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
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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.