Tag Archive: Tony Blair
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As I’ve said before, Labour needs to move on from Blair. Not because New Labour was an intrinsically wrong approach to the issues Labour and the country faced in 1994, but because Continuity New Labour is the intrinsically wrong approach to the issues Labour and the country are faced with in 2013. Mark Ferguson is quite right that the old fashioned and out of touch nature of Blair’s calls for a bloodless, pre-social media, message managed approach that simply has no place in modern politics.
New Labour was born from terrible beginnings. The architects were right that Labour had become an electoral disaster stuck in a comfort mode of simply opposing and not offering a fully coherent and attractive alternative government. Labour cannot and must not fall into the trap of just being oppositional. But this is not a binary choice. We don’t have to choose between highlighting the cruelties and failures of the Tory approach and offering our own alternatives. A good opposition must do both.
I get that the result of the 1992 election scarred a lot of people in the Labour Party. But we need to move on from that too. Because the 1997 – 2007 way of doing things has become just as much of a comfort blanket to some Labour members as has the 1980 – 1987 approach.
There seems to have settled in some less imaginative members of the Labour Party an idea that there are only two ways of being Labour – new and old. If you aren’t one, you simply must be the other. But to those of us who are neither it’s deeply insulting. We’ve moved beyond both. Which is good because neither have the answers we need now. This is not about the battles of the past – be they Foot Vs Thatcher or Brown Vs Blair. It’s about the battles of the present and the battle for the future.
Just as Thatcher set the tone from the 80s for those who would follow her from Labour, so too did Blair set the tone for those who would follow him from the Conservatives. That’s why Lance Price is so wrong to argue that Ed Miliband is in trouble if the Tories agree with Blair’s analysis. The truth is quite the opposite. If Ed Miliband really is determined to be a politician who changes the consensus – as I believe he is – then surprising your opponents is essential. Cameron and Osborne are dealing with their own comfort zones too. Between their Thatcherite policy making and sub-Blairite politicking they show little attempt at truly being a Government that can change the political consensus. Cameron and Osborne agree with Blair simply becuase they lazily took on his approach to political analysis and communication rather than ever trying to define and carve out their own space and define their own style.
Ed isn’t doing that. Ed has his own analysis, and his own approach. That’s quite right but it’s also quite unsettling for those whose approach he is moving away from. But that’s why it is a million miles from either of Labour’s stifling comfort zones.
Chris Huhne has broken the law and – quite rightly – will be going to jail. His personal behaviour, first the speeding then the lying have led to his political downfall. A lawmaker cannot be a lawbreaker.
Chris Huhne deserves to be punished for his wrongdoing. But his public punishment is that jail sentence. His public punishment is the loss of his career. His public punishment is the public exposure of the hubris that has been his undoing.
Chris Huhne chose to be a public figure. His son Peter has not. His son Peter deserves the privacy we would all expect when we are going through a difficult time with our families. That Chris Huhne hypocritically used the family he was about to destroy during an election campaign is not the fault of that family. They should not be further destroyed in the court of public opinion. The texts between Huhne and his son should have been protected. There was no public interest in that heartbreak.
Politician’s children do not belong to the general public. They are private individuals with public parents. Many may choose the same path, but if they do opt for public life, then that should be their choice (that it should be their talent that informs their success, not their connections is a column for another day). Their privacy must be respected and fought for as much as we fight for the privacy of any individual.
It is also true of politicians children whatever age they are. In Ben Goldacre’s otherwise excellent book ‘Bad Science’ he describes the non-disclosure of details around Leo Blair’s vaccinations as “the biggest public health disaster of all”. I understand that Ben Goldacre doesn’t like Tony Blair much, and I respect his reasons why.
But the sins of the father should absolutely not be visited on the child. Just as politicians should not use their children as ornaments so too should those children have their privacy respected by others. I believe strongly that supporting the MMR jab in the way the Labour government did was the right thing to do in terms of public health. I don’t believe that opening up the medical records of the Prime Ministers’ children to public scrutiny is the right way to go about promoting that. The MMR disclosure becomes the catalyst for the media seeking disclosure on a lot nastier things.
