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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Voters are turning against Brexit but the Lib Dems aren't benefiting

Labour's pro-Brexit stance is not preventing it from winning the support of Remainers. Will that change?

More than a year after the UK voted for Brexit, there has been little sign of buyer's remorse. The public, including around a third of Remainers, are largely of the view that the government should "get on with it".

But as real wages are squeezed (owing to the Brexit-linked inflationary spike) there are tentative signs that the mood is changing. In the event of a second referendum, an Opinium/Observer poll found, 47 per cent would vote Remain, compared to 44 per cent for Leave. Support for a repeat vote is also increasing. Forty one per cent of the public now favour a second referendum (with 48 per cent opposed), compared to 33 per cent last December. 

The Liberal Democrats have made halting Brexit their raison d'être. But as public opinion turns, there is no sign they are benefiting. Since the election, Vince Cable's party has yet to exceed single figures in the polls, scoring a lowly 6 per cent in the Opinium survey (down from 7.4 per cent at the election). 

What accounts for this disparity? After their near-extinction in 2015, the Lib Dems remain either toxic or irrelevant to many voters. Labour, by contrast, despite its pro-Brexit stance, has hoovered up Remainers (55 per cent back Jeremy Corbyn's party). 

In some cases, this reflects voters' other priorities. Remainers are prepared to support Labour on account of the party's stances on austerity, housing and education. Corbyn, meanwhile, is a eurosceptic whose internationalism and pro-migration reputation endear him to EU supporters. Other Remainers rewarded Labour MPs who voted against Article 50, rebelling against the leadership's stance. 

But the trend also partly reflects ignorance. By saying little on the subject of Brexit, Corbyn and Labour allowed Remainers to assume the best. Though there is little evidence that voters will abandon Corbyn over his EU stance, the potential exists.

For this reason, the proposal of a new party will continue to recur. By challenging Labour over Brexit, without the toxicity of Lib Dems, it would sharpen the choice before voters. Though it would not win an election, a new party could force Corbyn to soften his stance on Brexit or to offer a second referendum (mirroring Ukip's effect on the Conservatives).

The greatest problem for the project is that it lacks support where it counts: among MPs. For reasons of tribalism and strategy, there is no emergent "Gang of Four" ready to helm a new party. In the absence of a new convulsion, the UK may turn against Brexit without the anti-Brexiteers benefiting. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.