Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

Two types of Labour PM

Was Tony Blair the best prime minister we ever had, or just in the top one? Before the man who left office five years ago last week became prime minister, if you worked in a bar, you could be paid a pound an hour to work in a smoke-filled room. If you were homosexual, you enjoyed none of the protections and privileges of a heterosexual from a shared stake in your partner’s home to the right to be protected on the school playground. If you went to a museum or an art gallery, then you had to pay to go in. If you got ill, you went to a hospital that was among the lowest-funded in Europe. If you had children, they went to crumbling schools with falling standards.

Yes, when he left office there were still dragons to slay; there weren’t enough houses built, we left the financial services industry dangerously under-regulated and we were in embroiled in a bloody war. But Harold Wilson sent arms to the apartheid regime in South Africa and let Rhodesia slip into a racist dictatorship, while Clement Attlee oversaw the exodus of the Palestinians from the British mandate, and we all know what happened to Jim Callaghan. To govern is to choose, and to choose is often to make mistakes.

Blair’s great crime was to win that third election, to go where no Labour leader had gone before. It meant that he had no one left to blame but himself. If Attlee had won re-election in 1951 – and let’s not forget, if he’d held on until the spring of 1952, he would almost certainly have done so – then we would remember him for the failures of grammar schools, which he implemented, an uncertain and sometimes racially charged response to the break-up of empire, and an awful war in Korea. Equally, if Uwe Seeler hadn’t knocked England out of the world cup, then Wilson would have overseen violent escalation in Ireland, an oil shock and very probably a three-day week.  There are two types of Labour prime ministers: those who fail, and those who lose general elections.

The problem for Blair was that he created a rod for his own back when he created ‘Old Labour’, which, let’s face it, never really existed. There was no mythical era of doctrinaire socialist governments who never compromised and never made mistakes. Governments have to make a lot of decisions involving a lot of people, and even the right decisions – to intervene in Kosovo, say, or to retreat from India – have awful consequences. For conservatives, who don’t believe that government can work, and have done their best to prove it, failure is part of the deal. It wins the argument. But for the progressives, who believe that government can build a better world, someone has to take the blame for the failures of a New Jerusalem.

Sometimes it’s the economy, sometimes the electoral system, but, in Britain, most frequently, blame starts at the top. MacDonald’s treachery, Attlee’s age, Wilson’s cronyism, Callaghan’s weakness, Blair’s love of money, Brown’s indecision. Lost in that sound and fury is the reality that, for leftwingers, Blair was as good as it gets. Near-full employment, an understanding of poverty that was global, not just local, a transformation in the standards and quality of public services. If you were unhappy under Blair, you’ll never be happy with a leftwing government.

But if we’ve done it before – and we certainly have – then why stop with Blair? Why does his standing matter to anyone but the historians? Because how we talk about the past shapes how we win the future. Polls consistently show that when people are asked what they think of Labour, they basically reply: ‘Good but incompetent’

While we might not suddenly be transformed into the natural party of government by being a little bit nicer about our most successful prime minister, it wouldn’t be a bad start.


Stephen Bush writes a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


Photo: Center for American Progress

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Stephen Bush

is a contributing editor to Progress, formerly wrote a weekly column for Progress, the Tuesday review, and tweets @stephenkb


  • Didn’t Tony Blair’s ability to introduce minimum wage and fund hospitals partly come from the fact that we were living through boom years? A Tory government might have done the same…

  • Didn’t Tony Blair’s ability to introduce minimum wage and fund hospitals partly come from the fact that we were living through boom years? A Tory government might have done the same…

  • Ha! Except they vehemently opposed them? Particularly the Minimum Wage, when David Cameron campaigned against it and said it would cost Britain a million jobs.

  • Nope, I think you’ll find they opposed the introduction of the minimum wage, due to their ideological opposition to regulation and red tape. As for funding the NHS, I really don’t think so…

  • Thanks for the article. it ocured to me the othr day how painful it must be for a Blair hater to have to acknowledge that Tony was electorally the most sucessful Labour PM ever. I imagined one of them at a quiz where that was one of the questions. Could they get the answer sticking in their throat out in time!

  • Defiantly not the best Prime Minister & Defiantly not the best Labour one. (Attlee wins that hands down. I would also nominate him as the countries best PM)

  • I agree with you, Stephen. What a pity, then, that bigots like Diane Abbott still get preferential treatment by the media (particularly the BBC) allowing them undeserved publicity (why is this traitor on the front bench?).

  • I was very disappointed at conference when Ed received a round of applause for ‘not being Tony Blair’.

    Yes not everything Tony Blair did was perfect and yes there were mistakes but we must consider all of the exceptional and truly ‘Labour’ things that were accomplished during his time in office.

    Tony Blair was instrumental in making us an electoral force. Most of all he resonated with the general public.

    Labour are doing well right now but to take the next step to being a government in waiting we must focus on recapturing that resonance.

  • Tony Blair will sadly be remembered for Iraq. Under his Premiership we did some great things and enhanced the prospects for many people resulting in a society that was about equlaity and opportunity. He spoilt his premiership by being in the pocket of Bush as well as failing to listen to the grassroots of The Labour Party. Iraq did a lot of damahe to The Labour Party in a similar way that The Colaition has done to The Liberal Democrats. It was a war that was not needed and archived very little. It was a waste of young lives.

  • Tony Blair lost us many members. We lost valuable activists causing a decline in support for the Labour Party. Tony Blair will only be remembered for Iraq and being in the pocket of George Bush–he should have instead listened to the Labour Party membership. It is time to move on a forget Tony Blair–he is the past–Ed and his team are the future–we must learn from our past mistakes. I believe Blair should have left office sooner than he did.

