Where does he come from?: Is Tony Blair made of candy floss or conviction? John Rentoul digs into the archives to find out

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The Independent Online
DOES Tony Blair stand for anything? Both inside and outside the Labour Party, he is accused of being a candy-floss politician, lacking substance and firm belief. This is partly because it is difficult to assign him to any of Labour's traditional tribes: the hard-headed Scots (like his predecessor, John Smith), the Bevanite romantics (like Neil Kinnock), the trade unionists (like John Prescott), the hard left (like Tony Benn), the old-style right (like Denis Healey). The suspicion persists that he is nothing more than a career politician, albeit an outstandingly clever one. Where, as people often put it, is he coming from?

The answer is all the more difficult to pinpoint because no special influences stand out from his family, schooling or youth. To make sense of Tony Blair, we have to go back to the early 1980s and to the traumas through which Labour was then passing.

Blair was then a party member in Hackney, north-east London, and looking for his first parliamentary candidacy. The picture that emerges is of a man who has changed his mind on some of the central issues of British politics, such as nuclear disarmament, but stayed remarkably consistent on other matters, such as party democracy. But we should also acknowledge that the road he has travelled since the early 1980s is the same road as his party and that he set out down it well before most of his fellow members. Few Labour politicians - few politicians of any sort - can claim complete consistency over a decade or more. The question is whether Blair's inconsistencies are especially embarrassing.

Blair's starting point was disappointment with the Labour governments of the mid to late 1970s and the sterile pragmatism of Harold Wilson and James Callaghan. In those days, that disappointment was the definition of leftism. But Blair always rejected the conclusions that Tony Benn drew.

He attended his first meeting of the Queensbridge Branch of the Hackney South Labour Party on 6 November 1980. The minutes record a fierce debate on how the party leader should be elected. Blair supported one-member-one- vote, which was then a dangerously 'right-wing' idea, associated with the Gang of Four, who were poised to set up the Social Democratic Party. It was defeated by five votes to three.

The branch's annual general meeting was three months later. Blair fought to oust the hard-left branch secretary, Mike Davis. His friends visited members, urging them to turn up and vote for him. It is most unusual to have house- to-house canvassing for such a humble position in the Labour Party. On 5 February 1981, Blair was elected by 17 votes to 15.

A year later he was the surprise choice to fight the safe Tory seat of Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, in a by-election. When the South Bucks Observer mistakenly suggested that he was a Bennite, he set out where he stood: 'I support the Labour Party's present leadership; Labour's plan for jobs; withdrawal from the EEC (certainly unless the most fundamental changes are effected); and nuclear disarmament, unilaterally if necessary.' The point here is not that he supported unilateralism and withdrawal from the EEC - both were party policy at the time - but that he qualified both.

His position on the deputy leadership election the previous year is even more interesting. He was asked how he would have voted. He told the Guardian that he would have preferred John Silkin, the compromise candidate between Healey and Benn. And after Silkin was eliminated? 'Definitely not Benn,' he replied.

This almost perfectly captures Blair's political position at the time. He was strongly opposed to Benn and the hard left, but he was not a Healeyite right-winger either. In other words, his position was remarkably similar to that of the leader under whom Blair was to rise to the top: Neil Kinnock. (Benn failed to win the deputy leadership because Kinnock and his supporters abstained.)

Blair indeed was already advocating what was to be the Kinnock strategy for welding the 'soft left' and the right into a force capable of leading the party back from the brink of oblivion. He was doing so, moreover, before the disaster of the 1983 election persuaded many in the party that it was necessary.

Yet he may prefer not to be reminded of the way he set out that strategy. It was outlined in a lecture at Murdoch University, Perth, Australia in October 1982. The growth of unemployment, he argued, required more than 'the mild economic tinkering proposed by the Social Democrats'. But an unplanned reflation of the economy would lead, almost certainly, to inflation. A huge reconstruction of industry was needed, calling for 'enormous state guidance and intervention'. The question, Blair said, should not be about whether to increase 'central control' of the economy but about 'containing that control and marrying it to ideas of industrial democracy'.

He went on: 'That in turn will bring any Labour government into sharp conflict with the power of capital, particularly multinational capital. The trouble with the right of the party is that it has basked so long in the praise of the leader writers of the Financial Times, Times and Guardian that it is no longer accustomed to giving them offence. It will find the experience painful, but it is vital.'

This was traditional left-wing rhetoric. Certainly, it sounds nothing like the 'dynamic market economy' Blair was to espouse in his leadership campaign. And we may note that, 10 years later, Blair was to bask in the Financial Times's description of him as 'the very image of the would-be modern, eloquent and moderate Labour Party'.

On trade unions, Blair was also more 'traditional' than we might now expect. The SDP was doomed, he said, because 'by their disastrous embracing of the Tebbit Bill, they have isolated themselves from organised labour, a fatal mistake for any radical party'. (The 'Tebbit Bill', which became the Employment Act 1982, weakened the closed shop and allowed the selective dismissal of strikers.) But, again, this was then party policy. It is notable that Blair at the time concerned himself more with the possible victimisation of strikers than with the rights of unions to force people to join. When he became shadow employment secretary seven years later, almost his first move was to accept the end of the closed shop.

However, Blair's lecture reserved its sharpest criticisms for the Labour left. 'The left is keen on democracy, and rightly so. But . . . it would be absurd if the party descended into populism, merely parroting the views of 'the electorate' . . . The left's position is often inconsistent on democracy. It will advocate party democracy, yet refuse one-member-one-vote . . . It will talk of decentralisation yet find itself at a bizarre and remote distance from most of the opinions of those to whom 'power' is supposed to be given.'

As an example, he quoted Labour's opposition to council house sales. 'That is for perfectly sound reasons of political principle. Yet there is something mildly distasteful about owner-occupier party members preaching the virtues of public housing to council tenants.'

In 1982, there were few people in any section of the party who were saying that kind of thing. But what Blair's Australian lecture reveals is that he had already thought through many of the themes that were to become central to Neil Kinnock's renewal of the party. In other words, his true Labour tribe is the 'soft left'. If anybody doubts this they should note that, as late as 1986, he was still a member of the parliamentary branch of CND. We only fail to recognise it because his journey was somewhat different from that undertaken by Kinnock, Robin Cook, Jack Straw and others. Their policies became, at varying speeds, virtually indistinguishable from the right of the party, as represented by Roy Hattersley and John Smith.

Blair, however, had travelled a long way down that road before the 1983 election so that when he was elected to Parliament in that year, he already appeared, in most senses, to be on the right. He got his 'betrayal' in early. In this he can hardly be accused of trimming to the prevailing wind - it was more like tacking into a storm, in the belief that the wind would eventually change.

The labels of the early 1980s still matter in one sense. The economic radicalism of those years may have been squeezed out by the realities of a more open international economy - it is hard now to imagine any Labour leader looking forward to 'sharp conflict . . . with multinational capital'. But what remains distinctively 'soft left' about Blair is his radicalism when it comes to change in the Labour Party. The right always took the view that there was nothing much wrong with the basic structure of the party - it was just that in the early 1980s the wrong lot gained control of it. What is apparent from Blair's record in 1980-83 is his sense that the Labour Party had to start again - a rethinking more complete than Neil Kinnock was able, or John Smith inclined, to undertake.

The author's biography of Tony Blair will be published by Little Brown next year.

(Photograph omitted)