One event this week told us all we need to know about today’s Labour Party, and it’s not about antisemitism or Brexit. It was the social media abuse hurled at Angela Rayner, the shadow education secretary, for saying she was glad Tony Blair was staying in the party, and praising a TV interview as one of his best.
Rayner, who faced calls to resign from Corbynistas, revealed she had installed panic alarms at her home after someone claiming to be a Jeremy Corbyn supporter threatened to rape and murder her. She is a loyalist but one with an independent mind – too independent, it seems, for Corbynistas who once saw her as a possible successor to their man, but no longer do.
For me, Rayner is one of the few people who could unite Labour’s hard and soft left and centre, and give it the broad appeal needed to win power. Yet Corbyn allies often seem more interested in maintaining their iron grip on the levers of power in the party.
For them, the term “Blairite” is “an insult of choice”, as my colleague John Rentoul and the academic Jon Davis note in a fascinating book, Heroes or Villains?, to be published by Oxford University Press next week. It is based on their course on the Blair government at King’s College, London, including lectures by ministers, political advisers and civil servants who served it, giving us an insightful ringside view.
Calling for a reassessment of the Blair administration, Rentoul and Davis argue that he was on balance a good prime minister, and better than most seeking office in the modern era. (After David Cameron’s ill-fated referendum and Theresa May’s failure to clear up the mess, it’s hard to disagree). “Historic victories were achieved, mistakes were made, but overall we believe that the condition of the country improved,” Rentoul and Davis write.
They hope that Blair’s reputation will eventually be in some way repaired, and make a convincing case. The barrier, of course, is a four-letter word – Iraq – on which they argue Blair’s decision to back American invasion was made for good reasons in what he thought was the national interest. A hard sell, that one – even for me. But it is regrettable that Blair’s record on domestic policy is so eclipsed by Iraq that today's Labour Party is still reluctant to trumpet his genuine achievements. That should be possible, even though Corbyn’s election as leader in 2015 was a reaction against New Labour.
The book is timely because voters who do not regard “Blairite” as a dirty word now have somewhere else to go, after eight Labour and three Tory MPs left their parties to form The Independent Group (TIG).
Today its spokesman Chuka Umunna has tried to answer the “what are you for?” question, and criticism that TIG is trying to be all things to all people and merely against the two established parties. In a pamphlet published by the Progressive Centre UK think tank, he argues that being “centrist” (another insult used by Corbyn Labour) does not mean supporting the status quo, and insists that TIG will be radical. He has a decent stab at a first draft of TIG’s policies, while insisting it is not a manifesto.
It would be pro-enterprise but not afraid to intervene in the economy. Rather than renationalising the utilities as Labour plans, they would become “public benefit companies”; instead of scrapping university tuition fees, Umunna wants to means-test them, and tax on stock dividends would be raised, to bring it into line with income tax. The NHS would be funded by an earmarked tax – a big idea, if not a new one. Overall, “results should supersede ideology” – an echo of Blair’s “what works” mantra. You just can’t avoid the man, can you?
But Umunna argues that TIG should avoid “splitting the difference” between the old approaches of right and left. He is right: to break the mould, the new group will have to offer something new. So it shouldn’t be Labour 2.0 or merge with the Liberal Democrats. There is certainly a gap in the market among the politically homeless who reject both the populist right and left.
Umunna writes that “too many progressive people are sitting in parties … no longer true to their values”. These include a lot of Corbynsceptic Labour MPs who are not ready to leave the party but privately share much of TIG’s analysis. The question they must ask themselves is: can Labour be won back from the hard left? Some MPs tell me they are convinced it can be, admittedly over a long period. I am not so sure. I think we are heading for a socialist party backed by the trade unions, a Conservative Party that defies predictions it will split over Brexit and a new progressive centre party. The early signs are that TIG can fill this gap.
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