Tony Blair is right about Labour, but he is wrong to say it now

His detractors – and there are probably more inside his party than the Conservatives – regard him as the epitome of betrayal. Anything he says is discounted, as a red mist descends

Sean O'Grady
Wednesday 18 December 2019 15:12
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Tony Blair slams Jeremy Corbyn's Labour leadership during UK election

When they were both first elected to parliament in 1983, Tony Blair and Jeremy Corbyn spent an uncomfortable few weeks sharing an office in the Commons. Perhaps the Labour whip at the time responsible for allocating accommodation had a sense of humour. In any case, the odd couple soon split up, and Blair soon found more congenial company (another new boy, Gordon Brown, who, as we know, did not stay congenial for ever).

Today, all Blair and Corbyn have in common is membership of a political party, and the relationship is as awkward as ever it was. Corbyn is a man of principle but so, too, is Blair – though he has gained a reputation as the opposite.

Blair, unlike Corbyn, understood the imperative of winning power, and was rather good at winning elections, of persuading people to vote Labour, some for the first time. He put the Conservatives out of business for a decade and a half. His administrations did much for working people, although never enough for his critics, and these achievements need not be dismissed or belittled because of the horrors of the Iraq war or the failure to foresee the banking crisis and the failures of PFI.

Corbyn voted against the Blair and Brown's Labour governments a total of 428 times – a record for any rebel in the New Labour era – as was his right. Now it is Blair’s turn to cause some trouble. He has, predictably enough, launched a searing attack on Corbyn’s policy and performance in last week's general election. He has spent recent years in some personal comfort (he is a very wealthy man) but he has to watch much of his work in building a modern fair society in a progressive Europe being steadily dismantled by the Conservatives, and his recasting of the Labour Party as a natural party of government being trashed by Corbyn and his supporters.

Evidently he has had enough of seeing his party maroon itself on “fantasy island”, as he describes it. He warns the party that it "doesn’t have the luxury of a slow march back” to power.

I can’t really improve on Blair’s eloquence, so I shall just quote him: “We can correct our historical and contemporary weaknesses or be consumed by them. That choice is unmerciful.

”The choice for Labour is to renew itself as the serious, progressive, non-conservative competitor for power in British politics - or retreat from such an ambition, in which case it will be replaced.

“That is how stark, harsh, difficult but true the choice is. And the choice is now.”

Blair is entirely right. Yet there are two things wrong with him saying it.

First, his intervention is counter-productive. Blair is so loathed by so many in the party he led to victory three times in succession that his protests about what is now being done to it will probably prove achieve the opposite of his aims. His detractors – and there are probably more inside Labour than inside the Conservatives – regard him as the epitome of betrayal, an unprincipled schemer who dragged the country into an illegal war on a false prospectus. Anything he says is discounted, as a red mist descends upon the minds of those who happen to hear his words.

Rather than making them reflect on the dire situation their party finds itself in, they resolve to double down on Corbynism.

Furthermore, in the present context this means that those who prefer to name Blair as “Bliar”, and are offended by his assault on today's Labour Party, will now back the Continuity Corbyn candidate the leadership election – Rebecca Long-Bailey.

It will be a grave error to do so. It could put the recovery and electoral success of Labour as it is currently constituted our of reach forever. But that is, nevertheless, what the true believers are set to do – and, after Ed Miliband’s reckless reforms, there are many of them. They, the majority in the Momentum movement, happen to own the Labour party. On that basis alone, Tony's timing is a bit out.

Nor can we be terribly surprised by such a strident intervention by the former prime minister. There’s no secret about what Blair thinks about Corbyn (and vice versa, of course: Corbyn would not object to having Blair arraigned for war crimes). A reminder in the face of electoral defeat isn’t necessary.

Blair may feel that he has no choice but to speak out once more. As Martin Luther once said: “Here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Amen.” He might feel that he cannot merely observe while his party kills itself. He would not want such a thing on his conscience.

He must also know, though, that Labour stopped listening to him – and indeed the electorate – some years ago.

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