Geoffrey Wheatcroft: Blair was not the great election winner

Blair took the politics out of politics; he won his election victories, such as they were, by voiding political life of its content
Click to follow
The Independent Online

To say that Tony Blair always divided opinion would be an understatement.

He has done it again with his strange, vulgar, obtuse, impenitent memoir. Some people like the book; plenty hate it; many are buying it; no one is learning much about the man.

Whatever the response, there is universal agreement about one thing: say what else you like about him, Blair was a dazzling political performer, the master of his craft and a brilliant election-winner. But is that true?

Even to ask the question might seem absurd. After all, he was the first Labour leader ever to win three consecutive elections. He was prime minister for 10 years, a longer tenure than anyone else in the past century apart from Margaret Thatcher. It seems an unchallengable achievement. Until you look harder. For many people, the mood of May 1997, when Labour won its first landslide victory under Blair, was exhilarating, but it was also illusory. Before that election Blair had given the late Roy Jenkins – one of the first victims of Blair's capacity for for selective amnesia – to understand that he favoured electoral reform.

He quite forgot that once in Downing Street – and no wonder. In countries with a proportional voting system they would be awestruck at the sight of party winning 64 per cent of parliamentary seats with only 43 per cent of the popular vote. That sheer distorting effect was one reason for the landslide, but there were others.

Given the time Blair devoted to ingratiating himself with middle-class Middle England, it would be silly to deny that he had some personal effect, but to say that only he could have won is simply false. Before the 1992 election, when his colleagues thought they scented victory, he was the only Labour MP convinced they would lose, and privately named the culprit: John Smith, the shadow chancellor, with his "alternative budget" proposing higher taxation and spending, Blair's horror at which conditioned him ever after.

But was Smith such a liability when he then became Labour leader? Only months after the election the Tories lost their last selling proposition, economic competence, with the debacle of Black Wednesday. Their popular support evaporated and it took many years for them to recover. Before Smith died in 1994, Labour had a double-digit lead in the opinion polls, and were going to win the next election, under him or anyone else.

In 1997, the Tory vote collapsed, not least – another forgotten factor – because nearly a million Tory voters defected to right-wing Europhobic parties. And the other technical factor easily overlooked was that the British had discovered the art of tactical voting for the first time since the 1920s, as shown by way the Liberal Democrats more than doubled their number of MPs. Millions were not voting for but against.

Also largely unnoticed was the fact that Labour actually won fewer votes in 1997 than the Tories had done five years earlier. Indeed, if you ask "Who was the most successful party leader in British history?", the unlikely answer might be John Major. He was the only one to take his party into a general election and win more than 14 million popular votes, and he may well be the last And then what did Blair the electoral master achieve? Over the three elections in which he gained a parliamentary majority, the Labour vote fell from 13.5 million to 10.7 million to 9.5 million, or 43 per cent to 41 per cent to 35 per cent. In 2001, Labour gained fewer votes than it had under Neil Kinnock in 1992, and by 2001, fewer than the Tories had at their 1997 meltdown.

Most countries would be flabbergasted at a party collecting 54 per cent of seats with 35 per cent of votes, as happened here five years ago. In all, just over one citizen in five voted Labour in 2005 when Blair gained his victory by default. That partly reflected the precipitous fall in turnout, from 72 per cent in 1997 to 59 per cent in 2001. The British were once enthusiastic voters, 84 per cent of us going to the polls in 1950. The collapse is very much Blair's personal contribution.

For what were the larger means by which the magician wrought his spell? Blair reiterates interminably that Labour must stay "New", which means always moving rightward, as he did himself, stealing Tory rhetoric and indeed policies on crime, health and education.

Although Blair himself simply can't be categorised in British terms, one can borrow the language of modern European politics and its two great post-war political traditions. In those terms, Blair plainly belongs to the Christian Democrats rather than the Social Democrats.

To speak of "Left and Right" has long been in some ways a misleading metaphor. All the same, it's one we use, and it was poignant over the years to hear Labour politicians and media supporters intoning "centre left" and "progressive" like lucky charms, whatever reactionary paths the Blair government was following. In truth, if we are to use that figure of speech at all, it should by now be quite obvious that in objective historical terms, New Labour was a party of the centre-right.

But more than that, the larger truth that took so long to grasp was that "Blairism" was not ideologically left wing or right wing, but had no ideological meaning at all. Blair took the politics out of politics; he won his election victories, such as they were, by voiding political life of its content.

Although he became leader of a once-great party, he was always, like Lloyd George, "a prime minister without a party". And although he had not the smallest affinity with the poor, he now resembles Marx's proletariat which "has no fatherland". He lives everywhere and belongs nowhere. Did he ever really exist?

Geoffrey Wheatcroft's books include 'Yo, Blair!'