  • He was in the packet of Bush. A leader who failed to listen to the grassroots members–The Liberal Democrats are in the same position with Nick Clegg.

  • “If you were unhappy under Blair, you’ll never be happy with a leftwing government.”

    Not sure about that. It’s not wise to underestimate the impact of the Iraq war- I know everyone is absolutely sick and tired of talking about it, but it was catastrophic for many directly effected (not an inconsiderable number) and devastating domestically for a significant proportion of those within Labour and the wider electorate. I’m no dove, but I think military force has to be used very carefully, and for Iraq it was completely inappropriate. More damaging, it’s made liberal intervention where it’s really needed (Syria & Iran) nearly impossible- truly a debacle.

    I absolutely agree we should be proud of our achievements whilst in goverment, though lets not forget TB led a political movement powered by people, he didn’t do everything by himself, but I’m not convinced all this Sun worshipping is going to help take the party forward or get us back into power.

  • OK here’s some more facts about the Blair leadership, banks allowed to run riot eventually causing the crash that has hit the poor and the NHS. Talking about the poor the inequality between the richest and the poorest members of society was greater after his term in power than even under Thatcher. He did nothing to reverse the Tory privatisation programme giving the capitalists even more power to make more profits off the backs of the poor. By changing clause 4 he changed Labour from being a pro equality Socialist leaning party, into a pro capitalist party.

    Labour lost its hardcore voters, namely those of the working class due to his policies. I could go on but on a website such as this I know I will be ignored so I will end this comment with a statement I do believe from the curse of the poor and destitute in this country Margaret Hilda Thatcher. When the aforementioned was asked what was her greatest success she replied by saying, ” NEW LABOUR.”

  • On what metric?

    Most number of votes? No, that’s Atlee 1951
    Most number of election victories? No, that’d be Wilson (’64, ’66, and two in ’74)
    Biggest increase in seats? No, that’s Attlee 1945

    What terms of reference are you using?

  • My apologies for my last comment, I have a tendency to run off straight away without thinking and without explaining my points, go off on sudden tangents. I am not a lover of Blair although his government did in fairness do some good things for the poor. Minimum wage is one although it certainly could have gone a lot higher and tax credits was another. However the Blairite wing of the party should also hold their hands up and admit to their own mistakes. Abandoning Clause 4 was a mistake, the Iraq war and being in Bush’s back pocket was another. Not to mention as I already stated the difference between the richest and the poorest being at record levels.

    Finally all this I keep hearing about Blair winning 3 elections, I’m sorry but you could have put a trained chimpanzee in charge of the labour party during those years and we would have won those elections. We were fighting a split Tory party with 10th rate leaders, hardly difficult! If anything the victories in those elections were more down to Gordon Brown’s skills as Chancellor than Blair’s as leader. Every person I knew who turned their backs on Labour put the blame squarely on Blair’s shoulders, facts are facts.

  • Nonsense – you seem to forget the pains and hard work in making the party relevant and electable – unless you know a very clever chimpanzee …..

  • Much of what you say is true but the exceptions are important. First is Iraq, a total disaster carried out under false pretences and as an American “poodle”. Second was to start the breakup of the NHS with his privatisations and independent hospitals. Third was the academy programme in education which again the current government is making full use of in taking it further. The last two policies were driven by “choice”, a Blair mantra for which there was little evidence of public demand.

  • Perhaps people will get a more balanced view of Tony Blair if people like you shouted more about his accomplishments rather than concentrate on the controversy that was Iraq.

  • I profoundly disagree with your remarks (which are more akin to the ignorant editorials of our gutter press). I am more than happy to debate the pros and cons of Tony Blair’s premiership but only with open-minded folk.

  • Labour would have won those elections with or without Blair and his so called 3rd way. My argument is we could have kept clause 4 and stood those elections with decent Socialist policies and we would have beat the Tories. They were a mess with the party split on Europe as well as pro and anti Thatcher sections. The facts on Blair are still there for all to see, he didn’t do anywhere near enough on giving the trade unions their power back, he also didn’t go anywhere near far enough when it came to gaining equality for the working class. The man would sit just as comfortably in a Tory cabinet as a Labour one.

  • Very well said, I couldn’t agree with you more. Another little fact about the New Labour administration singer and well known left winger Billy Brag voted Liberal Democrat at the last general election asked why he said, “because they were the most left wing of the parties on offer !!” I think that just says it all when it comes to the Blair experiment. I was one of those who cheered when Ed said he is not Tony Blair or New Labour.

  • Blair also brought 10’s of 1000’s of activists in the only activists Wilson, Callaghan and Foot brought in were the trots and they were responsible for millions of people leaving labour

  • Billy bragg he of living in a mansion in surrey, and went to Dagenham to tell white working class people who were suffering from prejudice against them that if they supported the EDL they were racist, he also with his trot views resulted in loads of people not voting labour in the 80’s
    So the libdems were a left wing party were thy, they wanted Post office privatisation more than labour in 2001 and were more anti unions than new labour even before they sold out,
    Regarding Blair being heckled it’s the people who felt losing on a far left manifesto was A moral victory are the ones who didn’t like Blair as he actually won elections

  • The tories were split on Europe in the 87 and 92 elections and stll won,it as like after the 83 election when labour said oh well ,we’ll win next time then in1987 they said oh well we’ll win next time then in 1992 ,we still lost

  • David you are absolutely right we should learn from past mistakes but just as importantly we should learn from past glories. Tony Blair brought us many of both and we should remember that.

  • Fantastic piece, Stephen. Glad to read it again especially now that Tony Blair is back advising Labour on policy issues. Now for some direction, vision, strategy, leadership. Hats off to Ed for realising he needs TB.

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