If there’s a lesson from the Labour leadership contest, it is that most of its MPs have lost control of the party. Daily pleas from senior MPs to members to choose someone “electable” i.e. not Jeremy Corbyn) seem to be falling on deaf ears. A full scale insurgency is in effect.
Blairites sound even more disorientated. Last week the Independent’s John Rentoul blamed Ed Miliband for Corbyn’s rise, claiming that while he was leader, “the party chose as candidates a swathe of the hard neo-left.” I hate to point out the obvious to Rentoul but Labour also selected many candidates from the right of the party (Wes Streeting is a prominent example) and from the centre (Jessica Asato and Rowenna Davis – both of whom sadly didn’t win).
What this illustrates is how dogmatic and outdated Blairism has now become. It took 17-year-old Abby Tomlinson to put a finger on the odd part of Tony Blair’s interview last week: “What was interesting about Tony Blair’s speech is that he said that even if he thought an old-fashioned leftist platform was the ‘route to victory’ he wouldn’t take it. So, essentially, Blair was saying that he would stick to his own principles and ideas, even if they would lose an election, ironically, the exact same thing that many Blairites are moaning at Corbyn supporters for.”
Of course, Blair said that because he wasn’t cynically positioning himself to be more appealing to voters in the 90s, he is genuinely a centrist. But it also illustrates the rut many Blairites are in: they think their formula is fine even if people no longer want it.
Labour MPs face two considerable problems: members and voters. Members aren’t convinced by Blairism – as Liz Kendall’s sputtering campaign clearly shows – because for all its electoral success it failed the fundamental test of leftwing politics: it left Britain a more unequal country. A country where social mobility became harder not easier and neo-liberalism failed to deliver for the majority.
Ed Miliband became leader of Labour in 2010 not because members didn’t want to win, but because they wanted someone who was worried about inequality. Since then, if anything, that feeling has heightened not subdued. Among the politically active, rising inequality is among the biggest concerns in modern Britain. That may not have been the case in the 90s but it is definitely the case now.
Voters are also a problem for Blairism too, for different reasons. They’re not as exercised about inequality clearly, but they’ve splintered since 1997. Globalisation and immigration has disorientated the working class and split the coalition that Blair put together. While many welcome immigration and globalisation – a significant part of the coalition are very much against both.
Blairism is outdated because it doesn’t have an answer to the forces that were unleashed by it. Liz Kendall, while correct that Labour has to focus laser-like on voters who opted for the Tories, hasn’t grappled with this problem either. How does it deal with the losers from globalisation and immigration while not repelling those who benefit from it?
Wasn’t Blairism meant to be about understanding voters (and to a lesser extent, members) in a drive to win? A proper neo-Blairite response would accept that it failed in some ways (to placate members) and offer a bold response to the coalition of 1997. For all of the criticism levelled at Miliband, at least he tried to deal with these challenges (and predictably attacked for going too far / not far enough).
The reason why Liz Kendall isn’t doing well isn’t because Miliband stitched up Labour in his image, it’s because the disciples of Blair are still flailing on what comes next. In the absence of solutions and ideas, we have a vacuum. It’s no use blaming Jeremy Corbyn either, he didn’t light the fire, it was already smoking when he got there.