Does Tony Blair mean nothing to the Labour Party? Did he live and lead his party in vain?
The surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn's leadership bid certainly suggests so. All the experts say the new intake of Labour MPs is much to the left of their predecessors, a reversal of a trend to the right that began in the 1990s. While Conservatives such as George Osborne and Michael Gove admire and envy Mr Blair’s political talents, treating his memoirs as a political manual, the man they call “The Master” is ignored and reviled in his own party.
Despite all that, Mr Blair is to make a “rare” intervention in domestic politics today to warn the Labour Party not to “lurch to the left”. I wish I could be confident his party will take much notice of him.
Mr Blair and New Labour pent quite a lot of time fretting about the Tories, even when the Conservative party, in government under John Major and then in opposition under William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard was hopelessly divided and incompetent. Blair, Brown, Mandelson, Blunkett, Prescott, even, all spent far too much of their political lives under Margaret Thatcher to underestimate their opponents.
The Conservatives dominated twentieth century British politics, and were sometimes described as the most formidable force in the history of democratic politics. Blair and New Labour could never quite believe that they had vanquished the opposition, even after it had happened. When Labour became complacent about the Conservative enemy, as in 2010 and 2015, and took risks with the political capital built up so carefully by Tony Blair, things very quickly went awry. I know that Blair's wars alienated many supporters and put a real dent in the 2005 general election result, but Blair still won that one.
What Blair and his allies were less concerned about as the years went on was the Left. By the mid-1990s it was down to a rump, and various overhauls of the Labour leadership rules meant that it became more and more difficult for it to spring back to life. With the exception of Ken Livingstone’s resurgence in London, it never did. Ed Miliband shifted his party a bit to the left in the mistaken belief that the country had edged that way, but he was hardly the “red Ed” portrayed by his enemies. The Left though was not dead; it was merely resting. Tony Blair lived in vain.
And yet, with the surge in support for Jeremy Corbyn, a man with an unexpected degree of momentum now (a vital quality, as my colleague Steve Richards pointed out on the Today programme), we can see what little legacy Tony Blair actually left behind. Many of those voting in the leadership election think that the Conservative government is an aberration; that sooner or later an honest leftist programme backed by “working people” and appealing to a national sense of fairness will prevail over those selfish Tories. If it doesn’t, well the country has only itself to blame. MPs and activists actually think like this, or leastways they must do so judging by their actions.
It is a really appalling attitude to condemn a generation – their friends, families, fellow trade unionists, constituents - to reduced life chances, greater poverty and, indeed, the country to a tragic waste of its human capital. The MPs who condescendingly decided to “lend” Mr Corbyn their nomination for leader are the guilty men and women of 2015. For them it will be OK; a salary of £73,000 plus exes, often in a safe seat for life, and the best club in Europe at their disposal. They can go to rallies in Trafalgar Square and march around for jobs, and hang about on Unison picket lines salving their consciences - but not saving a single child from having a rubbish education that will blight their lives.
Do not underestimate the Conservatives' ability to cling to power; from the age of 17 until I was 35 I lived under a Tory government. In retrospect I can see it did good things and pushed through necessary reforms, but it was also cruel in some of its key actions, and damaged opportunity for many. I never believed in the idea that the pendulum would automatically swing back, or that a few strikes would bring down a determined prime minister. There are no laws like that in politics.
Tony Blair’s appeal – economic efficiency supporting and being supported by social justice - was a much better option. It still is. Bring him back! He is still a young man by historical standards – 62 years old – and could easily take on his old job again. In doing so, he'd certainly terrify the Tories. That may not be an overly realistic prospect, but there's one thing that Labour should know for certain: they need to listen to their older successful leader, or everyone will have to live with the consequences.Reuse content