Tony Blair on how Labour can learn from his time in power and win again

The former prime minister spoke to students at King’s College London about coming to terms with his biggest mistake of the Iraq war and how to put New Labour’s winning coalition back together again

John Rentoul
Sunday 29 March 2020 22:03 BST

Tony Blair thinks the Jeremy Corbyn experiment is over, and that it is time for Labour to reclaim its record in government and learn from his time in power so that it can win again.

Just before universities were shut down, he answered questions from students at King’s College London in classes I teach with Jon Davis, Michelle Clement and Jack Brown. The questions covered a wide range of subjects – the students had essays to write, after all – but taken together his answers amounted to a call for Labour to return to the “mentality of government”.

Inevitably, he was asked about the Iraq War, which many in the party see as the biggest reason for the eclipse of his brand of centrist politics. He was less defiant about the case for intervening than he has been in the past.

Whereas previously he accepted some responsibility for the failure to prepare adequately for the aftermath of the invasion, now he made a more fundamental admission: “I have been very critical of what was the single biggest mistake we made during that period, which is the failure to understand sufficiently the nature of the societies that we were getting into.”

That seems almost to accept that the invasion was a bad idea, because of the risk of Iraq descending into sectarian chaos, and that no amount of planning would have made it work. All the same, he explained that there was no compromise option: the decision was “binary, and of huge moment”, and it was his job to do what he thought was right.

He said: “The time you should trust the politicians most is when they’re telling you what you least want to hear.” However, that is not how it worked out for him, or for the Labour Party, which has spent most of the past 13 years repudiating everything he stood for.

He said the party “could have avoided doing what it did”, but that it took a “fundamental decision” in 2010, “which was the decision to elect Ed rather than David Miliband”. He pointed out that the party members and MPs voted for David, but were outvoted by the trade unions: “At the time, the Labour Party membership was still, essentially, centre left, and then after it, it went on a journey where it ended up in the far left.”

He said the party had to “get back to one piece of reality, which is that the MPs are the best judge” of who should be leader. “No one wants to hear that, but they actually are, because they see the people, day in, day out. The truth of the matter is no one can become prime minister unless, for example, they’re able to handle themselves in debate, and at the despatch box.”

I asked if he thought the party should go back to rules used before 1981, when the leader was elected by MPs alone. “I don’t think it would be acceptable to do that today. But I do think you should go back to a high threshold of MPs. I think that was a bad mistake to shift that.” Under Ed Miliband, MPs, who had one third of the votes in an electoral college, were reduced to having the right merely to nominate candidates, with the threshold for nomination set at just 15 per cent of Labour MPs and MEPs, which was what allowed Corbyn on to the ballot paper. Since then, the threshold has been reduced to 10 per cent, with additional nominations required from either trade unions or local parties.

There was a case for saying that leaders should be elected by just “the MPs and the members of the party”, Blair said. “How you deal with this union thing is also difficult, because it can be subject to manipulation.”

The bigger question, however, is whether it is possible for whoever is leader to win again. Or, as Blair put it, would it be possible to reassemble “the coalition that brought me to power in 1997”? He said he privately called his approach the “gay rights and strong on law and order programme” – it was “a description of what I thought, culturally, could keep my liberal people and my traditional working-class people in the same room”.

In his view, “that coalition hasn’t shifted a great deal in the last 100 years”. Some might argue that it had been broken up by Brexit or by Corbyn’s new politics, “but I’m not sure it really has”.

He said he thought Corbyn did so well in the 2017 election mainly because “the people thought he had no chance of winning”. Although there were other reasons: “There were a whole lot of people who voted because they were passionate about Brexit and thought that was the best way to stop Brexit. And then frankly, Theresa May and the Tories ran a disastrous campaign and, to be fair to Jeremy Corbyn, he ran a pretty good campaign in terms of his personality.

“But what happened between 2017 and 2019 is that each of these factors fell away, and people came to a very concluded view that they did not want him.”

Last month marked 120 years since the founding of the Labour Party, and in that time he said “we’ve had essentially three Labour governments” (presumably not counting Ramsay MacDonald and counting Harold Wilson’s two terms as one). “Which one didn’t win from the centre? And when people give the Attlee government as an example, I mean, Attlee had been deputy to Churchill throughout the war years. Virtually all the policies of that Labour government grew out of an intrawar consensus that then became a postwar consensus.”

He rejected the charge that New Labour was a form of moderate conservatism: “There are values and philosophy that the Labour Party has that don’t change: the belief in social justice, the belief that our job is essentially to help the people without the opportunity to get opportunity, to put it in very crude terms. That always was for me the difference with the Conservatives.”

(Andy Lane/Strand Group/King’s College London)

He argued that the hostility his government faced from much of the media was proof that New Labour kept to those values even though it sought different ways of fulfilling them: “We were always going to face a time when the right-wing media realised that we actually weren’t a Tory government, a Red Tory government. That’s the irony of the criticism made from the left today because when I was in power, I was very well aware that the attack was coming from the right the whole time. And it was coming precisely on policies of social change, redistribution.”

He gave the example of setting up the Department for International Development and the progress towards an aid budget of 0.7 per cent of national income. “You know, they hated all of those policies,” he said. As a result, he didn’t think it was ever possible to have maintained a better relationship with what he called at the end of his time as prime minister the “feral beast” of the media. “I constantly reassess this one. Probably we had no option but to establish a relationship, and probably there was no outcome other than eventually a falling out.”

In the end, he fell out not just with the right-wing media, but with his own party. Now, as Corbyn leaves the stage, and as the party comes to terms with an election defeat even worse than the 1983 disaster that (eventually) gave rise to New Labour, it may be that the ideas of what Blair calls the centre left gain a hearing again.

A full transcript of Tony Blair’s session will be published shortly. Previous articles about the “Blair Years” course are here.

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