Imagine if a child of a senior politician contracted a Sexually transmitted disease? Developed an alcohol or drug habit? Had an abortion? Or just wanted to go on the pill at 13? These would be considered along the same “public interest” lines as the MMR job would have been in 2001. Privacy between a patient and a doctor should remain paramount – and that must be particularly true when the patient is a minor, unable to decide for themselves how public they want their medical history to be.
This is true in the wider arena too. If Nick Clegg sends his children to private school I won’t judge them for being privately educated. I will however, judge him for making that choice. Just as I judge any politicians who speaks of fairness and equality while giving their child a wholly artificial boost in life. Not least for not having the clarity to realise that it is their children who suffer in an unequal world too. The failings of Nick Clegg as a politician and he failing of his commitment to the values he espouses are his fault. As a politicians he can and should be judged harshly on them. But just as don’t judge Labour politicians who went to private school for the choices their parents made, so too do I refuse to judge Clegg’s children for his misjudgement.
As the world gets more complicated public every day, we need to think about what we have a right to know from people who are not themselves political actors and who have never sought to be. I may be the last generation who grew up not making my most ghastly mistakes in ways that would have an everlasting digital imprint. As a rather misguided Sunday Express journalist proved when she went after the facebook pages of the survivors of the Dunblane massacre, it’s easy to find dirt on ordinary kids if you go looking. Imagine how much easier that is when the kid has famous parents.
As the case of Chris Huhne has shown, it was not enough for the press to go after his crime and report his downfall. The family angle was all too prurient for them to ignore. This kind of intrusion – into the lives of people whose only crime was to be born to parents with political jobs – must be part and parcel of any discussion over how privacy and regulation of media intrusion can and must work.
Thi spost first appeared on LabourList.
So there it was, the 2003 show all over again. Only this time we had Twitter to amplify the reaction to every sylable, every utterence, even – it seems – every hand gesture. It seems that love him or hate him, some people just can’t stop talking about Tony. Yesterday was just the latest in a long line of occassions on which every utterance was disected and pored over by the lovers and the haters while the rest of us stood by in abject “huh” mode.
Does it matter? A little bit. If Blair is a keen as reported to get back involved in domestic politics, then these explosions will become more frequent and as a result more distracting from the real politics of the day. Which doesn’t work either for those who love him or loath him and is incredibly frustrating for the rest of us.
At the end of the day, Blair is just one man. He was and still is an extraordiany communicator. He was and still is largely (but not solely) responsible for one of the biggest political mistakes in recent British history. I’m less angered by him now than I was during the long and extremely divisive leadership contest. I don’t miss him, but with distance I can appreciate his better qualities.
But those qualities, the strategies that made New Labour successful and the policies he persued on everything from public service reform to the minimum wage are not confined to one man. And as long both extremes continue to act as if they are, they will continue to detract from the virtues of the case for either a continuation of those actions and politics or a differentiation.
These days I’m relatively neutral on Blair, though I accept that I have not come from such a place, and will be treated with suspicison by his fans and treated as if I’m rejecting all morality by his detractors. But if he is to take up a greater role in public life, we should not let that be at a detriment to the current political health of the nation. He’s an elder statesman and he has the right to be heard, he’s certainly earned that. But he’ll never lead Labour again and his time of doing so has passed. He is neither always right nor always wrong, but if his every utterance is treated either a the sole blueprint for the future or as the works of the devil to be avoided at all costs, then any value in what we can learn from Blair – for good or for bad – is lost.
If Blair’s fans want their man to have a role in public life, they will need to learn to behave more naturally when he intervenes, and less like a 12 year old at a Justin Bieber concert. If his detractors want to convince Labour to turn their backs on all things Blairite, they need to behave less like a convert at thier first stoning. Make the arguments about the policy, not the man. Criticise him where it is due of course. Praise him too where that is also due. But take on the arguments in thier substance not the essential ephmera of an all too human individual.
