Stay up to date with notifications from The Independent

Notifications can be managed in browser preferences.

If the Labour Party ever wants to win again, it must embrace Blairism

What Northerners really care about is respect. Blair had respect for the electorate; Starmer only seems to respect his party cheerleaders

Jordan Tyldesley
Monday 10 May 2021 11:33 BST
Blair: Tory win would be chaos

For Labour, it feels like things can only get better. Not in the bouncy, optimistic sense, mind you, but in a very stark and sobering sense. Things need to get better and they need to get better quickly.

As I sat in the garden on Wednesday afternoon, a person in a white van adorned with Union Jacks drove past hollering “vote Conservative”, and I thought to myself, as much as I cannot relate to Boris Johnson mania, I understand completely why working class Northerners – and everyone else in between – are so turned off by Keir Starmer and his team.

So at this point, we have no option but to talk about Tony Blair. Arguably, he was cancelled long before cancel culture became a “thing” and he remains Labour’s hot potato. To admit to liking Blair is, among some on the left, an act of treason. He is certainly off limits at a hipster, middle class dinner party. Indeed, those of us who look favourably on aspects of his premiership are coerced into adopting a form of self-censorship to appease the status quo. But right now, as the “red-wall” transforms into a “blue Brexit wall”, there has never been a better time to discuss and – more importantly – accept him.

On the face of it, Starmer and Blair appear quite similar: they’re both well educated, white collar men. I often find it laughable how some in the South believe that Northerners expect their MP or party leader to be a visual representation of themselves. That we are in some way bowled over when we see them in a boxing ring or gorging on whatever grease-soaked food they’ve been able to find on arrival. It is borderline offensive. What we really care about is respect. Blair had respect for the electorate; Starmer only seems to respect his party cheerleaders (or is frightened of them, I haven’t yet decided which).

Starmer and his Labour Party sell an almost doomsday vision of life in the UK. They often put me in mind of that character you find in every town and city declaring loudly that the world will end next Thursday. Many of those that pledge their undying allegiance to the party are perpetually worked up about the most abstract of ideas on Twitter and are consistently on the lookout to find tweets or opinions that don’t toe the puritan line. It shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone that this doesn’t equate to the reality beyond their own bubble.

This is seen most starkly when they decide to squabble over flags. When a leaked report found that the Labour Party was preparing to “make use of the flag”, Clive Lewis, MP for Norwich South, stated: “It’s not patriotism; it’s Fatherland-ism.”

Why is the Union Jack flag such a contentious subject for the party? During Tony Blair’s leadership and the time of “cool Brittania”, the Union Jack wasn’t viewed as racist or promoting a sense of British exceptionalism; it was a stamp of approval akin to the Queen’s. It represented our impeccable creativity and vision. In many ways, Blair understood how it could be used to create community cohesion, channel class divides and promote a greater sense of unity.

On Radio 4, Lord Mandelson – New Labour strategist and former Hartlepool MP – recently listed the historical general election outcomes for the party: “lose, lose, lose, lose, Blair, Blair, Blair, lose, lose, lose, lose”. This, you could argue, is an oversimplification of the situation but it is also, clearly, a fact. Working class people haven’t changed their opinions over time; we are actually wonderfully predictable. We care about education, housing, and wages (all safe Labour territory) but there is also a need to discuss crime, the effects of immigration and in recent times, terrorism (this would be seen by some as a Conservative line). Blair put these issues at the forefront of his campaigns, and the ones that he didn’t, he discussed openly and honestly. It is often said that the working class deserted Labour. In fact, the party left us.

This isn’t to ignore Blair’s failings. After being hailed as a saviour for Kosovan Albanians, he felt vindicated to meddle in the Middle East. I am firmly of the opinion that he genuinely felt that it was his duty to facilitate the freedom of those that had been living under Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship. But when it became apparent this wasn’t a war that would produce a winner in any traditional sense of the word, his leadership unraveled.

Of course, this is the topic bourgeois liberals raise when criticising Blair, but it isn’t for the working class. They discuss the fact he decided to open up our labour market to new members of the EU without appreciating how this may affect some of our existing workforce. I suggest, rather than accusing them of bigotry, it may be useful to empathise and remember that the vast majority of people are not inherently racist; they’re on the breadline.

However, ask people on the streets what they like about Blair and they’ll provide you with a litany of reasons. He set himself the target of 50 per cent of young people going into higher education and he succeeded: some of those being the first person in their family to attend. He created the National Minimum Wage. He propped up workers’ wages with tax credits so that work would be beneficial. These things were not just good policies; they were life-changing.

I certainly don’t envy Starmer. He has a mountain to climb winning back the hearts and minds of Labour’s traditional voters. But he would benefit from some lessons in confidence and strategy from Blair. It is time to move away from abstract student union ideas and embrace the fact that New Labour was not only palatable to the working class but a near perfect formula.

Join our commenting forum

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


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