Progress | Centre-left Labour politics

In conversation with … Tony Blair: opening remarks

Twenty-one years ago yesterday I became leader of the Labour party. A lot has happened since then. We discovered winning successively. And now we have rediscovered losing successively. Personally I prefer winning.

I could make a speech to you about how to win. You win from the centre; you win when you appeal to a broad cross-section of the public; you win when you support business as well as unions. You don’t win from a traditional leftist position.

But given the state of the debate in the party right now, I don’t want to.

Because this plays into the single most debilitating feature of the current debate: that this is a choice not only between government and opposition, but between heart and head, between the pursuit of power and the purity of principle.

It isn’t. The choice is precisely about principle. It is about what support for our values means in the modern world.

Social democratic politics in the early 21st century has one great advantage, and one large millstone.

The advantage is that the values of our age are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that by and large has left behind deference, believes that merit not background should determine success; is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race; and believes in the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state. This doesn’t mean to say this is the reality. But even the Tories, in the open, have to acknowledge the zeitgeist.

What should give the Labour party enormous hope and pride is that we have helped achieve all this.

However, the large millstone is that perennially, at times congenitally, we confuse values with the manner of their application in a changing world. This gives us a weakness when it comes to policy which perpetually disorients us and makes us mistake defending outdated policy with defending timeless values.

We then misunderstand the difference between radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary and radical social democracy which is all about ensuring that the values are put to work in the most effective way not for the world of yesterday but for today and the future.

So when our reforms produced declining waiting lists in the NHS or transformed much of London’s schooling or cut crime these weren’t a betrayal of principles but implementation of them. Betrayal would have been leaving a system of failure in place, even if we created such a system in an earlier time.

So let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.

We should forever stand for social justice, for power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few, as our constitution puts it.

But that is not the challenge. That challenge is: how to do it in the modern world.

And here is where the challenge deepens.

The most important characteristic of this world is: the scope, scale and speed of change. Change defines it.

Technology alone is a revolution with vast consequences for every sphere – business, public services, lifestyle and government. Globalisation is opening the world up, with attendant opportunities and of course risks. Individuals – partly through these changes – live quite differently, with infinitely more choice over their own life. Businesses grow and decline with bewildering speed, making a thriving entrepreneurial sector a necessity. Development of human capital becomes vital for the future economy. And the fall out from all this creates new problems – like social care for increased numbers of elderly – and new victims like those left behind or disadvantaged by the changes whirling round them.

This change requires new thinking. And 2015 is not 2007 or 1997. So yes, move on. But don’t move back!

If we do, then the public won’t vote for us, not because our thoughts are too pure but because they’re too out of touch with the world they live in.

So we should use defeat as an opportunity. We have to rebuild. But approached in the right way this is exciting not depressing. How?

We get thinking – about policy, real policy not one-liners which make a point (useful though those can be in a campaign). Technology and its implications for everything from the NHS through to government itself, is the single most important dimension. But across the board, from infrastructure to housing to tax reform to welfare, we should be thinking through new solutions framed against how people live and work now.

We need to regain economic credibility. There is a perfectly sound case for saying we should have tightened policy before the crash; there is absolutely no case whatever for effectively accepting that Labour ‘caused’ it. But we cannot address the future unless we are clear about the past and unless we show we’re completely confident in economic policy.

Some forward-thinking Labour local councils have done great work. Celebrate them and learn from them.

Develop a dialogue with business about their challenges and needs; about productivity, skills and a modern industrial policy.

Work out what a political organisation looks like today: how we make decisions, how we communicate, how we get our message across. There is a wealth of examples all over the world. We should access it.

The SNP and Ukip have clouded our sense of direction because they seem to point away from the centre. But our response should be likewise based on principle. The answer to the problems of Scotland is no more about being more ‘Scottish’ and leaving the UK than the answer to the problems of England is being more ‘English’ and getting out of Europe or blaming immigrants. So take them head on. I don’t know whether this is a winning strategy, but at least it’s one I believe in.

We won elections when we had an agenda that was driven by values, but informed by modernity; when we had strength and clarity of purpose; when we were reformers not just investors in public services; when we gave working people rights at work including the right to join a union, but refused unions a veto over policy; when we understood businesses created jobs not governments; and where we were the change-makers, not the small ‘c’ conservatives of the left.

We won not because we did what we thought was wrong as a matter of principle but right as a matter of politics; but when we realised that what is right as a matter of policy is right as a matter of principle.

