We lost the 2010 election during Blair’s watch, as well as Brown’s, says Michael Dugher

ALL THE LABOUR leadership candidates have dared to disagree with Tony Blair that we lost the last election because we weren’t sufficiently New Labour. In yesterday’s Observer, Andrew Rawnsley lamented this lèse majesté.

Memoirs and diaries, especially from former prime ministers, are important.  After ten years in office, with three general election victories under his belt, Tony Blair’s deserve to be read.  But what is disappointing is that Blair is so palpably out of touch when it comes to understanding why we lost in 2010 and how Labour can win again in the future.

Much of what Rawnsley writes I agree with.  He is quite right that Tony Blair “understood how to communicate with the public; he grasped that parties must constantly renew themselves to keep up with events, the world and the voters”.  He is equally right that it is “foolish to fashion the party’s future policies or presentation as if the dateline were still 1994 rather than 2010”.  And that Blair understood that “the centre-left wins and holds power only by creating a broad appeal which embraces not just their natural and traditional supporters, but voters without tribal allegiances to Labour”.

Yet all candidates in Labour’s epic leadership contest say that they understand this.  And I think they do.  What is more, the Labour party has always had a pragmatic, revisionist tradition.  How we apply Labour values to make our policy offer relevant to the people we serve and the times in which they live was never unique to Tony Blair or New Labour.  It was John Prescott who talked about “traditional values in a modern setting”.  Labour moderates have always believed that Labour cannot win elections without a wide appeal.  The concept is neither new nor exclusive to New Labour.  Tony Blair played a critical role in getting Labour elected, but he didn’t invent its modernisation.

Blair argues that we lost in 2010 because we weren’t New Labour enough and that, in particular, the Brown administration failed to pursue welfare reform and public service reform.  But John Prescott points out that Brown continued many of Blair’s flagship policies like foundation hospitals and academies.  Indeed, leading ‘Blairites’ played major roles in Gordon Brown’s government, including James Purnell, who was Brown’s secretary of state for work and pensions.

Gordon Brown saw through the controversial Purnell plan to require everyone on incapacity benefit to have a medical test – which went much further than anything Blair had done during the preceding decade.  At the department of health, Brown had two so-called ‘Blairites’, Alan Johnson and later Andy Burnham, overseeing continued reforms in health, including the right for patients to go private if they weren’t seen within minimum waiting times on the NHS.  The idea that New Labour was a fire extinguished by Brown is simply a myth.

Prescott also stressed that Gordon Brown’s time as prime minister was understandably dominated by the financial crisis.  Brown is widely praised for leading international efforts to rescue the world economy from the biggest financial shock seen in a century.  Tony Blair rather skates over having himself had ten years, in far more benign circumstances, to drive forward welfare reform or public services reform.  As well as having a huge parliamentary majority and large amounts of goodwill amongst the public (before the Iraq war at least), Blair had a decade of the best economic and fiscal conditions in which to drive forward his reforms.  If Labour squandered this opportunity to reform sufficiently, then he must also take responsibility for the ultimate verdict delivered by the electorate in 2010.

In the same way that people talk about a ‘road’ to power, there is also a ‘journey’ to defeat.  The day after polling day, Gordon Brown was quick to take responsibility for the defeat.  And he was right to.  Gordon was an issue on the doorstep.  But part of why Gordon was an issue was that he was so associated with Labour’s past and our 13 years in office.  The country just didn’t feel we deserved another five years in office, despite acknowledging the role Brown had played in dealing with the economic crisis.

Perhaps the biggest flaw in the Blair argument is his failure to understand the political implications of the economic crisis. How many times were Labour ministers lambasted on the airwaves for not regulating the financial services industry enough?  Despite the Conservatives and the media having opposed Labour regulatory policies, New Labour’s cautious, softly, softly approach to the City looked in hindsight to be a mistake – something that Gordon Brown himself acknowledged before the election.  The public felt that the actions we had taken against the banks and the bankers were simply not strong enough.  Nobody on the doorstep by May 2010 was arguing for a less interventionist, more New Labour approach to the City.  In the aftermath of the financial crisis, when the banks were not lending and the economy had been brought to its knees because of the reckless risk-taking of a minority, the phrase that it was ok to be “intensely relaxed about being filthy rich” looked very out of place indeed.

Labour’s defeat was not exclusively the fault of Gordon Brown.  To believe that – and to think that all Labour needs do now is to elect a more telegenic leader, or a leader whose politics are more akin to those of Tony Blair – would be to make a monumental error.  We lost because of a cumulative failure of the party and of its leadership.  Elections, like wars, are not won or lost in a single day.  We shed five million votes not during a four week election campaign in May 2010, or during the three years after Tony Blair stood down as PM, but over the course of 13 years in government. Blair acknowledges that he made mistakes during his time as prime minister, but he refuses to believe that his legacy had even a part to play in our eventual defeat.

By the time Gordon Brown went to the country in May, chickens were coming home to roost.  For example, we had failed to build enough social housing, a growing problem when the credit crunch made it harder for less-well-off people to get mortgages.  While we rightly supported the ‘right to buy’ policy, some in New Labour were worried that building council houses would be seen as un-New Labour.  This was a disaster.

Indeed, our second term in office was dominated not only by (Blair’s) Iraq war and the loss of trust (and voters) because of it, but also by our failure to ensure that all the investment made in the public services was always translating into real delivery on the ground. Too often in our second term, as Ed Balls had pointed out repeatedly, we wasted time picking fights with public service workers, or denigrating local government, in order to win favour with the CBI or the right wing media.  Which failed.

