Tony Blair thinks British voters won't want a choice between Jeremy Corbyn and Boris Johnson – he's wrong

It was Labour’s two decades inhabiting the centre ground that was the anomaly

Will Gore
Friday 07 September 2018 13:31
Tony Blair warns Labour may never be 'taken back' from Corbynites

There is a faint absurdity to Tony Blair’s contention that Labour’s moderates might not be able to “take back” the party from its present masters on the left. After all, they did it before – Blair was among the most moderate of the successful moderates who came to prominence in the party in the 1990s. But there is also a strong argument that it was Labour’s two decades inhabiting the centre ground that was the anomaly.

In that period of course – especially during Blair’s time in charge – there must have been plenty on the left of the party who wondered whether it might ever be possible for them to “take back” control. Now, antisemitism row and Brexit debates notwithstanding, Jeremy Corbyn and his supporters are most definitely at the helm.

Still, the political winds have a habit of changing, so to imagine that the Labour Party cannot, at some stage swing once again towards the centre-ground seems odd – though Blair is surely right that it ain’t gonna happen in the near future.

But what of the former prime minister’s further claim, in his interview with the BBC, that the absence of a centrist force will leave voters with nowhere to turn if they don’t fancy either Corbyn or a Boris Johnson character at the head of the Conservatives as and when the country next goes to the polls?

Let’s put to one side the assumption that the Tories’ next leader will be further to the right than its present one (Sajid Javid would surely give Boris a run for his money and might offer a more palatable prospect to swing voters). The more remarkable thing about Blair’s analysis is that, on the face of it, he seems to ignore every prevailing political trend. As Mark Steel wrote for The Independent on Thursday, there are any number of examples from the past decade that show “centrism” being rejected in favour of alternative visions from either the left or the right.

After all, for a great many voters, the politics of the centre – call it progressive liberalism, even neoliberalism if you like – has shown itself a failure: its leading lights were apparently unable to see the global financial crash approaching; and the policies of austerity that were proclaimed as the best medicine have only caused more suffering.

History, however, cuts both ways. If centre-ground politicians like Blair – or Brown, or Cameron, or Osborne – failed to spot the worldwide recession before it happened, so did pretty much everyone else at either end of the political spectrum (Vince Cable, it should be noted, was one of the few who did and he currently heads the party of the centre that everyone vying to move either Labour or the Tories back towards the middle conveniently ignores).

Tony Blair says Brexit could lead UK down 'dark path'

What’s more, while it is patently true that policies of austerity have squeezed the living standards of millions (both in this country and, even more profoundly, in places such as Greece, which were beset by structural problems even before the crash), we should be wary of assuming that alternative approaches would have restored economic equanimity. Just because government cuts have caused pain to individuals doesn’t mean that a huge programme of borrowing would have left us any better off in the long run.

Indeed, for those who point to the last decade as proof that the brand of politics endorsed by the Tony Blairs of this world are beyond the pale, it is worth going back a bit further before reaching any firm conclusion about the righteousness of populist nationalism or leftist statism. The world has seen varied manifestations of both – and they have frequently worked out rather badly; even if you ignore the worst extremes.

In one respect, then, Blair is right in his analysis: there are surely quite a lot of people who would not want to vote for either Boris Johnson (or Jacob Rees-Mogg for that matter) or Jeremy Corbyn. But that’s not the binary choice voters will be offered. And – this is what Blair may crucially underestimate – there are an awful lot of people who would vote for one of those two.

That is surely because for most voters, labels like “nationalist”, “populist” and “socialist” (and “centrist” for that matter) are fairly meaningless. Johnson and Corbyn would both offer apparently cogent policies for making the country better-off and individuals richer: after that, they simply have to convince voters that they have the character to run the country.

And for the rest of us, there’s always Vince.

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