Owen Jones: It's time to demolish the myth about Tony Blair

His defenders argue Labour couldn't have won without him but Black Wednesday in 1992 finished off the Tories

Share
Related Topics

You will struggle to find more devout supporters of Tony Blair than those at the top of the Conservative leadership. "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". "His influence is very firmly felt," a senior Tory told The Times. "He's like the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo – gone but still greatly admired." Screaming teenagers at Take That concerts in the mid-1990s come to mind.

As Blair took to the Leveson Inquiry this week, his admirers went a bit weak at the knees. Blair is certainly an exceptional public performer: indeed, he is something of a natural. When he was at the public school Fettes, teachers described him as "a complete pain in the backside", but he excelled at acting. Along with Cameron, he is rare among British Prime Ministers for his polished charisma; although, unlike the current Tory occupant of No 10, he never looks like an artery risks bursting when he is under fire.

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. In his first joust with Blair after taking over as Conservative leader, Cameron offered to support him against his own party over his policy of marketising comprehensive education. "With our support, the Prime Minister knows there is no danger of losing these education reforms in a Parliamentary vote," Cameron crooned, mocking Labour backbenchers. "So he can afford to be as bold as he wants to be." 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. "Public sector reform" has come up in the many conversations Blair has apparently had with Cameron, and I'm sure the ex-PM has had much advice to offer.

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.

Unlike Clement Attlee and Margaret Thatcher, Blair failed to establish a new political consensus. He 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.

It was the murderous invasion of Iraq – described by former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan as "illegal" – that, for many, makes Blair unforgivable rather than a mere disappointment. It competes with the expenses scandal for the damage it did to faith in politicians. While in power, he courted despots like Egypt's Hosni Mubarak, whom he described as "immensely courageous and a force for good" when the Egyptian people rose against him. Today, the man who partly justified the invasion of Iraq with Saddam's sickening human rights record is being paid $13 million to advise the brutal dictator of Kazakhstan.

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 so-called "Middle England" that deserted the party. According to Ipsos MORI, while middle-class professional support for Labour declined by five percentage points 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.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Business Analyst - Surrey - Permanent - Up to £50k DOE

£40000 - £50000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***ASP.NET Developer - Cheshire - £35k - Permanent***

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

***Solutions Architect*** - Brighton - £40k - Permanent

£35000 - £40000 Per Annum Excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd:...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Taking on Ukip requires a delicate balancing act for both main parties

Andrew Grice
Today is a bigger Shabbes than usual in the Jewish world because it has been chosen to launch the Shabbos Project  

Shabbes exerts a pull on all Jews, and today is bigger than ever

Howard Jacobson
Wilko Johnson, now the bad news: musician splits with manager after police investigate assault claims

Wilko Johnson, now the bad news

Former Dr Feelgood splits with manager after police investigate assault claims
Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands ahead of the US midterm elections

Mark Udall: The Democrat Senator with a fight on his hands

The Senator for Colorado is for gay rights, for abortion rights – and in the Republicans’ sights as they threaten to take control of the Senate next month
New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

New discoveries show more contact between far-flung prehistoric humans than had been thought

Evidence found of contact between Easter Islanders and South America
Cerys Matthews reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of Dylan Thomas

Cerys Matthews on Dylan Thomas

The singer reveals how her uncle taped 150 interviews for a biography of the famous Welsh poet
DIY is not fun and we've finally realised this as a nation

Homebase closures: 'DIY is not fun'

Homebase has announced the closure of one in four of its stores. Nick Harding, who never did know his awl from his elbow, is glad to see the back of DIY
The Battle of the Five Armies: Air New Zealand releases new Hobbit-inspired in-flight video

Air New Zealand's wizard in-flight video

The airline has released a new Hobbit-inspired clip dubbed "The most epic safety video ever made"
Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month - but can you stomach the sweetness?

Pumpkin spice is the flavour of the month

The combination of cinnamon, clove, nutmeg (and no actual pumpkin), now flavours everything from lattes to cream cheese in the US
11 best sonic skincare brushes

11 best sonic skincare brushes

Forget the flannel - take skincare to the next level by using your favourite cleanser with a sonic facial brush
Paul Scholes column: I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Phil Jones and Marcos Rojo

Paul Scholes column

I'm not worried about Manchester United's defence - Chelsea test can be the making of Jones and Rojo
Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

Frank Warren: Boxing has its problems but in all my time I've never seen a crooked fight

While other sports are stalked by corruption, we are an easy target for the critics
Jamie Roberts exclusive interview: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Jamie Roberts: 'I'm a man of my word – I'll stay in Paris'

Wales centre says he’s not coming home but is looking to establish himself at Racing Métro
How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker