It’s not only Blair who should be saying sorry

When is the Labour Party going to apologise for inflicting this man upon us?

Publication of Tony Blair's toe-curling autobiography has been greeted with a degree of outrage, much of which rings a little false, as it was surely obvious that "the young war criminal", as the late Alan Watkins used to refer to the former prime minister, was not going to apologise for his role in the illegal invasion of Iraq.

Many of us, however, are still waiting for another overdue act of contrition. And that would be the Labour Party apologising for inflicting this greedy, self-deluding, philosophically vacuous man and his cohorts of power-hungry, unprincipled acolytes upon us for the past 13 years.

Some Labour supporters and members appear to think it unfair to dwell on the Blair-Brown administrations. Only recently, when I posted ten reasons why Charles Kennedy should not join Labour, one commenter wrote: "New Labour are gone GET OVER IT!" Naturally, I can see that it might well be convenient to overlook the party's actions during its long years in government. In most democracies, though, the tradition -- not an unreasonable one, I can't help but feel -- is to judge a party's promises against its recent record in power.

No wonder many would like to draw a veil of silence over that time. (I would happily join any paeans to Roy Jenkins's first period at the Home Office, for instance, but I think we can safely say that the years 1997-2010 are of more relevance here than 1965-67.)

Further, if you believe the spin put on an opinion poll by YouGov published yesterday, which found that 72 per cent of undecided voters would be less likely to vote for Labour if it pursued New Labour policies, you will not find it surprising that leading party figures should wish to distance themselves from Tony and his pals.

But Blair and his gang did not come to be in charge by chance. Labour Party members are not believed to have mislaid their votes in large numbers back in 1994. Nor can one argue that the party simply woke up one morning -- after indulging in too many ales at the Durham Miners' Gala, perhaps -- to find to their surprise that they were led by a man who cared little for their past and shared few of their beliefs. No, they knowingly elected a man whose mission, as Simon Jenkins wrote in a brilliantly devastating column on Friday, was "to anaesthetise the Labour Party while he turned it into a vehicle to make him electable and his newly espoused Thatcherism irreversible".

Some may say that this was not obvious at the time; and it is true that a good many people were taken in by him. For those whose judgement was not clouded by the desperate desire for Labour to return to office, however, it was quite clear that Blair was, by instinct, authoritarian, moralistic and lacking in any affection for his party's history, while his every speech and act indicated that, by any yardstick, he was exceedingly right wing. I can remember, as if it were yesterday, discussing with an Old Labour refusenik how strange it seemed that a Liberal like me should find himself so much to the left of the new leader of the Labour Party.

Even after the sad death of John Smith (a man who would have had no truck with New Labour, and whose good taste is shown by how he took, it is said, "an instantaneous dislike" to Peter Mandelson), it is not as though there were no alternatives. There was Robin Cook, later the only cabinet minister to resign over Iraq before it was invaded. Bryan Gould, once a much-fancied leadership contender, could have been persuaded to stay and to forgo his return to New Zealand (from where his occasional commentaries have continued to give us reason to lament his absence; I commend this article from last year, "Labour has betrayed the people").

Instead, the Labour Party chose Blair. Not the mass of British voters, who play no part in the election of the executive. Not the majority who did not tick the Labour box in any of the three elections Blair "won" -- they had even less say in the matter. No, the choice of Tony Blair, and the failure to remove him swiftly -- or even to pluck up the courage to challenge him -- were solely the responsibility of the Labour Party, whose members were the only people, apart from the voters of Sedgefield, who had a chance to express their opinion of him at the ballot box.

What happened to the collective conscience of Labour MPs, members and voters during those 13 years? If they didn't have the backbone to get rid of a leader they should never have favoured in the first place, why didn't they defect en masse to the Liberal Democrats when they were led by Charles Kennedy, whose party and policies were at the time identifiably more of the left? Or at least take the New Statesman's advice before the 2005 general election on "How to give Blair a bloody nose"?

