strategy?

TB: Bits of the party wanted to pull me off it, I think – probably. Look, the tragedy of the Labour Party is that in 2010 – in my view – we could have won if we had, after 2007, taken New Labour to a new level. We drew the opposite conclusion – which was that the public had had too much of it – and it therefore needed to be dampened down. But, in fact, there was no evidence from the public that that was what they thought. It was really that the party had become a little exhausted by it all, and therefore wanted something calmer and easier. The most difficult thing today for political leaders, certainly if you are a progressive political leader, is you have got to get to the centre ground to win – and your party wants to pull you back from that. That is a crude way of putting it.

TJ: How central was economic competence for establishing a reputation for governing?

TB: It was absolutely a precondition of winning again. One of the lessons of politics is that you can’t achieve a vast amount of change unless you get at least two terms. For the Labour government of 1945, I think that people constantly underestimated the degree to which it was actually continuing an agenda that had been developed in the war years.

If it had been starting from scratch, then six years would not have been enough to see it through. I was obsessive about the notion that we had to show in the first term; we had to establish the credibility to govern. Therefore, you have to be careful. What you have to go on to realise is that having the credibility to manage the government at the time is not the same as changing the country. That, I certainly learned.

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Ed Milliband led Labour to defeat in 2010 (Getty)

One of the biggest things about modern democratic politics is that you run for office as the “great communicator”, but, once you are in government, you have to be the “great executor”. Now, that is a completely different skill set. One of the curious things about politics is that it is the only walk of life in the world where you are designated as competent to run a vastly complex bureaucracy on the basis that you’ve won an election. It is like appointing the next manager of Manchester United by saying: “We are just going to have a poll of the fans and anyone can stand” – and then that person gets put in charge of the team. That is an insane way of running things!

CC: The big case people would make against that would be your departure from office. The party divisions and concerns came back and, at the end of the day, they led to you not being able to continue. That was a consequence, critics might suggest, of the failure to manage the party in important respects.

TB: I did rely enormously on public support for my basic position, to neutralise some party opposition. As time went on, especially post-Iraq and so on, it became more difficult, and that method of disciplining the party became less successful.

I always felt it was better – as Gordon became my main opponent – to have him within the tent. I also think that managing the party is something you should always be doing. One of the things that happens to you after you have been in office for a long time is that you are so interested in doing what you are doing for the country, that you become a bit impatient with that side of things. But I’m afraid that you have to be eternally patient with it.

TJ: Do you feel you won the battle of ideas? Did you change the country’s position on issues such as the economy or the NHS, for example?

TB: Yes, we did have a strong policy agenda that became, in my view, stronger over time. New Labour was a concept, but it took proper policy form more in the last six years than in the first three or four. We did pretty much dominate the political agenda, and some reforms have stayed. If you take things like minimum wage and some of the constitutional changes – people forget that we introduced the Mayor of London and all that – on a whole set of issues like civil partnerships, these changes were not reversed.

One of the things that I think is good about the country today is that there are not – between the main political parties, at any rate – any real rows about race or sexuality; things that, frankly, in the 1970s and 1980s were very prominent political issues. I do think that we created a new consensus around that.

So, yes, I felt that we were dominant. I always say that the thing that should worry you as a government is when you feel an idea of power coming at you. In 1979, there was such an idea. I don’t think that in any of the elections up to 1997 the Tories were really threatened by an idea. New Labour was that different idea.

I didn’t feel threatened in any of the three elections I fought. I realised that I could lose, of course, but I didn’t feel that there was a potent force coming at me that I was having to work at to gravitate around. On the contrary, I felt that we were still the central gravitational pole.

TJ: What were the longer-term consequences of constitutional reform under your governments?

TB: I did feel that we made a mistake on devolution. We should have understood that, when you change the system of government so that more power is devolved, you need to have ways of culturally keeping England, Scotland and Wales very much in sync with each other. We needed to work even stronger for a sense of UK national identity. But I don’t accept the idea that we should never have done devolution. If we had not devolved power, then there would have been a massive demand for separation – as there was back in the ’60s and ’70s. Elsewhere on the constitution, I think, I would have gone further on mayors – still would...

One reflection I had was that I think it is odd, when the technology exists, that we don’t do voting in a far more modern and inclusive way. [That we] just insist things have to be done, particularly when the rest of the world is changing. I would make it as easy as possible for people to vote. “We all have to go to the polling booth on the Thursday because that is how it is meant to be…” Why? In no other walk of life would it be like that.

Where I disagree with many is that I don’t think people are uninterested in politics today. I do agree that there is a lot of cynicism about our politics – and there is a whole other story about why that is – but people are not uninterested. They just lead different lives, and I don’t see why it’s not made as easy as possible to participate.

This is an edited extract from ‘British Labour Leaders’ , by Charles Clarke and Toby S James (Biteback), published tomorrow

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