Following an interesting Twitter exchange with John Rentoul & Alex Smith (and considering I’ve already done one post about News International, which I believe holds true despite today’s developments) where Rentoul revealed that Liam Gallagher has likened his brother Noel to Tony Blair.
Enjoying the comparison, I thought I’d give “The Labour leadership of Tony Blair, through the medium of Oasis albums” a go.
Definitely Maybe/clause 4
What was needed was an audacious debut. Something that would have the press sitting up and paying attention. Coming almost out of nowhere this brave move is often considered by aficionados as the career peak – despite the populism that was to come.
(What’s the Story) Morning Glory/1997 – 2002.
Confident, cocksure, swaggering even for a while this was the only game in town. While more sensitive souls yearned for something a bit more nuanced, a bit more “left field”, there was no denying the spot on populism and popularity of a winning formula.
The splits with once loyal colleages though could be seen as a warning of what was to come.
Be Here Now/Iraq
Now Widely agreed to be a huge blundering mistake, even by those keen to sing its praises at the time, this was an overlong, overblown rambling mess. Sadly it had all of the swagger of previous endeavours even as the Emperor was proved to be naked.
Standing on the Shoulders of Giants/Public Service Reform
Widely loathed, but strangely loved by the true believers. Moments of genius can’t hide a darker and more disturbing direction.
Heathen Chemistry/Good Friday Agreement
When it works, when it’s good, it surprises you with just how good it can really be.
I’m going to leave my loyal reader to ponder among themselves (or in the comments) where I might have gone with Oasis’ last album – Don’t Believe The Truth…
Tony Blair was in the Sun today, which was nice for him. The interview was all that we’ve come to expect. How you react to that depends largely on whether you agree with him or not. I’m a bit over all that. This is not another post about Blair.
What did interest me was the amount of people referring to Blair as Blue Labour. Which struck me as wrong. Blue Labour seems to be about a combination of taming the power of capital and reclaiming traditionalism. Blairism was about a sense of ultra-modernity and riding the tide of capitalism to try to lift all the boats.
Similarly, I found myself arguing with someone at least as intelligent as me (and probably twice so) about the Blue Labour focus on “Family Faith and Flag”. His contention was that these concepts in and of themselves belong natural and solely on the right and that we should not be focused on them. My argument, and from what I have read, I think Blue Labour’s (though I’m happy to be disabused as some of it is impenetrable), is that there are excellent leftist arguments for redefining what we mean by family values, i.e. valuing families of all shapes and sizes and supporting them, rather than the narrow right wing focus of defining families in a traditional way and only supporting those who fit the definition. Equally as I have said before, we should not let the right own the concept of patriotism, and let it become conflated with nationalism. We have to have a positive vision for Britain, and be patriotic enough to want to see it enacted. I’m less comfortable with the concept of religion and politics mixing, but equally, as someone with a great deal of interaction with the Christian Socialist Movement, I deny utterly that faith (of any denomination) is a right wing concept.
For now, it doesn’t really matter to the Blue Labour gang – while they have Ed Miliband’s ear – that people don’t really understand who they are and what they want. The leader will set the direction of travel and they will help him, whether the rest of us understand what they’re talking about or not.
But if they want thier ideas to become part of the longer term canon of Labourism, they need to democratise their presentation. They need someone who can translate their academicese to real people, real Labour Party members who, might be surprised by how much they find they support.
This post first appeared on Labour List
Recently there has been a lot of focus on individual players within the Labour Party. This is inevitable, and – as Mark’s recent piece observed – leadership matters. I understand this – trust me, I wouldn’t have devoted my summer to Ed Miliband’s leadership campaign if I didn’t – but it’s not the only thing that matters, especially in a party such as ours. It was Ed’s recognition of the value of our collective nature that – in part – led to my support for his candidacy.
