Blair, and the end of New Labour


Blair HeavensBy Mark Ferguson / @markfergusonuk

This afternoon I listened to Tony Blair being interviewed on Radio 5 by Richard Bacon, and watched his interview with Andrew Marr again. The one thing that jumps out at you when you’re watching (or listening) to Blair, is the supreme self-confidence that he has – something that no British politician since has managed to convey. Much attention has been given to Blair’s comments in his book that Brown is a “strange” man, but surely if anything Blair is even stranger.

What kind of person has this extreme, unbounded self-confidence and drive? Is it not a strange kind of person who could return to the political stage after three years and dominate it, completely, while at the same time taking part in high-level peace talks). None of the leadership candidates have this frightening self-belief, at least not yet. Perhaps this is for the best. There can be few in the world who have such feelings, whether they are an ability or a handicap. What the Labour Party is looking for next is not a clone of Tony Blair. It’s also very clearly not what Cameron is either. Any attempts to paint him, or any other British politician as such a replica should be rebuffed.

There is something about Blair that is immensely watchable and draws you in so that you forget the years that have passed and the disagreements that you may have had with his policies and actions. You stare at his face, so familiar and memorable despite the years that have passed. In a sense he has never been away, and this book may finally bring down the curtain on the extended Blair-era. There is rarely much to add to a political autobiography, it is the final action of an actor who has left the stage, not of one waiting in the wing to burst back on for an encore.

But that gravitas on television, which can at times seem adversarial and tetchy, is nothing compared to Blair on the radio. He is completely and utterly compelling, drawing you in to his story, whether high politics or mundane personal details. Even when he’s not answering the question, which is still quite often, you still feel you’re gaining an insight into how he thinks, how he works, and what drives him.

Blair’s sense of confidence also extends to a complete certainty about politics. Perhaps the most striking comment made in the Marr interview was when he said:

“I always took the view that if we departed a milimetre from New Labour, we were going to be in trouble.”

This suggests that New Labour was a complete and rounded ideology that everyone was clear on, and everyone understood. Clearly this isn’t the case. If you asked ten Labour Party members to define New Labour you’d get twenty different answers. What Blair appears to have done is to internalise New Labour. When he says move away from New Labour, he means “do something that I disagree with”, and by that definition it feels in hindsight that New Labour would always have had a short shelf life after Blair. Now no-one wants to inherent the title for themselves. They’re right not to, they could never own it the way Blair already has and always will.

If people had not already declared New Labour over, then now would be the time to do it. Even if the next leader of the Labour Party is someone ideologically similar to Blair (and with four of the candidates being former cabinet ministers, that’s possible), what comes next can never be New Labour. It may retain some of the characteristics. It may be tough on crime. It may believe that triangulation on key issues is an electoral necessity. It may even win three successive general elections. But without Tony, it won’t be New Labour. Looking to the future, that’s probably for the best.

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