Labour shouldn’t despair. We can win again. We can win again next time. But only if our comfort zone is the future and our values are our guide and not our distraction.




Photo: Martin Burton

Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.

It takes time, commitment and money to build a fight against the forces of conservatism. If you value the work Progress does, please support us by becoming a member, subscriber or donating.

Our work depends on you.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email

Tony Blair

is former prime minister and leader of the Labour party


  • Tony is an excellent speechmaker. If only he hadn’t made such a terrible misjudgement over Iraq (and managed his relationship with Gordon better), he might still be PM,

  • and what did we win? pointless foreign wars and a Government so soft on banking regulation that we almost went bankrupt.

  • Me too. It is so good to get his clarity of thought, like when he talked of some people thinking the choice was between “pursuit of power and the purity of principle”. He said “It isn’t. The choice is precisely about principle”.
    Spot on.

    Please make video available.

  • After the last few days it’s nice to come to a forum where Tony’s name isn’t dirt. There seem to be too many in this party who have a problem with ‘success’ whether it’s in our own leaders or the country as a whole.

  • The centre ground is not static – it has been moved to the right and it is absolutely clear how much further to the right it is being pushed by those who wish to reduce the size of the unions, the public sector and the state by all and any means possible. Why is it that so many people grossly overestimate immigration numbers, the cost of benefits for the unemployed and a host of welfare statistics ? The Tories didn’t discover that people are hostile to the welfare state and adapt to it, they and their media friends deliberately set out to create a new consensus. Does Mr Blair ever read what the architects and theorists of privatisation have been saying? He has nothing to say about the reasons for the deliberate attack on trade unions , only a platitude about giving people the right to join a union. He says that wealth and power should be for the many not the few but says nothing whatever about the accelerating concentration of power in the hands of the few and of the corporations or why it is happening . It is they who have the veto over policy. It is they who buy the right kind of government and try to portray any alternative as inconceivable. Pretending that Labour was not to blame for the Crash will not wash. The City of London which his government lionised was up to its neck in every single kind of dodgy financial dealing and outright criminality it could get away with throughout Labour’s tenure, and was thoroughly implicated in helping to create the world wide bubble of bad debt which burst over us all. Has TB ever bothered to read anything about his erstwhile hero Fred the Shred and all the other financial geniuses who ran snivelling to the state they despised to beg for deliverance ? Now that they are back in charge and we have hundreds of food banks, TB says we must we must stay in the centre ground which they and the rest of the kleptocracy have created. No thanks

  • “what is right as a matter of policy is right as a matter of principle”, Tony Blair

    Remember those words. If imposed austerity that punishes the poor is the right policy then according to Blair it is also right as a matter of principle.

    When a doctrine fails the test of criticism its continued acceptance can only be in the form of dogma. In failing to oppose Tory welfare reforms and a Tory budget Labour has accepted Tory dogma as being fundamentally correct.

  • I miss Tony Blair as well. What happened to us that we can’t take and keep the centre ground with all it’s nuances? Mediocre is not good enough and lurching to the left is old politics that will not work. We were smart in those days and could see the wood from the trees.

  • At the moment the belief that ” merit not background” should determine success has been sold to the student loans firms via the formal characteristics of an education system that eg values the executive fining of parents who prefer to take as a family holiday, the time of their own lives, rather than voluntarily give the time of their own lives to the school system.

    The last Labour agenda was driven by values that trickled down in the form of tax credits.People were bought, people were sold the idea that without ” merit” in the form of educational qualifications one’s background was nothing, with no prospects and no hope of achieving ones goals. I don’t think its a good idea to spoil the lives of ordinary people generally by first kidding us here in the UK that ” we’re all middle class now”, then forcing an agenda that’s driven by fines, credit and ultimately student debt whilst pretending the new technologies and exclusive social changes needed to apply it all are really the only way to acheive ones goals.

    Yes there are people who feel the rapid advances of this world are swirling round us, telling us that we’re at a disadvantage because of the way we normally live and learn and mind our own buisness, but if our economy were truly mixed in a positively diverse way..why should one (even one) be bothered?

  • Cristabel, I couldn’t agree more with you.
    Unfortunately, there are some from the extreme left and right that delight in throwing mud.

  • ……. but Blair qualified that by adding later, “what is right as a matter of policy is right as a matter of principle”.

    Policy trumps, and becomes, principle every time. Do you agree with that?