The ranking of cabinet ministers by their profile in prliament and the press has some superficial attraction. We can see who is best placed at taking our messages out to the public, and who has the ferocity and forensic skills to represent us in high profile parliamentary briefs. Both of these are important in attracting future voters and scrutinising the current government. But there is something missing in this assessment, and that is the job some are doing in making the party itself a vehicle capable of winning and governing again.
It is very easy to fall into the trap of looking for a messiah to lead us from the darkness, believing that our path back is all about one person – the right person – and to ignore all the other things we need to do. The idea that we should put all faith and decision making into the hands of a charismatic leader has served us well in the past, and Tony Blair’s charisma and strength to carry out much needed reform worked well for Labour for many years. But then it stopped working.
It stopped working in part because Blair got tired and picked his battles less carefully, allowing the initially brilliant strategy of New Labour to become an inflexible dogma that in the end destroyed it. But it also stopped working because it can only ever be an illusion that policy and governance can be achieved through the work of one person.
It’s a dangerous illusion too. Because the more we believe it, the more we seek a person, the “heir to Blair”. Brown’s inability to be that person was in part his failure to understand that he didn’t have what it took, but more a failure to understand that if you aren’t, you need to offer something else, not just attempt to shape yourself into a leader. If we spend all our time seeking personalities, we will continue to play in the shallows of personality politics giving less attention to the truly difficult bit, the building of a party than can work together, using all its resources, to create policy that is both ideologically and politically satisfactory, and to build a narrative together that adapts to our separate communities. Some will read this article as an attack on Ed Miliband. It isn’t, not one bit. It is actually applauding the fact that I believe Ed sees the importance of this strategy.
This is why seeing Peter Hain ranked so low under the measures used concerns me. Because I’ve heard from Peter several times as he works with me and the party to have a conversation (one people can actually believe in) about how to change our party. I know that Peter is doing the work that won’t get him in the pressn and won’t get him parliamentary coverage but that is an absolutely essential part of making us able to win and fit to govern. He’s rebuilding the Labour Party from one that only functioned through the control of a small, exceptional group managing the message, policy, direction and process, to one where every member feels they have a real connection to the party and the ability (if they want it) to contribute to our policy making. It isn’t sexy, and it won’t generate press coverage, but it is the start of rebuilding a movement that has long term appeal in our more democratic age.
We don’t yet know what the outcome of the Partnership into Power review will be. I hear the same cynical voices as everyone else does about what has gone so wrong before with the NPF and the process until now. But if we are going to make Labour policy and politics about more than the personalities and something all members can be proud of being engaged in, we need to put aside that cynicism, and feed into an important process. If we take ownership of it, it will not only have the strength of mass acceptance, but it will also be far harder to dismantle or ignore. So let me return to conference next year and tell the Labour Party staff member who drunkenly told me that “the NPF doesn’t matter” that it (and the wider policy making process) does now.
Submissions to the policy review and in response to the review of Partnership into Power can also be made by email to PiP@new,labour.org.uk or in writing c/o Policy and Research Department, The Labour Party, 39 Victoria Street, London, SW1H 0HA.
I’ve been putting this post off for just about forever. It’s almost impossible to write properly, such is the jumble of my thoughts and feelings on the subject. I don’t know why I’ve chosen today to sit down and finally write it, but I think it’s important that Labour try to work through its feelings on this topic, and given I’m quite good at loudly demanding the Party behaves in one way or another, it would be hypocritical of me not to attempt to do the same.
I was against the war in Iraq from the start. I had a number of reasons for being so, not all of them noble. I marched and chanted, I wrote to my MP and to Tony Blair outlining why I thought action was wrong. I had long passionate arguments with people on both sides (of which more on the anti-war side later).
