Labour only ever wins when it is at the cutting edge of modernity, Tony Blair tells Ruth Smeeth and Wes Streeting
Neither of us voted in the 1997 general election; we remember it well enough, as teenagers, but were not old enough to cast a ballot. This takes Tony Blair, who we have met to discuss the anniversary of that landslide Labour victory, by surprise.
‘Oh my god, you’re so young,’ he tells us as we settle down in his London office.
But the change runs far deeper than that – a few of the people who elected us two years ago will not even have been born on election day 1997. The world, in so many ways, is completely different. Next month will mark 20 years since Blair walked into Downing Street for the first time, with a majority of 179 in the Commons. That is quite a long time by anyone’s standards.
Despite the scale of that victory – a bigger majority than Labour had ever had, with more seats than the party had ever won – Blair says that ‘there was nothing inevitable about it’.
‘We’d lost four elections and we’d been out of power for 18 years’, he says. A suspicion was growing, especially after the expectation of 1992, that Labour simply could not win. After 13 years, the party had finally thought it had a route back to power, only to find that it was, in fact, ‘really adrift’. ‘We were comprehensively beaten.’
What changed in the 1990s? ‘We’d been through this big wilderness,’ he explains, and in the end, what was needed was a change in mindset: ‘By then the Labour party had decided that it wanted to come back to power.’ ‘It wasn’t the ‘79 defeat that did for Labour really, it was the ‘79-’83 period when it looked like that ultra-leftist politics was taking over. That was what cratered the Labour party’, he says.
‘This is why we’ve got to demystify New Labour. All New Labour was, was an attitude of mind. The attitude of mind is to say the values remain fixed but the means of their application shift with shifting times.’
Blair claims that there were two elements to rebuilding Labour and returning to relevance. First was ‘the ultra-leftist thing, that definitely had to be laid to rest.’ After that, for people to trust Labour again, ‘you also had to show that it had a modern concept of social democracy’. It is clear, on this point, that the solutions of 1997 will not translate to 2017.
‘You’ve got to develop a new progressive agenda for today’s world’, he says. ‘The next generation of technology, artificial intelligence, automation, big data, it’s going to transform the workplace. What’s our answer to it? We don’t have an answer to that question, we’re nowhere.’
A sense of purpose seems a long way off right now. From his point of view, as someone who was elected to parliament in 1983, Labour is in a worse shape now than then. ‘I don’t want to depress you, but there is a big difference between the ‘80s and now. In the 1980s, the ultra-left never took control. They tried but they failed. The moment when Denis Healey beat Tony Benn was the moment when the Labour party was saved.’
Blair is also, perhaps surprisingly, glowing with praise for the man who for some became an example of leftwing unelectability. ‘Michael Foot, he was a great man. He was unlikely to ever win an election, [but] he was a big, big parliamentary figure.’
A ‘big parliamentary figure’ would, whatever their politics, be able to hold the Conservatives to account. That is not what is happening now. ‘We [have] failed in what is our fundamental duty to the British people, that is to be a competitive opposition. Just ask yourself one simple question: In the prime minister’s office, in Tory high command, how much of their time do they spend worrying about the prospect of a Labour victory at the present time? I would guess zero.’ He is clear that the fight needs taking to the Tories: ‘We’ve got to make them wake up every morning and fear us.’
For supporters of Jeremy Corbyn, enthused by his mass rallies and attending marches in support of him, the Islington North member of parliament has put some excitement back into politics. There was excitement in the 1997 campaign too, though Blair says that that alone would not have delivered victory. ‘The campaign was fought at two different levels. One was the level of passion and excitement about change. But the other level, which I was very focused on, was the reassurance to the British people, that [it] would be change that they could handle and would make them comfortable’, he explains. ‘Passion in itself is not enough.’
