In 2020, Labour will have been out of office for ten years. Tony Blair will have been out of office for thirteen. Blairism is dead. I know this because what was once a phrase that once meant a quite specific approach on the right of the left but quite different from many other right and left strands of thinking has become a catch-all term for “person I don’t agree with that I think is to my right that I want to dismiss out of hand”. When even Progress have declared you dead, the trick now is to learn how to lie down with dignity.
Sadly this hasn’t happened. Instead Blair has written a somewhat incoherent and incomplete defence of his time in government. So now – once again – Labour are having an argument about its past and not a discussion about its future.
Don’t get me wrong, I’d rather have a week of Blair as PM than a year of Cameron. He’s Labour in his values and his government did great things. The greatest frustration of Blair is that he was a brilliant politician once. Capable of making and sustaining an argument for social justice that convinced the country. But that man is simply not in evidence in this weird ramble.
I think the Labour Party owes a huge debt to Tony Blair and I think there are lessons both good and bad to be learned from his time in office. We changed the narrative on social justice both at home and internationally. But Blair now seems to have become his own worst spokesperson. The arguments in this piece are the least convincing case for Labour centrism I have seen in a long time.
First of all, Blair opens the piece in a way absolutely designed to enrage not engage a Labour audience. This isn’t the way to make a case, it’s petulism and pessimism. I could absolutely agree that it is a tragedy that Labour is in opposition, but to phrase it in such a way that it sounds like he is accusing the current leadership of liking it that way is antagonistic. It is not Blair the persuader, but Blair the defender of a crystallised and outdated ideology.
If it were to be possible to take the best of New Labour and combine it with the best of the new politics that Corbyn has brought to the party that could be a potent and heady brew. But – as his supporters have – Blair has to recognise that the world has moved on and solutions must change as the way they are applied does. If he believes that Jeremy Corbyn is too dogmatic in his ideology and beliefs he should then challenge his own dogmatism.
Instead we get a defence of it and – frankly – not a very good one. I could do a better job and I’ve never been a Blairite! For example, it cannot have escaped Blair’s attention that the biggest criticism of his government is the mess they made of Iraq. To then argue that Islamic extremism “was the security issue of our time” denies the fact that for his many, many faults, Saddam was not running a theocracy. There were arguments in favour of toppling him but defeating Islamic extremism is not one of them. It might well be an argument for now, but this is not a piece about now but about then.
This is – of course – the biggest problem with both Blair and Blairism. It and he are now of the past. There will always be a future for Labour’s centrist tradition, but it will look and feel very different to what has come before. If you are of that tendency, I would worry that this kind of intervention makes the heavy lifting of defining that harder – not easier.