Labour’s ‘angry brigade’ has misunderstood Blair’s message

11th April, 2013 4:30 pm

Shortly after Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, the BBC began running Caroline Ahern’s mock talk show, The Mrs Merton Show. One of the elderly host’s best comic one-liners was her famous quip to Debbie McGee: ‘so what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?’ Today’s reaction to the former prime minister’s article in the New Statesman certainly has an air of: ‘so what does three-time election winner Tony Blair think he knows about winning elections?’

Mark Ferguson, editor of LabourList, seems particularly riled by Blair’s suggestion that ‘we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion’. According to Mark, ‘considering what the Tories are trying to do to the country, we should be hugely passionate – furious even’. Blair, he says, ‘speaks with the dispassionate detachment of the Davos Left’.

But Labour’s ‘angry brigade’ has misunderstood Blair’s message which is simply: don’t let red mist cloud your judgement. Rather than getting angry with the Tories, get even with them. And, on this, Blair is right: Labour needs to be in the business of the politics of answers, not simply the politics of anger. In a week when the 1980s has loomed large, Labour should not forget the lesson of its four consecutive defeats: that faced between a government and a pressure group masquerading as an opposition, the voters will pick the former every time. It was only when Labour came to be seen as an alternative government – a party willing to level with the electorate about hard truths and show that it was capable of picking priorities not simply producing a shopping list – that it was once again entrusted with office.

Thankfully, Labour has avoided many of the traps that it fell into in the early 1980s. Sneered at by some, Ed Miliband’s talk of the ‘squeezed middle’ has entered the political mainstream. His recent call to ‘grow the economy from the middle out’ echoes the agenda which saw Barack Obama re-elected six months ago. And rather than becoming a forum for internecine warfare, the party’s policy review has sought to uncover some of the deeper causes of Labour’s defeat in 2010, while the man charged with leading it, Jon Cruddas, has warned that ‘simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good’.

The complexity of public opinion surrounding the cuts underlines the need for the dispassion and alternative that Blair is calling for. Look underneath the headline numbers in the polls, which show Labour with a comfortable double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and the picture is somewhat more unsettling. Those who want Labour to get angry can take comfort, for instance, in the fact, that, according to YouGov, 45% of the public think the government’s spending cuts are ‘bad for the economy’ (although given that George Osborne looks on the brink of pulling off a triple-dip recession, I’m somewhat surprised that figure is not higher), and 56% correctly deduce that the cuts are ‘being done unfairly’. Labour’s problem, however, is that 59% of the public still think they are ‘necessary’ (as against only 29% who think they are ‘unnecessary’) and, indeed, by a margin of 12%, more people think the blame for the cuts rests with the last Labour government than with the coalition.

As Blair correctly points out, ‘Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it “created” the crisis. In 2007/2008 the cyclically adjusted current Budget balance was under 1% of GDP. Public debt was significantly below 1997. Over the whole 13 years, the debt-to-GDP ratio was better than the Conservative record from 1979-97.’ However, that feeling on the part of 59% of the public that the government’s cuts are ‘necessary’ will only begin to shift when Labour is able to demonstrate that it has an alternative plan that can both kickstart the economy in the short term, while bringing down the deficit and reducing debt over the medium term.

On welfare, too, Labour cannot allow its justifiable anger at the ‘bedroom tax’, cuts to disability benefits or Osborne’s distasteful attempt to exploit the deaths of six children to blind it to where the public are. As YouGov found this week, 70% of voters (including 51% of Labour voters) believe the benefit system works ‘fairly’ or ‘very’ badly and needs ‘significant’ or ‘major’ reform. 63% of people (including nearly half of all Labour voters), moreover, think the benefit system is ‘not strict enough and too open to abuse’. As Ipsos MORI’s managing director, Bobby Duffy, commented earlier this week: ‘Views of the welfare system have hardened over the past few years – but … there has [also] been a generational shift. Younger generations don’t have anything like the connection to the welfare state that previous generations have, and that’s a real challenge for the future.’  In place of the Tories’ attempt to divide the nation into ‘strivers’ and ‘skivers’, Labour needs to show that it offers an alternative which reflects the public’s desire for reform. Liam Byrne is right to talk of a return to the contributory principle which underlay the original Beveridge plan, but the public will remain unconvinced that Labour is serious about reform until it moves from advocating a principle to producing a detailed plan for how this would be realised.