Possibly the best example is immigration.  Every other doorstep I knocked in working class communities in Barnsley cited immigration as an issue of concern (this despite the almost complete lack of immigration into the borough).  But before I could talk about the new Australian-style points-based system to manage migration in a tough but fair way, the voter had invariably ceased to listen and the door was closed.  That is because although we had begun to fix the policy, largely devised in the latter days of Blair but crucially implemented under Brown, the voters had already given up on Labour on immigration.  Under Gordon Brown we created the UK Border Agency with the merger of visas, immigration and customs at the border, and we introduced the ‘earned citizenship’ policy.  But by 2010, we were paying for the price for more than a decade of refusing even to talk about the issue.

No one doubts that Labour owes a huge debt of gratitude to Tony Blair, and indeed to Gordon Brown. Together, they achieved great things.   But while the Blair book has something to say about our past, it has little to offer in terms of Labour’s future.  If anything, Blair’s rather undignified personal attacks on Gordon Brown merely remind us of the indulgence and division that came to characterise so much of New Labour.

I watched Tony Blair’s interview with Andrew Marr on the BBC and saw a consummate performance from a great communicator. But he delivered the interview with the confidence of a man who hadn’t knocked on a single door in the 2010 election.  The after-dinner circuit in the United States, complete with its adoring audiences and paying customers, may well enrich Tony Blair’s bank account and boost his property portfolio, but it sadly adds nothing to his understanding of why Labour lost and how we can win again.  To quote Ed Miliband yesterday, it’s time to “turn the page”.

Michael Dugher is Labour MP for Barnsley East.

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6 Responses to “We lost the 2010 election during Blair’s watch, as well as Brown’s, says Michael Dugher”

  1. Jim Grundy says:

    I wonder sometimes if there are limits to any man’s ability to believe his own myth but, if there are, I don’t think Blair has come close yet. His belief that Labour lost because it had gone off the ‘New Labour’ brand is wildly off the mark, as demonstrated by the analysis of the polling results showing where the bulk of Labour’s support was lost. It’s a shame if Blair can’t see that but I won’t be losing sleep over what can now be consigned, if not to the dustbin, then at least to history.

  2. MarcJ says:

    The fact that Blair had a huge majority and years to finally deliver what Labour voters had dreamt of for years in opposition, and didn’t – is for my money the reason Labour now need to “re-boot” themselves.

    When he had the chance to make the country more socially aware, much happier to pay tax for public services he pandered instead to finance and a middle class which is actually not middle Britain anymore.

    It’s the reason Clegg did well. He sounded ‘normal’ but above that he sounded as if he understood the average person in a way that President Blair seemed to have long forgotten.

    We now need a leader that doesn’t seem scared of the great unwashed, is brave and is also talking in terms of hope and potential.

    Great article, well done and thanks for summing up how I felt as far ago as the second term.

  3. Robert says:

    Bull shit total bullshit, now go and spend the next twenty odd years in the corner. a Vote for the Tories came easy, because voting new labour or Tory was the same.

  4. Jane says:

    I would expect nothing less from someone who worked for Gordon Brown. Just a few points I would like to bring to your attention and I say this as someone who is retired and follows political life very closely. I am also someone too who purchases every political book and who remains a great admirer of Tony Blair. And oh yes – I supported the Iraq war and remind you that the Cabinet and parliament voted for the war. Indeed, the majority of the country as reflected in polls at the time also supported it. Unlike some of your colleagues including Ed Miliband we have not, with hindsight reversed our position . I preordered the book by Tony Blair some months ago and it is due to be delivered today. I am assuming you have read the book as you make negative comments? I cannot comment other than to say that in the interview you mentioned with Andrew Marr – Tony Blair also praised GB.

    As to the continuation of foundation hospitals and academies – I can remember the policies being put on hold for quite some time. Indeed, I can remember political journalists commenting when they were again on track. As to James Purnell, I agreed with his policies and I say that as someone who followed a career looking after the disadvantaged. James’ departure was a great loss to the Party and my reading suggests that GB treated him abysmally.

    I also disagree with you regarding GB’s contribution to the election loss. In my opinion, Peter Mandelson did much to steady the ship when he returned to UK politics. Prior to his arrival, GB’s administration was in a shambles. Silly You Tube appearances, constant nasty briefing against colleagues and opponents alike etc etc. On policy too it was an absolute mess. I do not forget the 10p tax debacle – I am still £100 a year worse off. I also think increasing National Insurance was wrong and indeed Alastair Darling stated this in a FT interview. In my opinion, GB’s strategy was to out manoevre the Tories with an absence of coherence and on the hoof decsion making.

    The continual statements by GB regarding Conservative cuts also insulted many of us when we all knew whichever party formed the next government cuts would have to be made. We felt patronised. We also felt it was wrong to pursue a class policy to turn the electorate against the Tories. How far apart the party is from Middle England in doing such a thing. It may play well with the core vote but certainly denies the belief that the party is one were those who aspire to achieve are welcome. In my area and with my friends, many people save and work hard and indeed do without to pay for education for their offspring. They were the people who voted for Tony Blair and who refused to vote for GB.

    I regret to write that in my opinion, GB was a poor PM. Yes he had many strengths but leadership requires skills which he did not have. He was the major reason that we failed to win the last election.

  5. There’s a bigger flaw with Rawnsley’s argument – he says that it is “foolish to fashion the party’s future policies or presentation as if the dateline were still 1994 rather than 2010” and then completely ignores the fact that that’s exactly what Blair is arguing for.

  6. mike says:

    i was not keen on Blair but admired the blairite line
    that winning was all

    the problem was TB started allowing his friends to get away with poor performance

    equally Public sector reform, meant to Tony Privatisation
    Privatisation for example like NHS hospital cleaning which killed thousands

    he didnt seem to understand that NHS nurses and staff want to work for the NHS not a private company

    As for Brown never forgave the coup attempts

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