Tony Blair has been advising the Labour party what to do since the 1970s. Since leaving office, having never lost an election, he continued to advise Labour, not least in his colossus of a memoir. It sold millions of copies across the world, in many languages, including Chinese. All of the proceeds go to the Royal British Legion, making Tony Blair one of Britain’s largest donors to charity. Blair has something to say about politics, and has been saying it for decades.
That makes the ‘news’ that he will be advising Ed Miliband on the content of Labour’s policy platform less surprising. Not surprising at all, in fact. It would have been more of a shock if Juliette Jowit’s piece in the Guardian during the week had announced that Blair was boycotting the Labour party, and had turned down the chance to talk with the policy review coordinator Jon Cruddas. Blair’s role is to help map the legacy of the Olympics, and develop Labour’s policy for sports. As the only ex-Labour leader to have successfully won the Olympics for Britain and to run a charitable sports foundation, he has the perfect CV.
At a seminar I chaired last week, Cruddas described Blair as belonging more to the ‘ILP’ tradition than the Fabian. The Independent Labour party, it will be remembered, comprised evangelists and social justice campaigners, whose socialism was rooted in ethics. The Fabians were all about policies and pamphlets, anchored in a scientific faith in facts. The Fabians owed more to Gradgrind than to Marx. The ILP knew how to party.
Blair wrote a Fabian pamphlet in 1994 which sought to relocate socialism as an ethical project, and accentuate the idea of communitarianism (‘social-ism’). This was a conscious contrast with Marxism or the pseudo-Marxism of the Labour left, and also a deliberate connection with the ethical socialists such as Keir Hardie, RH Tawney, Robert Blatchford and Katherine Glasier. Ten years later I wrote in the introduction to the edited collection of Blair’s speeches and articles Tony Blair In His Own Words that the best way to understand Blair is to understand his Christianity. You can get from ‘Love Thy Neighbour As Yourself’ to John MacMurray in a single bound, and from there to sure starts, hospital rebuilding and smaller class sizes without too much effort. In this, Blair does share a world view with Hardie or George Lansbury.
If Blair is an ILP-er, then of course Cruddas is a Blairite. Cruddas is a Blairite, not merely in the sense of having worked for Blair at No 10, but also a shared sense of politics. Like Blair, he views the Labour party as a prime agency of change in society, in democratic institutions and methods as the best way to ameliorate poverty and suffering, in the power of the state to redistribute power and opportunity, in the transcendent value of political ideas and philosophy, and has faith in ‘ordinary’ families and communities to transform their own conditions. Like Blair, he has an instinctive understanding of the moral codes, social norms and innate decency of working people. Cruddas is happy to praise ‘early Blair’, who like Miles Davis did all his best works in the first half of his career, rather than the tricky, indigestible stuff towards the end.
It is natural, obvious and desirable that Blair should make his contribution to the revival of Labour’s fortunes. After all, Labour is climbing out of the second worst defeat in its history, and the second-lowest share of the vote since 1918. Labour has only 10 MPs across the whole of eastern, south-eastern and southern England, and four of them are in Southampton and Luton. To win an election with a majority will need Ed Miliband to secure a swing only managed by Clement Attlee after the war, and Blair in 1997. He needs all the help he can get.
A pathetic, tiny contingent of the Blair-haters gathered outside the Emirates stadium on Wednesday night to protest against the former leader of the Labour party’s presence at a Labour party fundraising dinner. It was a fundraising dinner of exactly the same kind as those attended by Harold Wilson, James Callaghan, Neil Kinnock, and, of course, John Smith the night before his death. But Blair’s success as a politician, entrepreneur, philanthropist and world leader is what makes him different from his predecessors. Some on the left hate success, and Blair is success personified.
There’s a strange psychology at work here. For some, the act of winning an election is in itself a betrayal. To win three in a row with massive majorities is the ultimate sellout. They seem to want Labour to remain in glorious opposition, so they can write their columns and blogs, sloganise on the TV, march the streets and make a living out of full-time, salaried leftism. They remind me of Aneurin Bevan’s description in 1960 of ‘those who appear to threaten the whole of private property but who in practice would threaten nothing; they are purists and therefore barren.’
There’s a massive industry at work to dismiss Labour’s three terms in office as a diversion from the true road to socialism; to claim nothing changed for the better; or that Labour in office was a continuation of Thatcherism. The irony is that the craftsmen and women in this industry are on the left, some even in the Labour party itself, doing the work of our enemies. There is no greater service to the British Conservative party than to claim the period 1997 to 2010 created greater inequality, worse public services and a weaker economy. Those that make such claims are no friends to Miliband or the Labour party he leads.
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
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