How to win the Labour leadership contest

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On 12th September 1995, Tony Blair went down to Brighton to address the TUC. Although Labour was by now storming ahead in the polls, facing an already (effectively) defeated and crumbling Conservative government, there was tension in the air as Blair got up to speak. Large parts of the union movement were sceptical, to say the least, about this tiggerish New Labour leader.

The main part of the speech did not go down very well. It is a myth that the TUC can be an invariably hostile or aggressive audience. Usually delegates listen courteously and quietly, unless moved to voice support or criticism. And Blair’s prepared words that day were received largely in silence.

He did his best to offer a few pleasing messages. “Let them [the Tories] stop the right-wing dogma now,” Blair said. “Let them, to begin with, abandon their disastrous and expensive plans to break up and sell off Britain’s railways. Let that be kept as a public service, publicly owned, serving the interests of the people,” he said. (He really did.)

But in spite of this and other clear lines about rights at work, raising pay and skills levels, and an attack on casualisation (and zero hours contracts), the hall was quiet. The Brighton conference centre has never been a great place to speak, and it seemed to be claiming another victim on this day.

Blair reached the end of his prepared text. And, looking up, he could tell he had not exactly carried the room. But he did not want to end on such downbeat note.

So (it appeared to this observer) he busked it. The more elegant term is “extemporised”. And thanks to a transcriber at the TUC, the words he then used were captured and printed in that year’s congress report. (They are not yet online. I am grateful to the staff of the TUC library collections at London Metropolitan University for finding the relevant pages.)

What follows is the text of the final – ad-libbed? – five minutes of Blair’s speech that day:

“I have always said to my party that we cannot be too complacent. There is a lot to be done. We have come such a long way. We are going to go further together because it is right. No one, least of all me, ever thought that it would be easy getting from where we are to where we need to be.

“I will say this to you, and I say it right from the bottom of my heart, when I have taken decisions in the Labour party that I believe are necessary to put this party in the position where it can win an election, it is not because I want to turn my back on the beliefs of the Labour party – in social justice, in ridding this country of poverty, in dealing with the stigma of homelessness – it is because I know that if we cannot get a Labour government then we can do nothing for the poor and the unemployed and the homeless.

“Of course it is hard. Of course there is frustration building up [sic] this country. There is anger. There is outrage at what has happened. But outrage and anger are not enough. We have to be the means of translating that anger and that passion into the achievement of a change of government. I sit there in the House of Commons, I have ever since 1983, sitting there opposite me people doing things – the poll tax, the benefits cuts, the privatisation of decent public health services, what has happened in the health service, in our educations service – I have sat there and I have watched these people ruin our country, ruin it. I sit there opposite Michael Heseltine, Michael Howard, Virginia Bottomley, Peter Lilley, John Redwood…and those are the good ones! I have sat there and I have watched them.

“In my own mind, I have complete confidence in the beliefs I hold dear. I know why I am in the Labour party, I know why I am part of it. I know why I have joined this party and worked for it for the last 20 years. It is because when you look around your society you see the injustice, you see the opportunity denied, you see the unfairness, you see all that elitism at the top, you see that establishment still there trying to run parts of our country, and you look around even beyond our country and you see a world which has plenty and yet is torn by starvation and war.

“There are still great causes to unite decent people. There are still great fights and struggles to be won out there. But what has come home to me more than anything else is the utter futility of Opposition. I did not join the Labour party to join a party of protest. I joined it as a party of government and I will make sure that it is a party of government.

“Do not let anyone ever forget that it is power for a purpose. It is power to put into place that programme for the long-term unemployed. It is power to give people a decent agenda of rights at [sic] the workplace. It is power to change our education system, to stop the privatisation of health, to build a better, more secure industrial future for this country. It is power for that purpose.

“I tell you, look around at these Tories today they would not understand decency, respect and integrity if it came up and bit them in the leg. These are the people who have been running our country, and no longer should they be running our country, not in any decent society. Therefore, when I say to you, New Labour – and I do without apology and without hesitation – I do it because I know. That man there, Neil Kinnock [who was also on the platform that day], he struggled and in that brilliant way he brought this party back from where it was, practically dead, in 1983. Remember it. That is where we were. Do not ever forget, because he will not, every inch of the way: ‘you should not do it’, ‘it is going too far’, ‘it is the wrong thing’, ‘it is all being run by a tiny elite at the top’, all the rest of it. But we had to do it. We had to do it because of our concern for people who are poor and unemployed and homeless and at the injustice in our society. Then John Smith had to do it. I have to do it too. I do it because I believe. I do it because the society I want to create is not some fantasy or dream. It could be true. But it can only be true if we have the guts, the decency, the discipline and the honesty to tell it to those people out there like it is, not to make promises we cannot keep, to deliver on the promises we make, and to rebuild this country as a great nation again.

“Yes, it is tough. Yes, it is tough, but, yes, we are going to do it. Those Tories who think they have a divine right to rule, not now, not today, not in this Labour party, not under this leader. New Labour. New Britain. Let us get on with it.”

At this point the transcriber, or a TUC official, has rather generously noted: “standing ovation”, which is not quite how I remember it. (The only time I remember Blair achieving anything like that at the TUC was six years later, on 11th September 2001.)

But the response was undoubtedly warm. He had won the audience round. What does this tell us?

Contexts change, and Blair himself might not particularly enjoy being reminded of some of the policy positions he held 20 years ago. The text is also a reminder that it is easier to face a government that has been in power for 16 years, is clearly failing and is deeply unpopular.

But the crucial lesson here, I think, is in the skilful fusion of older and newer messages which Blair pulled off in these closing words. I remember so well that rather plaintive “I have to do it too”. It felt like a moment of candour and sincerity. It also seemed humble.

This was an appeal to heart and head. Good leaders need both.

The candidate who can display both these qualities will win the Labour leadership this September, and will deserve to.

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