With two years to go until the next election, the question is no longer whether the Tories are bad enough to lose, but whether Labour is good enough to win. Tony Blair’s intervention today is a timely reminder of that fact.

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  • Brumanuensis

    This article leads me to two conclusions:

    First, it rather supports the point I made when I commented on Mark’s piece, namely that Blair’s article was so anodyne that it could mean anything to anyone. Rather than people drawing anything from its content, it’s merely directed people to offer their opinion on Blair. This alerts us to the fact that Blair’s article was essentially a content-free piece of fluff, littered with platitudes.

    Second, we are seeing an annoying false dichotomy arise between ‘anger’ and ‘governing’. Mrs Thatcher – since we are talking about the 1980s – was an angry woman. Her anger was directed against various targets and her policies implemented her anger. Getting angry or passionate does not mean, nor did Mark suggest it meant, screaming your head off. It means being firm about where the government is going wrong and not pandering to ill-informed opinion, simply because it is expedient to do so. Thatcher did the latter very well (in the sense that she didn’t pander, not necessarily that opinion was ill-informed).

    There is no contradiction between Labour being ‘angry’ and Labour coming up with alternate policy prospectus. Anger should inform policy, where appropriate and sometimes oppositions have to oppose and not necessarily constructively either. Faced with the potential catastrophe of the ‘bedroom tax’ and the idiocy of the ‘benefit cap’, anger is entirely appropriate. The key is to use that anger productively, not deny it in the name of some nebulous concept of ‘responsibility’.

  • AlanGiles

    When I retired from my last job, on the last day I was constantly being told that I MUST go back and visit them.

    I said outright that I never would and I never did. My replacement was somebody, who, though I liked him personally, I didn’t care for his managerial stance. I knew if I went back I would see things I didn’t like, but it would have been unprofessional and unseemly for me to have said anything about it to anybody, and I would have been depressed to see how things had changed, and impotent to have changed things.

    That is how former prime Ministers should behave. I am sure James Callaghan didn’t approve of all the things Blair did, but he never publically interferred. Harold Wilson didn’t interfere with a running commentary on James Callaghan’s administration.

    They had class. It’s just a pity Blair hasn’t got it, and take a leaf out of Harold and Jim’s books.

    Blair left office six years ago. Time and events have moved on. It’s time he did too.

    • Blair was a triple-election winning PM and the only one for Labour. Callaghan interfered in Foot’s leadership by not supporting Labour’s defence policy!

  • AlanGiles

    “moreover, think the benefit system is ‘not strict enough and too open to abuse’.”

    When people like Mr Philpot comes out with things like that, it rather suggests he has little knowledge of just how difficult it is for many people to receive help. He should try having a word with a benefits advisor or a C.A.B advisor.

    I get tired of having to say this, but now that computerisation is so embeded, it means that a claimants circumstances and information can be shared between all government and outside organisations. Anybody caught “fiddling” is more likely to be caught and prosecuted.

    I once represented a middle aged person with severe learning difficulties who had signed a form for the DWP, filled in for them by a well-meaning but incautious friend, and there was one fairly minor but to the DWP terrible error. I attended the interview conducted “under caution” by two severe cold, suited and booted women who terrified the person they were interviewing, asking the same question in different ways over the course of 45 minutes with no breaks allowed.

    I found the atmosphere intimidating, and I wasn’t the one being accused of anything.
    I would have loved those women to have interviewed some of the MPs who had made deliberately fraudulent expenses claims.

    After several weeks, BTW in the case I mentioned, a terse letter was sent from the DWP saying that no further action would be taken.

  • johndclare

    I fear that the Labour-Left understands all to well.

    The problem for Labour’s Right-Wing is that it has lost the argument whilst retaining the power. The sheer horrific violence of the Tory measures are such that they are undermining the Labour-Right’s attempts to pursue a wet-Tory line. The failed attempt to agree-in-principle with the bedroom tax, and the outcry of hostility to the Poundland abstention and the contributory principle threaten to force them left, and they don’t like it. Losing the argument might be a prequel to losing the influence.

