I’ve been thinking a little about Blair and Miliband as Labour Party leaders, particularly as self-described ‘Blairite ultra’ John Rentoul has just published a second edition of his biography of Blair with a post-2001 afterward (extract available here). What strikes me is that Rentoul (who is by no means entirely uncritical of Blair) has to resort to self-parody when dealing with the most successful Labour Prime Minister since Clement Atlee in policy and achievement terms; and since, well.. nobody else in terms of his electoral success.
The subject of Tony Blair really serves to indicate why I originally chose to post anonymously, given that it’s a guaranteed provocation much like the Second Amendment or Right to Life ‘debates’ in the United States, in as much as it doesn’t provoke debate (in the sense of an exchange of views with the potential for establishing common ground for possible mutual agreement) but rather provokes litanies of received truth which can never accept modification or even admit the legitimacy of alternative points of view.
The negative positioning of Blair has largely been established by a popular narrative of ‘lies’ over Iraq, the ‘privatisation of the health service’, the adoption of centrally-controlled targets in the NHS, the introduction of student fees, etc, etc. Much of this I regard as willfully mistaken, and even delusional, but that’s not the point I wanted to deal with here. Aside from the ‘presidential style of premiership’ which is usually peddled by right-wing commentators, what strikes me about this narrative is how far it has been originated and shaped by left-wing commentators and notably within the Labour party itself.
This only serves as a reminder that the ‘New Labour’ project was never fully accepted by many in the Labour party, even after the humilating electoral defeats of 1987 and 1992 which made New Labour a practical necessity and gave Blair his authority before disillusionment set in. The lack of understanding and, ultimately, support for New Labour policies within the party lead to the post-Iraq adversarial positioning of Gordon Brown as ‘authentic Labour’ to gain legitimacy for the putsch which eventually toppled Blair, and the positioning of Ed Miliband as less ‘Blairite’, in terms of message and use of ‘old labour’ union support, than his brother David in the post-Brown leadership contest.
But the conflict between moving Labour away from the left and towards the centre in policy terms (a.k.a. ‘making the party electable’) was never a unique feature of the New Labour era, and in many respects goes back to the Gaitskill/Bevan and Healey/Benn struggles of the sixties and seventies. Those struggles, just like the Blair/anti-Blair tensions decades later, hinged around a Labour party which sought to establish legitimacy internally, from selective group of Labour activists or major union leaders, and one which sought external legitimacy from the larger British electorate. In those terms, Blair’s unpopularity was due to the endless and cyclical struggle between the evangelists and the wider public; that Blair was prepared to alienate the former rather than the latter indicates his lasting stature as a social democrat politician.
The problem for the Labour party, as Ed Miliband’s recent tension with union leadership over the selection of local candidates indicates, is that this eternal conflict between ideology and realism endures. Even if he does succeed in internal reform of the selection process, the larger problem will endure, as Denis Healey quoted Sidney Webb from 1930 – ‘…the constituency parties are frequently unrepresentative groups of nonentities dominated by fanatics and cranks, and extremists; if the block vote of the Trade Unions were eliminated it would be impracticable to continue to vest the control of policy in Labour Party Conferences’.
Blair’s record of taking them on goes all the way back to Clause 4 debates; Ed’s goes back to… well, nowhere, given that whatever reforms actually go through will be taken as alienating the old Labour machine which secured him the leadership in the first place. But better a late convert to the ranks of the realists than another Michael Foot-esque kamikaze joyride into electoral oblivion cheered to the echo at the party conference.