Still getting to grips with life after Tony

by Darrell Goodliffe

As a young political pup I joined Tony Blair’s Labour party. Few could forget those heady days of 1997 when he made a routine occurrence – a general election – feel like a social revolution; or at least as close as you can come without cutting off heads.

Fast forward 13 years and, after a “varied” political journey, I find myself in what was Gordon’s and is now Ed’s Labour party. Things are different but the sense of shell shock at our sudden ejection from power and the departure of a messianic figure still lingers. Left-wing Labourites view Blair with contempt, but, if we are honest, we would not say “no” to a left-wing Tony. Whatever you think of him, he has charisma by the bucket-load and that engenders a certain grudging respect.

We spent the entire leadership contest looking for a new Blair. My highest hope for Ed Miliband was the belief that he would do a “Tony” in reverse; that he would reach out from the centre to the left and create the opposite kind of party to Blair, forming a dominant centre/left axis (as opposed to Blair’s centre/right one). He might still, but the omens do not look good.

Ed seems to be trying to copy Blair without actually being him, which will cause him untold problems. The first worrying sign was the incorporation of the Blairite rump within the Parliamentary Labour party, which has rewarded him by making his back a knife rack. Details of the PLP’s deliberations leak seconds after the meeting has finished and memos find their way to the press. You can sense the frustration within other parts of the Labour party. People cannot quite put their finger on it but there is an unspoken sense of agitation that we are not sweeping all before us. This is clearly a legacy of Blairism, because for a time we did sweep all before us.

Before we can move on from Blair, we have to properly assess the pluses and minuses. The worst thing that happened to Blair and Labour was the 1997 landslide that virtually guaranteed Labour three terms. This should have driven its radicalism, but it actually blunted it because it gave us so much to lose. Blair began to believe that that he was King Midas and that everything he touched would turn to electoral gold. And so it did for a while. But this mentality so divorced him from reality that he convinced himself of silly things and was easily led astray (due to his predilection for a good crusade) on things like the Iraq war.

I have no doubt that Blair was as convinced of the merits of going to war in Iraq and the good that it would do as he makes out. He was so sincere that, like any true believer, he twisted the facts to fit his heartfelt conviction. The reason that he cannot admit that it was all a pack of lies is because he has to cling onto the fiction that he wove himself and expertly sold to his party and the country.

It is simply too much to admit the truth, but this only serves to emphasise how fatally flawed was his genius. Ultimately, Blair’s power, centred on his ability to lift those around him, when used once too often was his undoing. He led his party along one too many paths for their comfort. Now, spent, his party is still coming to terms with his departure and his presence just won’t stop lingering.

Labour still feels like it needs a messiah to be electable. The 1980s drained its confidence that it could be itself and win. And Blairism reinforced that view by artificially carrying us on the wave of Tony’s undoubted charisma. Ironically, now is the time that this country and its people most need a Labour party that is comfortable in its own skin. We need to find ourselves again before we can stride forward with the confidence that Blair’s charisma gave us.

When we do we will truly be a political force to reckon with. Our opponents will have to watch out. We will be back from the wilderness that losing Tony left us in.

Darrell Goodliffe writes the Moments of Clarity blog.

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One Response to “Still getting to grips with life after Tony”

  1. Keith says:

    Good article Darrell. However, you have omitted any discussion about the elephant in the room during the Blair era – namely one Gordon Brown. It is clear from the droves of material written in recent years that Brown, along with his cronies like Wheelan, McBride, Balls, etc., was a very destabilising factor whose obsession with getting the top job transcended his duty to the Labour government during these years.

    Whatever one says about Blair, he did win huge majorities in the elections and won his party leadership election convincingly. Brown was not elected by either party or the electorate, yet clearly felt, against all the democratic traditions of the party, that he was entitled to be leader for he said before becoming leader that he did not want to face a leadership election. So Blair’s other great failing was not standing up to this man who, after all, had no mandate to become PM.

    The Labour party must never give a coronation to any leader again for Gordon Brown lacked the authority of PM and consequently paid a high price for this at the general election having achieved our second worse result since 1918. Surely, if we claim to be a genuine democratic party, then every candidate, irrespective of their status, should face a proper leadership election. Perhaps it is time that our leadership rules are changed to encourage other candidates to stand and prevent this from happening again.

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