I am not a pacifist. My Mother is. My Father isn’t so it was a discussion I was used to having by the time I was creating my own set of beliefs from the foundations they gave me; and I saw that war can rarely but sometimes be the lesser of two evils. Having been extemely concerned about the plight of the Afghan people since my attention was drawn to the terrible treatment of women by the Taliban. It seemed to me then, as it does now, that, as an internationalist, my feminism and sense of solidarity with oppressed people should not stop at my own borders. So after the 9/11 attacks made it clear that there would be a war in Afghanistan, I supported that action.
But I wanted that war to be conducted well and with full respect to international law. So when the rumours started that vital resources that should have been poured into what was already a very difficult conflict were going to be moved to support a new war, one for which I did not feel the justification or the timing was as strong, I was dismayed.
None of that is to say that I felt that Saddam Hussein should not have been removed if at all possible. Nor that his sons would have been an improvement. Saddam was a brutal dictator, and I know that the choice I would have made by not going to war, had it been up to me, would have left people suffering. That is the kind of decision making you have to accept if you are a nation’s leader, and no one does so lightly. But whereas above I said I felt war could sometimes be the lesser of two evils, here I felt that prosecuting one war well while not intervening elsewhere was the right thing to do.
I realise this all sounds like hindsight. I am confident in myself that it is not, and that I was making these arguments at the time, but I would utterly forgive scepticism on this point. However, things having happened as they did, and the Iraq war being a drain on resources having happened as it did, this must be part of any future consideration of conflict.
One thing to consider, when thinking about why the Labour Government, and Tony Blair in particular brought us in to this war, is what would have happened if Britain hadn’t joined in. I personally don’t believe that it would have stopped America going to war. I don’t think anyone could argue that would have been the case. They’d just have stopped eating English Muffins (what are these, crumpets? Muffins? Scones?) or renamed them “Freedom Muffins” It would have been a huge diplomatic incident, but it would not have stopped the war.
Here’s something I believe: Tony Blair thought (probably rightly) that the war would be better prosecuted if the American troops were softened by force with a better record of community engagement. I think Blair thought that the British army could soften the bullishness of the Americans and bring about a more liberal engagement strategy. Essentially, I believe – and always have – on Iraq, that Tony Blair did the wrong thing for good reasons.
Now I really wish I had posted this before the election, becuase this next paragraph is going to look like pure opportunism.
I would like to ask the Liberal Democrat who read this blog if they can now – after all that they’ve been through propping up the Tories in the belief that in doing so they softened them – understand a bit more of what Blair’s thinking process was. When people say that tuition fees could be your Iraq, we know people aren’t dying over tuition fees, and that as such it makes it on a superficial level an odd comparison. But here you have a leader, claiming to fervently believe in a policy that is tearing his party apart, the justification for which is that their involvement is what makes that a better policy than it would have been otherwise. I don’t ask you to forgive Blair for Iraq, but perhaps now you do have a greater understanding of why we ended up there – despite so many in the Party telling Blair how damaging it would be to us as a Party.
You see, I told you not all my reasons for not wanting to go to Iraq were noble. At least part of me didn’t want us to go because I knew that the decision to do so was already tearing the Party apart and that could only get worse the longer we were in conflict. So I believed that going to war in Iraq would damage the Labour Party, and our ability to govern and campaign effectively. This has – of course – been true, but basing decisions about going or not going to work on domestic political concerns – while a regular occurrence – is not exactly morally spotless.
So that’s why I went out on a freezing day in February 2003 to March with 2 million others who had come to the same conclusion through a variety of different routes.
The problem with doing so was that it put me down as a fellow traveller of some people for whom I have very little time. I don’t believe one should follow the old adage the enemy of my enemy is my friend (look how well that turned out with Osama Bin Laden for a start), and I am not happy to call the vast majority of what’s left of the Stop the War Coalition my friends. I have no time for George Galloway or the SWP, nor of the black and white way they tried to fight this argument. When I watched Fahrenheit 9/11 I was disgusted by the depiction of prewar Iraq as a sort of pre-Blue Meanies Pepperland. I felt it debased me and the complex nuances I was trying to argue. I know that as a result of being publicly anti-war, part of my choice was to be considered a fellow traveller of these people. I can only hope that those who get to know me know that I am not a Saddam apologist and never have been.
