Elections are always about the future. Tony Blair emphasised this point in his Philip Gould Lecture, perhaps because it was a reminder of Gould’s own relentlessly forward-looking politics.
Yet an accounting is needed too. Because for the Labour party, Blair is now in the past, and the adulation and loathing he provokes in different wings of the party compromises our attempts to look forward.
You do not have to go far in the Labour movement to find those for whom Tony Blair is worse than Margaret Thatcher, worse than Ronald Reagan. Iraq accounts for some of this, but not nearly all. If Iraq had never happened, many of Blair’s left detractors would be attacking him for the occupation of Afghanistan.
There is even a refusal to credit Blair with the social democratic fruits of his own repeated victories. A regularly made argument is that a Labour victory in 1997 was inevitable. This can develop into a belief that if Blair had not become leader, Britain would have moved further towards social democratic Utopia. Francis Beckett’s 2011 projection of a John Smith premiership leading to ten years in No 10 for Ken Livingstone is a fine example of the genre. For some of his detractors, Blair did not build a better Britain. He actively prevented the building of the New Jerusalem.
This requires some impressive political dexterity. You have to simultaneously hold the belief that Blair was a cynical pseudo-Tory, had insignificant electoral appeal, that a more leftwing stance would have won as many victories, and that the achievements of the Blair decade were inevitable or unimpressive.
The electoral appeal argument is swiftly dealt with. After all, in the 2005 general election, Blair’s least impressive, Labour gained 35.2 per cent of the vote. Nine years later, the latest opinion poll average from the academics at Polling Observatory puts Labour on 34.6 per cent. This should lead us to victory, but these figures strongly suggest Blairism helped Labour win and sustain power.
The same is true of the achievements. It is trivially easy to list ways Blair’s government improved Britain. It is also important. From the minimum wage to childcare, from schools to hospitals, from gay rights to international aid, from the energy of our entrepreneurs to expansion of our universities, from the decent homes initiative to free museums and galleries. Britain did become a stronger, more just nation.
Yet Blair reminds us that elections are always about the future. So what does his legacy mean for Labour now?
Perhaps the most challenging assertion Blair made was that the centre-left should be relaxed about a convergence of ideas with the centre-right.
In a way, it is shocking that this is shocking. After all, for all the furore of political debate, what unites democratic mainstream politics is usually greater than what divides them.
Further, it is not hard to see a ‘radical, bold’ agenda (I hate those words, but Blair adores them) which both main parties could sign up to.
Such a programme would emphasise infrastructure and investment over current spending, skills and education over benefits and social security, housing and business growth over restrictive planning. It would embrace and explore the transformative power of technology in our society. It would be fiscally cautious, yet reformist of the structure of the economy, devolving power to city-regions to drive growth, giving business support for skills in return for real investment in young people, and reform public services, from social and child care to schools and hospitals so they meet the needs of patients and pupils, (or, in the slightly clunky phrasing of the wonk, ‘empower individuals’).
This is the language of the Adonis review, of Heseltine’s report, of the Wright review, of the IPPR Condition of Britain report.
Here a certain common ground with the centre and centre-right can be seen. After all, Vince Cable, and even George Osborne, hardly meet the standards of Randian individualists.
Do not be fooled, though. Being aware of where we agree with our opponents is not an argument for retreat to bland moderation. The reverse, in fact. Because we all clearly see the same national challenges, and even agree on the broad outlines of how to respond, this brings our differences into sharp, meaningful, precise relief.
The differences will always be real because our approach always seeks to include the many, while theirs is willing to focus on the success of a few, believing others will surely follow.
When Tories address childcare, they mean vouchers, not better nurseries and better offer for working parents. We want every child to have an education designed for their needs – not just a few lucky enough to make it to a grammar school, or a ‘good academy’, or to win a scholarship. We want businesses to grow across the country, so we’ll give cities the powers they need to change.
The difference between us comes down to this. Faced with huge challenges, we understand that the ‘progressive’ approach is to give individuals the liberating power to make collective provision work for everyone, not to abandon collectivism for individualism altogether. By the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we do alone.
The gain here is all to the left. By addressing these national challenges directly, and emphasising what we have in common with our opponents, we accrue to ourselves their best assets: a reputation for caution, competence, rationality, tough-mindedness. We can then add to those our own strengths: inclusiveness, compassion, openness and tolerance.
Even those issues which feel dangerous become less provocative when viewed this way. If we have identified these national challenges as primarily economic, we can more confidently argue that to cut ourselves off from Europe is self-defeating madness. We can discuss immigration in the terms of national renewal and growth as well as personal threat and local dislocation.
We will have, to use an often empty phrase, created a narrative in which our own vision of the future can flourish.
More than that, though, we will have focused relentlessly on the future, on our agenda for a better, more confident Britain, and co-opted the best and most appealing of our opponents’ agenda to create a position where we can be … oh, what’s the phrase I’m searching for?
The political wing of the British people? No, that’s not it.
Ah, yes. A One Nation Labour party.
Photo: Paul Heartfield
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