Why Keir Starmer wanted Tony Blair’s blessing

The Labour leader’s ‘third way’ upsets both the left and the right of his party – perhaps that’s the only way he can unite it

Andrew Grice
Wednesday 04 May 2022 14:00
Comments
<p>There was an unpublicised reason for Blair’s re-emergence in a Labour campaign</p>

There was an unpublicised reason for Blair’s re-emergence in a Labour campaign

Why was Keir Starmer so keen to win Tony Blair’s endorsement in a video message praising the Labour leader’s “strength, determination and intelligence”?

Officially, allies say Starmer saw the 25th anniversary of Blair’s 1997 landslide as a reminder, ahead of tomorrow’s local elections, of what Labour could achieve in power.  Although Blair’s reappearance grated with left-wingers, it was yet another reminder that Starmer is “not Jeremy Corbyn”. Whether the left likes it or not, Labour needs to win back 2019’s Tory voters to have a sniff of power, and not all of them hate Blair as much as the left does.

So New Labour is back. I’ve never understood why some Labour figures have been so keen to trash their own brand since 2010; it hardly improved the party’s electoral prospects. At last, Labour is starting to celebrate the domestic policy achievements of its 13 years in office (don’t mention the Iraq war). Its online shop now uses New Labour branding to recall the party’s historic election victory and record in government.

However, all is not quite as it seems. There was an unpublicised reason for Blair’s re-emergence in a Labour campaign. Starmer allies were very keen to lock in his support because they are nervous about his launch next month of a new centrist movement, The Britain Project. Team Blair denies it amounts to a new movement, insisting that it is working with an existing project to put on an event. Starmer will be joined by Tories including former cabinet ministers Rory Stewart and David Gauke, and the initiative will be headed by Monica Harding, a Liberal Democrat.

Blair has been itching to launch a cross-party group to draw up reforms addressing three big challenges: Brexit; the technology revolution, and climate change. He said in January: “I don’t think it can be done unless politicians work across traditional party lines to create a plan that is sustainable over at least a decade, because reforms as far-reaching and difficult as these require consistency of policy over time, even through a change of government.”

Team Starmer fears it will invite comparisons with Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche – Blairites were fans of his well before he became president – which would hardly be a ringing endorsement of Labour. Although Blair’s project is about policy rather than fielding candidates, he previously hoped that about 70 Labour MPs would walk out during Corbyn’s leadership to form a new group. In the event, only eight left to launch Change UK, and it flopped.

Blair’s move will be viewed as reflecting an impatience that Labour and Starmer are not doing even better in the opinion polls against a discredited Boris Johnson and a Conservative Party running out of steam after 12 years in power. In less flattering remarks, Blair has called for a “total deconstruction and reconstruction” of Labour, and described Starmer as “a work in progress”.

Blairites are divided over whether to put their energies into the new movement or to reform Labour from within. These behind-the-scenes tensions put Starmer under even more pressure to show real momentum in the local elections; a strong showing would make Blair’s project less threatening. But the results may be less conclusive than people expect.

The irony is that Starmer is accused by left-wingers of swallowing the Blair playbook. A cogent left-wing critique was set out last week by Oliver Eagleton in The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right (published by Verso). Eagleton lists the project’s main features as: “a ‘values-led’, non-antagonistic electoral strategy; an unsparing crackdown on the Labour left, seen as more dangerous than the Conservatives; an Atlanticist-authoritarian disposition, combining intervention abroad with repression at home and a return to neoliberal economic precepts, overseen by Blairite leftovers”.

Eagleton writes: “The Blairites may have regained the party bureaucracy, but they remain starved of relevant ideas.” I suspect he is too pessimistic about Starmer’s willingness to “confront” the rentier economy or climate change, but he is right to highlight the need for some big dividing lines with the Tories.

To keep up to speed with all the latest opinions and comment, sign up to our free weekly Voices Dispatches newsletter by clicking here

The left is alarmed by Starmer’s hints that he might suspend MPs such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott over their hostility to Nato. That would alienate some on the soft left who support a “broad church” party. Like Blair, the left has a dilemma over whether to stick with Labour or launch a new vehicle or party. (Will the last person to leave Labour please turn out the lights?)

When New Labour celebrated the anniversary of its 1997 triumph at a pub in London’s Chancery Lane on Sunday, Peter Mandelson told the revellers: “I am glad the Labour Party is now starting to be proud of New Labour’s record in government again... we are on the way to getting our party back. Labour has the instincts of a centre-left party again. Keir is not Tony [Blair]. He’s not Gordon [Brown] either. He’s sort of ‘third way’. Level-headed. Good character and values. Tough when he needs to be.”

Starmer’s “third way” upsets both the left and the right of the Labour Party. Perhaps that’s the only way he can unite it. Perhaps it means he’s getting it right. Despite Blair’s timely words of support, Starmer might reflect that, “With friends like these...” 

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Please enter a valid email
Please enter a valid email
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Must be at least 6 characters, include an upper and lower case character and a number
Please enter your first name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
Please enter your last name
Special characters aren’t allowed
Please enter a name between 1 and 40 characters
You must be over 18 years old to register
You must be over 18 years old to register
Opt-out-policy
You can opt-out at any time by signing in to your account to manage your preferences. Each email has a link to unsubscribe.

By clicking ‘Create my account’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Register for free to continue reading

Registration is a free and easy way to support our truly independent journalism

By registering, you will also enjoy limited access to Premium articles, exclusive newsletters, commenting, and virtual events with our leading journalists

Already have an account? sign in

By clicking ‘Register’ you confirm that your data has been entered correctly and you have read and agree to our Terms of use, Cookie policy and Privacy notice.

This site is protected by reCAPTCHA and the Google Privacy policy and Terms of service apply.

Join our new commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies

Comments

Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in