‘Labour will only become electable again when it comes to love Tony Blair’: Andrew Adonis

Lord Adonis told students at King’s College London this week that Labour had to learn from its successes in government

John Rentoul
Saturday 15 February 2020 11:01
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Andrew Adonis talks to students at King’s College London, with Jon Davis, John Rentoul and Michelle Clement
Andrew Adonis talks to students at King’s College London, with Jon Davis, John Rentoul and Michelle Clement

Andrew Adonis, schools reformer and originator of HS2, started his talk to our students with this blunt statement: “The last 11 elections have been: loss, loss, loss, loss, Blair, Blair, Blair, loss, loss, loss, loss.”

He came to King’s College London to talk to students on the “Blair Years” course that I teach with Michelle Clement and Jon Davis. Our subject this week was public service reform, but he started with a broader political defence of Tony Blair’s record: “The world now divides into two: those people who think that Blair was a saint and a genius and the most inspired political leader in history of mankind, which probably includes me, and those who actually think it is a good idea for Labour to win elections, which includes about 500,000 members of the Labour Party – so they will start increasingly to study and emulate Blair, because it’s the way back.”

He said the record “looks more and more impressive in retrospect, since it doesn’t matter how disastrous the Conservative leader, how utterly crazy the policies they’re trying to foist on the country, the Conservatives still win elections – unless Tony Blair or Harold Wilson or Clement Attlee is leading the Labour Party.”

The fundamental appeal of Blair in the mid-1990s, he said, was that people believed he would improve public services with a sustainable tax policy, which meant, “to be blunt, the middle class not thinking that they were going to be unduly fleeced”.

Over the next 10 years, “with lots of alarms and excursions”, Adonis thought Blair delivered what he promised. “I know there were quite a few controversies, which as we look back on them appear to be almost narcissistically minor, between different bits of the Labour Party.”

When Adonis arrived, the class was discussing the row in 2002-03 between Gordon Brown, the chancellor, and Alan Milburn, the health secretary, about whether or not foundation hospitals should be allowed to borrow for investment. “If that was the total of the political disputes we’d been having the last four or five years, we would thank our lucky stars,” said Adonis.

He said that if students “want to know how this country is run” they should start with the obituaries in The Times, “because all these people are dying”. He cited an obituary that day of Clive Smee, the former chief economist in the department of health, which told the story of when Tony Blair appeared on TV on Sunday morning in 2000 to announce that Labour would get NHS spending up to the EU average. Smee took a “panic-stricken” call from No 10 after the programme, as only he had the figures to calculate what the promise meant.

It was an “absolutely colossal” increase in spending, Adonis said, “and when people say, by the way, that this was a ‘Tory government lite’ and that we have had 30 years of neoliberalism – the idea that you would ever have had a Conservative government that announced in one Sunday morning interview that it was going to spend two percentage points [more of national income] on health is obviously a laughable and farcical proposition”.

He said it was hard to remember how run-down public services had become in the 1990s. In London, the transport system had “practically stopped”. He said: “You used to have to make an appointment with the Northern line – on the days when it was working – and the trains running on the Northern line were built in 1938.” London comprehensive schools were so bad the middle classes were moving out, which was partly because of “the far left being in control” of the Inner London Education Authority, “but it was also because there just wasn’t enough money”.

He said: “The schools were falling down because practically nothing had been spent on them in capital terms for 30 years. In the mid-1990s every secondary school in the country had what were called Rosla buildings – Rosla being ‘Raising Of School Leaving Age’. The buildings, which were by and large portable huts which leaked and were freezing in winter, boiling in summer, were put up in 1972 – 1972 – for the raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16.”

This prompted a brief diversion into earlier history: “The raising of the school leaving age from 15 to 16 was supposed to have taken place in the Education Act of 1944, but was delayed by the 1945 Labour government of the sainted Attlee – who’s supposed to be the most progressive and left-wing figure that ever existed on the face of the Earth – because instead that Labour government decided to double spending on defence.”

Why Attlee made that choice would require a separate seminar, but Adonis went on: “The only reason the left thinks the Attlee government was so good is because it’s forgotten most of it. By its own token of ‘Don’t spend all this money on wars abroad’, they’ve forgotten what actually happened then.”