    Does anybody think that Blair’s intervention was gratuitous? He is far too clever. His statement was an attempt to shore up the Labour-Right.
    Has it succeeded? I hope not. Labour *needs* to move somewhat leftwards if it is to pick up the opponents of Cameron’s policies. And there is absolutely no reason why the Party cannot condemn the brutalclass-war against the poorest and most vulnerable of society and yet remain fiscally responsible.

    If Britain’s choice is between being swamped in debt or watching the poor starve, then we might as well shut up shop and go live in a cave.

  • kb32904

    If the message is being misunderstood, maybe it would have been better for Blair to have relayed it to the PLP in private, instead of in another media piece !

  • robertcp

    My problem with Blair is that by 2007 I had decided that I would never vote Labour, while he was the leader. Blair was a very good Leader of the Opposition but an awful Prime Minister.

  • This still sounds far too much like ‘we must say what I think the electorate want to hear’. Sometimes you have to say what you believe to be right and that’s not just about detached or dispassionate trechnocracy

  • rekrab

    Blair showing schoolboy anger? LoL!

  • Blair is no doubt well worth listening to in term sof how to win an election, my question would be at what price?
    At some point Labour has to be true to itself and its values , in another article Blair seems to attack Labours opposition to austerity which is causing real suffering ( I work in homelessness) for the people that the party was formed to give a voice to .
    Sadly I find the current Labour Party almost as far away from the needs of ordinary people as the present government and in my view Blair and his cronies were the architects of this allowing Britain to be a less equal society after three terms of a “Labour Government”.

    • althejazz

      Get real – blair is a tory and he cost the Labour party dear by not dismantling thatcherism. The fact that he ‘respects’ this evil woman is even more good reason for him to expelled from the Labour party for bringing it into disrepute.

    • Dave Postles

      Thanks for all you are doing for the homeless.

  • BusyBeeBuzz

    The public need to get passionate and angry about Tory cuts and re-engage in party politics, but the public cannot re-engage with Labour if they listen to Blair or any other Tory. Milliband needs to stand his ground on issues which are a threat to our democracy and the rule of law. His decision to back Liam Byrne’s decision to force Labour MPs to abstain from voting on the Jobseekers (Back to Work) Bill lost Labour the moral high ground. The Tories only got this Bill through because Labour abstained. Not only was this a breach of Clause IV, 2b of the Labour Party Constitution, but it also undermined the ‘fairness’ of the Poundland trial (Article 6 of the
    HRA – right to a ‘fair’ trial) and flouted the rule of law. It is only now, in retrospect that Milliband and Byrne realise the error of this decision. If they are going to suck up to the Tories on important issues like this, then they cannot expect to attract floating voters or left wingers. They have to make up their mind which side they are on! However, I agree with Blair’s statement: “we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion” particularly if it is applied to the issue of freedom of the press. We already have enough laws in place to hold news editors to account if they breach those laws. We need freedom of the press to hold politicians to account when they do wrong e.g. their recent efforts to undermine the rule of law. The Hacked Off campaign comprised of some very hurt people who deserve to see justice done as victims of crimes against them, but I would not go so far as to say that I support Labour’s demand to limit freedom of express for short term popularity. This is an issue that really does need a cool head, knowledge of history and a vision of how censorship could threaten our democracy. The problem is that by taking away legal aid, the public won’t have access to specialist lawyers who can advise them on whether they have a case and how to take their case to a ‘Regulatory Body’ once one is set up. The law requires judgements to be dispassionate in order to be objective and so it is important that law makers create and pass laws which comply with existing legislation e.g. the UK Human Rights Act 1998. This country is in the state that it is in because Blair adopted Thatcher’s monetarist policies, introduced to tripartite banking system, went into an illegal war and sucked up to Murdoch. The people might be willing to forgive all this if Labour can demonstrate that it regrets all this and is now ready to fight the Tories, stand up for the most vulnerable people in society and fight to protect the rule of law.

  • Dave Postles

    Pinky and Smirky regard themselves as the ‘heirs to Blair’ – and probably rightly so.


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