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Tony Blair: New Labour’s relationship with the Murdoch press was a ‘necessary evil’

The former Prime Minister on dealing with the right-wing press, New Labour’s alleged obsession with celebrities and how he wished he had reformed the party to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn could never have been leader

John Rentoul
Tuesday 20 March 2018 14:35 GMT
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Tony Blair: New Labour’s relationship with the Murdoch press was a ‘necessary evil’

When Tony Blair came to talk to the class I co-teach at King’s College London last week, he defended his “different” form of centrist social democracy, and his outward-looking pro-European vision, which I wrote about here. He answered a question from each of the 18 students, which meant he covered a lot of ground.

Here is what he had to say about Alastair Campbell, dealing with the right-wing press, New Labour’s alleged obsession with celebrities and how he wished he had reformed the Labour Party organisation to ensure that Jeremy Corbyn could never have been leader.

The second question Blair was asked was about his handling of the media and the importance to New Labour of Alastair Campbell: “I’m really sorry you’re asking about Alastair because he said to me, ‘You’ll go there and they’ll just ask about me,’ and I said, ‘No, they won’t Alastair.’”

But he answered the question: “Not to have a good media operation in today’s politics, and even more so in the era of social media, is like running a football team and not having a training ground. You’ve just got to do it. But it’s never a substitute for the substance.”

Tony Blair speaks to King’s College London students last week (Tim Ireland)
Tony Blair speaks to King’s College London students last week (Tim Ireland) (Tim Ireland, King's College London)

Another student asked if he considered his relationship with the Murdoch press a necessary evil. Blair said: “Yes. We basically looked at the history of the Labour Party over the past 18 years and at the savaging that we got in the right-wing media, and we decided that we had to at least diminish the hostility, even if it wasn’t possible always to get them onside. It was always one of the things I was most uncomfortable about. On the other hand I have to say that in its early days it worked.”

He also pointed out that the newspapers were different then: “The Daily Mail when I came to power was pro-Europe. I don’t think the editor-in-chief of the time, who tragically died a year into the Labour government [Sir David English], would ever have allowed it to go into this bellicose anti-Europe position.”

He was asked if his government was too associated with celebrities. “One of the great myths of the government was that I was heavily into all these celebrity endorsements. I really wasn’t, actually. I always tried to look at politics from the point of view of an ordinary person. So if a pop star endorses someone what does that make me feel? ‘That’s interesting,’ but I don’t think, ‘I wasn’t going to vote for them but I am now, because some bloke who plays the guitar well tells me this person is going to run the country well.’”

The student persisted: “Where does the impression come from, then?”

Blair blamed the Conservatives: “The same thing happened with Bill Clinton. Our opponents found it hard to attack our basic policy agenda, so what they attacked us as was unprincipled people who were spinning their way to power.” He referred to the photo of him with Noel Gallagher (when Oasis were at the peak of their fame) at a music industry reception in No 10 two months after he became Prime Minister: “I remember bumping into Noel Gallagher at that party in 1997 and I hadn’t the faintest idea he’d been invited.”*

Blair was asked what was his proudest moment as Prime Minister: “The two things that happened where you could say there was a moment – I was proud of the way the health service was when I left office, but it wasn’t a moment – would be the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and the winning of the Olympics in 2005.”

Blair travelled to Singapore in 2005 for the vote of the International Olympic Committee, which was deciding between London and Paris as the host of the 2012 Games. “That was also the occasion of the most insincere response I ever gave, which was when I was asked the day after we won the Olympics, did beating France make victory any sweeter? I said no.”

Finally, he was asked if he would change anything from his time as Prime Minister, and I think it is worth quoting his answer in full:

“Yeah, lots. Of course. Because you learn. Post-9/11 we underestimated the deep-seated forces that were fuelling the extremism, and that led us to believe that if we got rid of the regimes in Afghanistan and Iraq the countries would stabilise automatically, and that was not going to happen.

“In domestic policy it took me a term to realise that we had to drive reform structurally and not just beat the system over the head with a big stick and hope that it reacted better. If you beat the system over the head with a big stick it does react better until you stop beating it and then it goes back to where it was. So yeah, I’d do that.

“I would pay more attention – but this is easy to say with hindsight – to making absolutely sure that after I left the politics of the Labour Party were more likely to stay in the position in which I put it, because I honestly do believe that the Labour Party will only govern again for a substantial period of time if it’s back as a modern social-democratic party.”

The first part of this report is here. We hope to publish a full transcript of the session shortly.

Thanks to my co-teachers Jon Davis and Michelle Clement, and to Alun Evans, chief executive of the British Academy, for hosting the class.

*In fact Blair said to Alastair Campbell the day before “he had no idea [Gallagher] had been invited”, according to Campbell’s diary: “TB was worried that Noel Gallagher was coming to the reception tomorrow … TB felt he was bound to do something crazy.”

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