What we talk about when we talk about Tony

by Jonathan Todd

Labour’s new policy supremo, Jon Cruddas, says that Tony Blair got worse the longer he was prime minister. Phil Collins, the Demos chair, not the Genesis drummer, says the opposite: Blair improved in office.

According to a speech that Cruddas delivered shortly before his appointment by Ed Miliband:

“From 1994 to 2001 Blair managed to build a liberal patriotic sentiment in the country; it subsequently collapsed. Blair set out as ethical socialist, ended as a neo-classicist.”

It all went wrong, on this account, when Cruddas stopped working for Blair. Collins disagrees. He thinks that Blair was a better prime minister by the time he was working for him at the end of his premiership.

When reviewing Anthony Seldon’s biography of Blair, Collins wrote:

“There is a common account of the Blair years that runs as follows: the first term contained some good things, hampered by excessive financial prudence; the second term was lost to Iraq; the third term was no more than a parade of vanity as a prime minister without authority hung on. This is conventional but a long way from wise … The second term was when Blair really found a method for reform of the public sector … The third term was, in many ways, the most fruitful: school reform, the NHS into surplus, pensions reform, energy, Northern Ireland – a good record for a supposedly defunct term.”

The man writing the next Labour manifesto has, therefore, succumbed to the conventional and un-wise. Perhaps this is a consequence of seeing politics, as Cruddas said in his speech, “more about emotion than programme; more groups, community and association – imagined as well as real – rather than theoretical or scientific”.

What Collins might praise as an effective method for public service reform, Cruddas may lament as a politics denuded of emotion. But when these judgements are made, they aren’t fundamentally judgements on Blair. They are windows onto the political soul of the judge.

What we talk about when we talk about Tony isn’t really Tony: it is political strategy.

Cruddas prefers first term Blair because he puts more weight on emotion than programme. Collins concludes that Blair improved, even as his emotional resonance diminished, because his programmes became more effective.

But isn’t there a third way? Don’t we need programmes that deliver and emotions that grip in politics?

President Obama had no lack of emotion in 2008 but now more desperately needs programme successes. Equally, didn’t the emotion of his election itself change America in ways that the coming to office of a programme-obsessed technocrat would not have done?

The usual lifecycle is to find emotion easier to summon as a challenger, promising to bring change, and to learn on-the-job, coming to know more of the programmes that will actually deliver change in office. But programme and emotion matter throughout. Couldn’t, for example, David Cameron have been made to appreciate the emptiness of his immigration rhetoric before he demonstrated this in office? The well thought through programme of opposition saves problems in office. The enduring capacity to capture emotion may overcome any such problems.

“Rebuilding Britain” was a pitch for emotion made by Cruddas in the Observer last Sunday. And that’s not a bad pitch. It potentially opens up and frames debates about some of the biggest issues facing our country, which I’ve previously identified as, the economy but also the substance of new devolution settlements for Scotland and the English regions, Britain’s role in the EU but outside the Euro, and health and social care systems capable of meeting the challenges of ageing.

We can’t say what Britain is and should become without answering these pressing questions and in so doing rebuilding the social fabric, the institutions and the infrastructure of Britain. This challenge pulls on the heartstrings like a rousing rendition of Jerusalem. But it won’t be met with emotion alone; it also requires the heavy intellectual lifting of the programmes admired by Collins.

Collins gave his take on the nature of such lifting at the recent Progress annual conference. He spoke of having worked in Blair’s Downing Street towards the end of his premiership and finding an old Conservative policy document. He slightly edited the document, disguised its origins, and circulated for comment amongst colleagues. They told him: “It is a fairly bland statement of what we believe”.

That the policy of the Blair administration had become indistinguishable from the policy of the Major administration, even to those working in the Blair administration, may be taken as evidence to support the Cruddas view that Blair “ended as a neo-classicist”. But Collins maintains that the episode shows that there are certain core concerns and approaches that time in office force politicians back to. And it is to store up problems for the future to stray in opposition too far from them, as Nick Clegg did when he committed to abolishing tuition fees.

We can, of course, debate where the limits of the possible are to be found. But we delude ourselves if we think that emotion can dissolve these limits. Programmes matter as well as emotions.

Jonathan Todd is Labour Uncut’s economic columnist

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3 Responses to “What we talk about when we talk about Tony”

  1. swatantra says:

    Cruddas was right and Collins is wrong, Blair got worse in power and was becoming a liability to Labour in the same way that Thatcher became a liability to the Tories in 1990. They took the sensible decision to ditch her.
    Only Blair and his accolytes couldn’t see it coming. Of course Gordon didn’t help the situation much by poring oil on troubled waters with his scheming and his attack dogs Balls and Whelen.
    Cruddas comes from a Compass perspective, the Left of Centre Think Tank, but Cruddas is wrong to suggest he had any influence over Blair; his influence was zilch because Blair wasn’t listening. Thankfully Compass do have a couple of members in Ed’s Shadow Cabinet, and hopefully their ideas will filter through.

  2. John P Reid says:

    the 3 terms described by Collin was so right,
    I recal arguing the prudential strategy witht he likes Of jeremy crbyn who wanted us to break our pledg eon spending upto 2001, When we won that second landslide it was a case of the financial polciy was right we’ve go the public still right behind us,

    and then Iraq on the second term ruined everything, I recall when David Blunkett rsigned as Home secretary and Clarke came in after 50 odd pieces of legislation biegn introduced being proved illegal by the huiman rights act, and pondering to the daily mail ,I campaigned hard for us in 2005 asthere was things in the2005 manifesto, Changing the abortion laws in Northern ireland, Letting women set up their own brothels in red light districts ,the police mergers, anti terror laws that I beleived in , yet within 18 months cahrles clarke was opusted as Home secretary due to the foreign prisoners being released not being deported (most of whom happened before he was Home secretary) and then blair alst year was A wast,e I disagreed with alot of what Brown did ,
    but apart form not admitting we’d spent all the money there were polcies In a potential forth term like, AV referndum, fixed term parliament’s and the living wage theat we could have introduced. So where both the second term and third terms were wasted, I’d still like to use the blue print of what we copuld achieve by winning as a plan for future governments and our party to try to aspire to ,if we want to win,

  3. Anon E Mouse says:

    Tony Blair achieved an outstanding election victory in 1997 and was the most successful leader in the history of the Labour Party.

    I have a lot of time for Cruddas and his stance against the BNP but the problem for him and for the other delusional supporters of the Labour Party is that the electorate in this country do not want socialism by that or any other name.

    The only way Labour will win elections is by appealing to Middle England – Worcester Woman – whatever and if they refuse to actually understand why Blair was so successful they will remain in opposition.

    The problem for the childish socialist dreamers is that they don’t like the answer to the question so choose their familiar route of smearing Blair and his record of success.

    No country on this planet in normal economic circumstances has ever voted for a socialist party to govern them and they won’t now.

    What’s worse is the rank hypocrisy from Labour with a Countess toff as their deputy and a tax avoiding property owning multimillionaire who hasn’t worked a single day in his life.

    Except for the aforementioned toff.

    Labour needs to get a grip and if it continues this nonsense it will never govern this country again…

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