As the Green Party MP, Caroline Lucas, puts it in the current issue of the NS: "They act as if they were out to lunch while it all happened." (The reference is to the four male Labour leadership candidates, but it applies equally well to the broader party and its supporters.) If one didn't know better, one might be tempted to draw the conclusion that Iraq, PFIs, rising inequality and carbon emissions (to quote four problems from Lucas's list) were all deemed worth it, if that was the price of holding on to power -- because they can't actually have believed in such policies, can they?

I have expressed my regard for Ed Miliband before on this site, and I do hope he wins his party's contest. He represents the best hope for a break from the past 13 years.

But until there is some public repudiation of that time, an admission of guilt and complicity in the ghastly errors and wasted opportunities associated with Tony Blair and the whole New Labour project -- until there is nothing less than a proper apology from the Labour Party to the British people -- do forgive me if I treat the utterances of the current leadership contenders in the same way as Gordon Brown once said he did Tony Blair's promises: "There is nothing that you could ever say to me now that I could ever believe."

Sholto Byrnes is a Contributing Editor to the New Statesman
Getty
Show Hide image

Want to beat child poverty? End the freeze on working-age benefits

Freezing working-age benefits at a time of rising prices is both economically and morally unsound. 

We serve in politics to change lives. Yet for too long, many people and parts of Britain have felt ignored. Our response to Brexit must respond to their concerns and match their aspirations. By doing so, we can unite the country and build a fairer Britain.

Our future success as a country depends on making the most of all our talents. So we should begin with a simple goal – that child poverty must not be a feature of our country’s future.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies projects that relative child poverty will see the biggest increase in a generation in this Parliament. That is why it is so troubling that poverty has almost disappeared from the political agenda under David Cameron, and now Theresa May.

The last Labour Government’s record reminds us what can be achieved. Labour delivered the biggest improvement of any EU nation in lifting one million children out of poverty, transforming so many lives. Child poverty should scar our conscience as much as it does our children’s futures. So we have a duty to this generation to make progress once again.

In my Barnsley constituency, we have led a campaign bringing together Labour party members, community groups, and the local Labour Council to take action. My constituency party recently published its second child poverty report, which included contributions from across our community on addressing this challenge.

Ideas ranged from new requirements on developments for affordable housing, to expanding childcare, and the great example set by retired teachers lending their expertise to tutor local students. When more than 200 children in my constituency fall behind in language skills before they even start school, that local effort must be supported at the national level.

In order to build a consensus around renewed action, I will be introducing a private member’s bill in Parliament. It will set a new child poverty target, with requirements to regularly measure progress and report against the impact of policy choices.

I hope to work on a cross-party basis to share expertise and build pressure for action. In response, I hope that the Government will make this a priority in order to meet the Prime Minister’s commitment to make Britain a country that works for everyone.

The Autumn Statement in two months’ time is an opportunity to signal a new approach. Planned changes to tax and benefits over the next four years will take more than one pound in every ten pounds from the pockets of the poorest families. That is divisive and short-sighted, particularly with prices at the tills expected to rise.

Therefore the Chancellor should make a clear commitment to those who have been left behind by ending the freeze on working-age benefits. That would not only be morally right, but also sound economics.

It is estimated that one pound in every five pounds of public spending is associated with poverty. As well as redirecting public spending, poverty worsens the key economic challenges we face. It lowers productivity and limits spending power, which undermine the strong economy we need for the future.

Yet the human cost of child poverty is the greatest of all. When a Sure Start children’s centre is lost, it closes a door on opportunity. That is penny wise but pound foolish and it must end now.

The smarter approach is to recognise that a child’s earliest years are critical to their future life chances. The weight of expert opinion in favour of early intervention is overwhelming. So that must be our priority, because it is a smart investment for the future and it will change lives today.

This is the cause of our times. To end child poverty so that no-one is locked out of the opportunity for a better future. To stand in the way of a Government that seeks to pass by on the other side. Then to be in position to replace the Tories at the next election.

By doing so, we can answer that demand for change from people across our country. And we can provide security, opportunity, and hope to those who need it most.

That is how we can begin to build a fairer Britain.
 
 

Dan Jarvis is the Labour MP for Barnsley Central and a former Major in the Parachute Regiment.