Within that is what feels like the eternal struggle within the Labour party: ‘The people on the far-left always want to present this as if there was a battle between them, who are very principled, and us, who are just power-hungry. At times, you’re tempted to fall into that trap and say, “Okay, but if you don’t have power, you can’t do anything. The reason we have a minimum wage, civil partnerships and maternity rights, and we lead the world in international development, we had the Northern Ireland peace process, is because we were in power.” You can have that argument, but actually it’s a ridiculous dichotomy to put upon yourself, because the whole purpose of having power is to implement your principles. Your principles have to take account of changing times, otherwise what are they? They’re just a kind of relic.’
This, Blair claims, is what has really been forgotten in the rush to reject New Labour – what he describes as ‘the tragedy of Labour over the past decade’. He argues that Labour ‘has only ever won when it has been at the cutting edge of modernity’, and that is ‘where New Labour fits within the … history of the Labour party.’
That same grasp of where society is headed was there in 1964, ‘when Harold Wilson won after 13 years of opposition, he won very much around this idea of the white heat of technology and in a new alliance between social liberals and traditional industrial interests’.
That is why Blair is so keen to reject mischaracterisations of his own project. ‘This idea that we were some neoliberal government. We made massive investments in health and education. We founded, for example, the department for international development … which has helped save millions of lives worldwide.’
‘For us to denigrate our own record is crazy. When I left office in 2007, satisfaction levels with the health service were virtually at record levels, because of investment and the reform. That’s not a betrayal of principles, it’s the implementation of it.’
The idea that Labour just needs the hunger to win again is, surely though, lacking? With Brexit, our constituencies feel more divided than ever. What is it that the party can do rebuild support in such circumstances?
‘Let’s leave the politics to one side for a minute and come back to it. Let’s first of all work out what the right answer is. Is Brexit the right answer to the cultural and economic strains of globalisation? The answer is no. We’re going to end up in an intellectual and political cul-de-sac.’
Nervetheless, when you think about the gulf between Labour’s urban vote and its post-industrial heartlands – the tension between seats like ‘Remain’-leaning Ilford and strongly pro-Brexit Stoke-on-Trent – does the idea of holding together a winning coalition not look tougher than ever?
For Blair, the answer lies in acknowledging the result but holding the government to account on the negotiations and their consequences. ‘We have to say, “The government’s got a mandate to negotiate Brexit but we’re going to hold them to account that it’s not going to damage jobs, that it’s not going to damage the economy.”’
We also need, he says, to recognise the wider issues that underpinned the result.
He is talking about the worrying rise of rightwing populism that capitalised on the referendum. It should not be something that risks Labour’s very existence. Instead, we should relish the opportunity to take it on. ‘That is actually a massive opportunity for the Labour party, but we’re not capable of accessing it. My view about the rightwing populism is very, very clear. It can only be defeated by progressive forces building out from the centre.’
It would be a mistake, though, to try and ape the populists. ‘The worst thing we can do, is think that a leftist populism is going to beat a rightist populism.’ He dismisses the idea that ‘people who are really anti-immigrant [are] now going to support us if we’re going to say, “No, we don’t need any controls.” I mean, come on, it’s ridiculous.’
‘If you put a rightwing populism up against a leftist populism, the rightwing populism will win every time’, he argues. The only way to be a ‘genuine prospect’ is from the centre. ‘In the end, the lesson is the same, but we can spend 20 days, 20 months or 20 years relearning it. If we want to return to power, that’s how.’
We push him to say what his proudest achievement in that decade of power was. Initially, he suggests the Good Friday Agreement. Given a moment to reflect, however, on the legacy as a whole, and how it is viewed within our own party now, he reconsiders. ‘No, I think the bigger thing for me was that we did change the country.’
And change it we did. For the two of us, children of Margaret Thatcher who entered adulthood at the start of 13 years of Labour government, the transformation was clear to see.
It is precisely the sort of change our country desperately needs today. So what is his final word, for those of us fighting to keep Labour relevant?
‘Urgency. Because politics moves faster today and Brexit … it’s the defining moment in British history.’
Photo: Richard Gardner
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