  • I think what he is saying is that we didn’t win by choosing politics over principle, and we realized that when the policy ‘delivers’ then it is right for your principles – even though you might seem to have compromised your principles to achieve it. Maybe it’s like: what matters most is what works.

  • We won…
    A minimum living wage.
    Investment in schools.
    Investment in hospitals.
    Freedom of information.
    Gay rights.
    More space for women in politics.

  • I believe austerity on its own doesn’t work.
    Spending doesn’t work if you can’t afford to spend.
    A combination of spending less with increased tax income could work.
    Spending for growth can work, depending on what you spend on.

    To say austerity doesn’t work, is to ignore part of the balance.

  • This is a valuable intervention. We live in very worrying times – it is like the 80s all over again just without Foot as leader. Please make the full video available.
    I miss Blair too! Just think how much more we could have done, if it wasn’t for Iraq and the equally damaging TB/GB war?
    The standard of debate from all the leadership hopefuls this time has been dire and few of the candidates are talking about the main issue – the impact of globalization on the economy and an increasingly networked world which is going through constant and rapid change in technology.
    Yvette (she’s a mum, if you didn’t know!) has been making some interesting noises about harnessing technology to deliver public services better – but they appear poorly formed. The reality is that only Liz (not a mum) Kendall even remotely gets the scale of the problem.

  • Yes, Tony, we do need to take SNP and UKIP head on. Both wave flags to reduce people’s sense of powerlessness in the face of the powerful. Both advocate nationalism as a false solution to addressing problems of democracy.

    So taking on the SNP and UKIP has to mean offering a strengthening of our democracy that empowers us all.

    From votes at 16, to devolution plus greater local and community power, to replacing the Lords with a modern second chamber, to individual rights, to deepening EU democracy.

  • Remember that the investment bit was largely PFI funded not state funded – whilst at the same time bailing out the banks scot free

  • Oh right that is the answer reduce the membership to the point where we are really irrelevant. The real radical view here is there is really no such thing as left or right any more just good policies from any camp carried out in a principled and humane way. A full understanding that policy stretches across borders and isolationism doesn’t work. Tony Blair understood this well. No, lurching left is not good and an ill considered knee jerk reaction.

  • What is the centre ground ? It is a belief in a mixed of private and democratic/public ownership.
    A strong welfare state. An NHS publicly founded and publicly provided. I know that Jeremy Corbyn subscribes to that but I’m not sure about Tony Blair

  • I must say for the first time the old man seems to have lost his touch. This is not the Tony Blair of old who always had some new theme to introduce to the debate. We now seem to have exposed an irritable chap now talking about transplants. There is no evidence that he has much to offer in this new age and would be best allowed to carry on his other more successful business ventures.

  • “So let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old-fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.”
    And there we have the core of the Blairite position. Shameful.

  • To add to the list above:
    Human Rights Act;
    Further protection for employees,
    Further accountability in public services;
    Northern Ireland Peace Process;
    House of Lords Reform;
    Equality legislation (for ALL minorities).
    I did not agree with everything Tony and his Government did during those years, but there were some great achievements for the LP and the country. However expedient it may be to forget all the above, none of these could have been (nor would have been) possible without first ensuring the electorate had a positive reason to place their trust in, and thereafter vote, for the Labour Party.
    It’s also for all these reasons why I believe Yvette Cooper is our strongest candidate.

  • It wouldn’t be right to get elected on a manifesto that was bad for the country. Shameful to do otherwise.

  • And all of these based on cheap money based on over leveraged banking in a casino economy governed by light touch (i.e no touch) regulation that was bound to fail eventually. As soon as it did, the rest of us were left to pick up the pieces and we get saddled with a nasty right wing vicious government hell bent on destroying public services and led by a prime minister who styles himself the heir to Blair.

  • Hi, digger 52, I’ve just read your response to Tony Blair’s speech that was posted 2 months ago, and all I can say is “Well Said!” It is refreshing to actually read other people’s views who are not brainwashed and in awe of the pompous, obnoxious, arrogant, self righteous person that is Tony Blair. While reading his speech, not once did I feel that he was identifying or even cared about the ordinary people. The fact that austerity mostly affect the poor is just a statistic blimp on the spread sheet that has to quickly be side-stepped.He came across as an economist addressing city brokers.
    But I have to give him credit tho, He is very clever and good at glossing over the important issues, by bedazzling those who are impressed by his greatness.

Sign up to our daily roundup email