So where do we go from here? In many ways it’s almost a moot point. The failures in Afghanistan and Iraq have rendered the doctrine of liberal intervention if not dead then in for a very long period of hibernation. If another war comes it will likely only follow such an immense and clear act of aggression that few will be able to discount it (though some numpties will try) and the case for war will be far clearer. Labour need to reclaim a mantle of international law enforcement that we gained in Kosovo and had severely tarnished through our engagement with Guantanamo Bay and other failures. We need to have a stronger doctrine of saying no to our stronger allies where we feel it is important to do so. This need to be written into our understanding of foreign policy. We must have red lines here too.
So there you have it. One woman’s attempt to understand where we went wrong, explain her own position and examine where we go next. It’s not complete and I suspect no one will agree totally with my thinking or analysis but it’s the best I can get from the morass of thoughts that have been accumulating in my head on this issue for years.
Hopefully this is the last time I will ever post about Tony Blair. I won’t be buying his book, I won’t be reading his book (I hear the prose is terrible) and I don’t take his interventions very seriously, so won’t be reacting to any of his ridiculous statements about policy or politics.
My interest is in the future of the Labour Party and the policies a future Labour government will enact. Some of this future will be based on an analysis of history, so the only reason I am responding to Blair’s book is to put my take on the history of the Blair administration. This is in addition to my pre-election analysis of what Labour needed to change to get over 1992.
We won in 1997 because we offered a radical alternative to the Tories. for all Blair’s subsequent positioning, and for all the criticism of him at the time, this was a real Labour agenda with some real Labour achievements. The Minimum Wage, Freedom of Information, the New Deal and statutory holiday pay were all radical at the time and very Labour.
We were rewarded for this radicalism in 2001 when we won a second landslide. Turnout was significantly down though – at the time felt because the election didn’t seem to be much of a contest. Perhaps this lowering of turnout should instead have been a first warning, but it wasn’t taken as such. Instead, forces within Labour decided that the reason for winning was not the radical policies we had enacted, but the triangulation and rightist presentation they had been dressed in. Slowly at first and then more rapidly as Blair became more and more disconnected from his party Labour started to ditch the radicalism, and dress up managerialism with a shiny right of centre wrapping. Blair’s regret of the Hunting Act strike me as an obvious regret over one of the last truly radical acts of that era of government.
In 2005, Blair was incredibly lucky to be faced with Michael Howard as Tory leader. Had the Tories chosen a Cameron style change – someone not from the discredited Major years, someone young and charismatic – the election could have been a lot closer. We lost millions of votes and over 100 seats. Fought as tired New Labour with full emphasis on triangualtion and modernising (Forward, Not Back – worst election slogan ever?), we only managed to limp to a three point lead over the Tories in the national polls. We didn’t win that election as New Labour, the Tories lost it again as the Same Old Tories.
To learn these lessons properly, we need to deny the braying voices on the right of our party who are frozen ever further into the New Labour dogma of eternal rightward shifting and triangulation. We won and were then rewarded when we offered a radical but electable alternative. We started to lose when we offered little but managerialism and attempts to outflank the Tories on the right.
We will continue and deserve to lose if we don’t just talk about offering something radically different, but do so too. Our leader – whoever they end up being – must understand the need the electorate will have to see a difference, a radicalism about our offer and must be able to sell that vision with passion and conviction. Brown went wrong not because he abandoned New Labour, but because in promising to abandon it and them failing to offer a definition of what his vision of a post-New Labour government meant, he failed to actually move on but ended up merely offering a blurring of the presentation.
We must now – after too long – define Labour for the 21st Centuary and make an attractive offer of that definition.