In answer to questions from students, he rejected the idea that Labour had started to lose its heartland seats in the Blair years. It was southern seats that the party lost in 2010, he said, “which is why we didn’t stay in government”. At the time, Labour was strong in the midlands, in the north of England and in Scotland. Gordon Brown would never have held a referendum in Scotland, he said: the “big collapse in the Labour vote in Scotland comes after the Scottish independence referendum” in 2014.

He admitted that many of the improvements in schools and transport were concentrated in London, partly because Labour councils there and Ken Livingstone, the Labour mayor, were more “engaged”. In “old Labour” areas in the midlands and the north “there was too much complacency”.

He was asked about the difficulties of serving as a minister in the House of Lords – Adonis was education minister and transport secretary between 2005 and 2010 – and accepted it would have been “politically useful to me to have been rubbing shoulders all the time with Labour MPs” in the Commons. (He said the House of Lords was, though, a suitable place for his current project – a biography of Ernest Bevin, Attlee’s foreign secretary – “because it’s the only place in the country where there are people around who still remember him”.)

He had been keen on a reform proposed towards the end of the Labour government, that Lords ministers should appear in Westminster Hall, the subsidiary chamber of the Commons, and take questions from MPs there. “I think that deal would have been done but for Harriet Harman,” he said. Harman, who was leader of the House of Commons, “was adamantly against it because she didn’t want more peers to be capable of being appointed as ministers – it was the closed shop of Labour MPs not wanting to have others being able to come in”.

Asked about the Private Finance Initiative (PFI), he defended it on the pragmatic grounds that it allowed more new schools and hospitals to be built: “There are two arguments in favour, and there’s one against. Argument one in favour is that, because it’s a lifetime contract, you get better quality infrastructure; it’s designed better, because the people who are designing it have got to maintain it afterwards.

“The second argument in favour is that it leveraged more upfront investment, because you had to cover the cost of the credit and not the long term cost of the asset. This meant you could do more in the short term.

“And the argument against it is the obverse of that, of ‘putting it on the credit card’, which is that ultimately the credit card catches up with you.”

Looking back, he said he thought the New Labour reforms looked good: “They did create an offer which was highly successful and progressive in the 2001 and 2005 elections. There aren’t many people who look back and say that the big problem with the Blair government was those appalling academies and those outrageously right-wing foundation hospitals. What they now say is, ‘Wow, I wish we could have more of that.’ But a lot of people on the left also say, ‘If only he hadn’t gone to war in Iraq.’ And therein lies another story.”

Labour’s problems since Blair stood down as prime minister “had nothing whatsoever to do with public services”, he said. “The Labour Party has not spent the last 10 years tearing itself limb from limb over academies. Or foundation hospitals, or indeed even tuition fees, although that was a bit more difficult because what you had was real people paying real fees. It’s been foreign policy issues, it’s been austerity and the reaction to austerity.”

He identified the causes of the Corbyn surge as the combination of poor leadership – “no good leaders after Blair and Brown, a chronic problem of very poor candidates” – and the decision of most of those candidates to abstain in the vote on Conservative welfare cuts in 2015. “It was not a Blairite thing. It was because the party handled the politics of the situation in a ludicrous way, and had the wrong leadership.”

Referring to the current leadership election, he said: “Every choice of leader after Tony Blair – until hopefully this one – has been significantly worse than the previous one. That wasn’t Tony Blair’s fault. He was the one who was good. It’s been steadily downhill ever since. It’s not his fault that people voted for Ed Miliband rather than David Miliband in 2010. People had a vote and that is how they voted, unfortunately.”

He warmed to his theme: “The big mistake that the Labour Party has made on every front, since 2007, is to depart from the policies and the strategy set out by Tony Blair. In every respect in which Labour has departed from them, we have lost votes, we’ve lost credibility, and we’ve lost the capacity to build the coalition between classes and regions which was so successful in that period.”

In an echo of Blair, who once said his project would be complete when the Labour Party learned to love Peter Mandelson – itself an echo of Winston Smith being urged to learn to love Big Brother in George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four – Adonis declared: “Labour will only become electable again when it comes to love Tony Blair.”

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