Blair’s Progress speech gets 7/10

Blair EuropeBy Luke Akehurst / @lukeakehurst

I was in the audience for Tony Blair’s speech to Progress on Friday and thought I ought to write some kind of reaction.

First off, I’m unapologetic about having worn the label “Blairite” over the years with pride. As I said on Twitter on Friday I find it simply weird that there are Labour supporters who don’t celebrate our greatest election winner – the closest metaphor I could think of was finding a faction of Liverpool FC fans who didn’t like Bill Shankly.

But like many Labourites a large part of my support for Tony was leadership loyalism. I was also a Kinnockite and from 2007 a Brownite and now I’m an Ed-ista. And I don’t see those as contradictory – I think Blair was elected in large part due to the earlier heavy lifting in making Labour electable again by Kinnock and Smith, that Brown was as much the co-founder of New Labour as Blair and Mandelson, and that in his revisionist approach, trying to tailor Labour’s policies to the world of 2011 not 1994 that Ed is a worthy successor to Tony.

Unlike Blair and the Blairite ultras to his right, I don’t think 1994 was Year Zero and that New Labour 1994-2007 represented something unique in Labour’s history. I think it sits in a tradition of revisionist moderate Labourism with roots back in the early days of the party from JR Clynes through Morrison, Bevin and Gaitskell to Healey. It suited Blair’s purposes to pretend to be something entirely new, but it doesn’t stand up to any historical or intellectual scrutiny.

I remain a passionate advocate of what Blair achieved in making Labour a three-times election winning machine, redistributing massively to the poorest in society (though sadly not reducing inequality as the rich got even richer during the boom years than the poor did), investing hugely to bring our public services up from the shambolic level the Tories had left them in, and showing great courage in pursuing a truly ethical foreign policy of taking on fascist tyranny in various forms in Kosovo, Sierra Leone, Afghanistan and Iraq, even at the cost of his premiership in the case of the last. There were some particularly productive things done in the very last years of the Blair era with the ‘respect’ agenda on anti-social behaviour and the decision on the renewal of the Trident strategic nuclear deterrent, the latter of which we may have yet unforeseen reasons to be thankful for in many decades’ time.

But I’m not a happy-clappy who buys everything the former leader says as gospel, even if I do think he deserves for past achievements to be cheered and whooped to the rafters by every Labour supporter every time he speaks.

I thought the obsession in the latter part of his Premiership with public service reform, quite narrowly defined as marketisation and the ridiculous “choice” agenda (when the focus should have been universal quality that would have made the need for choice irrelevant and greatly enhanced community cohesion by making everyone proud to use their nearest local school and hospital), was a tragic blind alley that unnecessarily divided the party and wasted vast amounts of ministerial energy for absolutely zero electoral return.

And I find his current disavowal of Labour’s common-sense Keynesian response to the financial crisis (we upped public spending to compensate for a temporary collapse in private spending) frankly bonkers and evidence of a desire to disagree with Gordon Brown for its own sake. I simply don’t believe that Tony would really have responded to the crisis by trying to cut his way out of it and if he had tried to he wouldn’t have had any more success carrying the party with him that MacDonald did in 1931.

Going through Blair’s admirably structured ten point speech, I agreed with seven of them:

Point 1 – he’s a Labour supporter and wants Ed to be PM – agree!

Point 2 – he led a Labour Government pursuing progressive policies – agree

Point 3 – I don’t accept that the Tories are continuing Blair’s policies. Just saying the word “reform” a lot or calling schools with a different purpose to city academies “academies” doesn’t mean they are continuing his reforms.

Point 4 – I don’t find his description of Labour in power as 10+3 (i.e. everything good stopped in 2007) accurate. Brown basically continued Blair’s agenda with some change of emphasis and Blair ought to rise above the silly personality politics of trying to disown his successor and the guy he trusted with economic and most domestic policy for ten years. The idea that Blair’s agenda couldn’t survive without him is an inherently defeatist one and implies it didn’t have deep roots or succeed in profoundly and permanently making Labour more moderate, which I think the party’s sensible behaviour since the 2010 defeat proves it did.

Point 5 – I don’t understand why Tony insists in trying to portray his policies as not left. Surely it would be more useful to winning Labour round to consistently being supportive of policies that will make us electable to explain that those are just as, if not more, coherently leftwing than the prescriptions of the soft and hard left. It’s leftwing to crack down on crime. It’s leftwing to have a sound economy that delivers jobs and prosperity. It’s leftwing to overthrow dictators. Be proud of it Tony – tell the self-proclaimed “left” you ran a great socialist government in terms of tackling poverty and a hundred other indicators, and all they ever did was keep Thatcher in power by rendering Labour unelectable.

Point 6 – if we don’t change, our principles become a refuge from the world not a platform to go out and transform it – agree

Point 7 – Progressives win when they have the courage to be the change-makers not small “c” conservatives – agree

Point 8 – we should be open, creative and modern – agree

Point 9 – we have to be confident enough to be prepared to debate, when we lose, why we lost – agree

Point 10 – “we should also be confident we can always win” – agree

I hope Tony will see that whilst not a copycat of his approach, Ed Miliband’s pronouncements in recent weeks on welfare reform and the public sector strikes demonstrate that he buys in to the essential parts of Blair’s analysis set out in point 1,2 and 6 onwards of his speech, and therefore stands a fighting chance of becoming, like Tony, another great reforming Labour Prime Minister.

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