Fundamental flaw of the Blair project

By flirting with the anti-liberal prejudices of the right-wing media, new Labour has alienated its c

Whether on Iraq, health reorganisation, schools reform or civil liberties, the relationship between Labour and millions of progressive voters has become sour and distrustful. It flourished in the mid-1990s and underpinned our landslide victory in 1997. Now fractured, it puts the party's chances of a historic fourth-term victory at risk, allowing the Conservatives back into power.

George Bush's two terms in the White House graphically demonstrate the danger. The Tories, fronted by a fresh face and projected with slick spin, promise a break with a deeply unpopular party's nasty past. Ominous echoes of the "compassionate conservative" governor of Texas as he campaigned for the US presidency seven years ago.

But scaring progressive voters with the image of David Cameron crossing the threshold of No 10 won't win Labour the next election. Instead, we need to understand why it is that - despite all the achievements of the past ten years - so many of those who enthusiastically supported us in 1997 are now so deeply hostile.

The progressive coalition that Labour so successfully assembled in 1997 has splintered because we have been careless, indifferent and, at times, needlessly offensive to the concerns and values of too many of our natural supporters.

This has not simply been a sin of omission. Instead, it has appeared a conscious strategy. Too often, the credo has been that winning the centre ground - itself unquestionably vital for electoral success - is, in part, achieved by Labour defining itself against the values of progressive Britain. This has always been a false choice. We proved in 1997 that it is possible to win both Middle Britain marginals and Labour heartlands; indeed, since then, we have lost support in both simultaneously.

The chase for headlines in the right-wing press is based on a fundamentally flawed calculation: that progressives have nowhere else to go but to vote Labour. This is a dangerous assumption. In 2001, some of those who had voted Labour four years earlier simply stayed at home. Only Tory weakness and a very low turnout prevented serious electoral damage.

In 2005, however, substantial defections from Labour to the Liberal Democrats not only produced losses from Cambridge to Cardiff Central, they also handed the Conservatives - often without raising their own vote at all - more than 30 seats. Labour ended up with a shaky win and a vote, at just 36 per cent, lower than when we lost to Margaret Thatcher in 1979.

What credit?

If this strategy was electorally risky in the face of a string of overtly right-wing and weak Tory leaders, it could be near-suicidal when we are up against today's reinvigorated Con servatives. Cameron's sidling up to progressive causes such as civil liberties, inequality and climate change is entirely synthetic, all spin and no substance. Nevertheless, it is cunningly calculated to make the Tories appear a whole lot less threatening - if not necessarily attractive - to large numbers of those who were willing to rally around Labour in 1997 in order to evict John Major from No 10. They might well not vote Tory, but equally they might not vote at all if the prospect of a Cameron victory doesn't overly bother them.

But flirting with the anti-liberal prejudices of the right-wing media is counterproductive in another way. When some at the top of the party have seemed at best sullen and at worst downright hostile to our progressive record, what chance do we have of asking people on the left to give us any credit for it?

The Human Rights Act is a case in point. Sometimes we have seemed more concerned with colluding in fantasies and fallacies than with robustly and proudly defending legislation that embodies our commitment to human rights. This has left the door open to Tory right-wing attacks; a stark contrast with other parts of our record that have been solidly defended, such as the minimum wage, civil partnerships, or the creation of devolved institutions in Scotland, Wales and London, all of which the Conservatives have been forced to accept.

On the fight against terrorism, everyone understands that, after 9/11 in New York and 7/7 in London, we need to have a serious debate about the balance between liberty and security. But we have contrived, through government rhetoric and spin, to appear casual about, or even indifferent to, civil liberties, which itself undermines the fight against terrorism. We may not have encountered so much hostility and difficulty with our anti-terrorism laws if we had led the debate in a manner that suggested we cared both about the security of the country and the civil liberties of those who live in it, rather than appearing to suggest that the former can be achieved only by sacrificing the latter.

Gordon Brown's recent suggestion that any further anti-terrorism powers must be accompanied by stronger judicial and parliamentary oversight offers the prospect of a welcome new approach.

The war in Iraq has, of course, also played a significant part in fracturing the progressive coalition. Like all my fellow deputy leadership candidates, I voted for the war. It does nothing to rebuild trust in politicians if, at the moment when it would be most politically expedient to do so, I followed the example of two of my colleagues, renounced my vote and tried to write myself out of the decision. I know only too well the damage to Labour and the anger the war has caused, not only on the doorstep, but over family dinners and in conversations with long-time friends who have felt unable to remain in the party.

Rather than trying to wriggle out of personal responsibility for our decision, I think people should ask that those they entrust to make decisions learn from those decisions. The lessons of Iraq are that military power alone is no substitute for winning the battle of hearts and minds, and that we need to reform and strengthen the capacity of the UN, Europe and other multilateral bodies, including the Arab League.

It is also vital that the left and wider progressive opinion does not, because of Iraq, abandon the internationalism that first brought me from the struggle against apartheid into the Labour Party. An isolationist foreign policy, usually favoured by the right, would not have saved the people of Sierra Leone from savage butchery, nor Kosovans from genocide. The ongoing suffering of the peoples of Burma, Zimbabwe and Darfur underlines why international intervention to protect democracy and human rights must always be high on the left's agenda. The failure to resolve the continuing, and often bloody, impasse between Israelis and Palestinians remains the principal failure of global diplomacy.

Unguarded flank

Forging a progressive internationalist foreign policy built on these lessons - coupled with a renewed drive to promote global social justice and tackle climate change - is the way to win back Labour support among progressive voters, by renewing confidence that we share the same values.

Domestically, we must prioritise tackling inequality. Top of our agenda must be the lack of affordable housing for rent and purchase, the need to ensure the proper enforcement of employment rights in the disturbing twilight world of agency, temporary and subcontract work, and a major push for free universal childcare. Coupled with greater individual empowerment, strengthened local government and finishing the job of democratic renewal - redistributing not just wealth, but also power - the drive against inequality should be the golden thread that runs through our entire agenda.

We leave our progressive flank unguarded at our peril. How on earth did we allow Cameron to steal a march on green issues, given the government's international and European leadership on climate change? The truth is that we failed for too long to prioritise the green agenda as the core Labour issue it so palpably is. If the Tories can attempt to steal progressive voters from us when they have barely any green policies, no record of prior commitment and, until very recently, zero credibility, then no territory is safe. We must challenge them with a red-green agenda that combines social justice and environmental protection, tackling climate change but ensuring that the responsibility for doing so is fairly shared.

However expedient their motives, the Conservatives have finally realised the electoral importance of Britain's progressive majority. A decade ago, so did we. It's now high time we did again. And that means we need to stop insulting it.

Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and Wales, is a candidate for Labour's deputy leadership

His manifesto is available at http://www.Hain4Labour.org

Peter Hain is a former Labour cabinet minister and was MP for Neath between 1991 and 2015 before joining the House of Lords.

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent

Ralph Steadman for the New Statesman.
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Tim Farron: Theresa May is "the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party"

The Liberal Democrat leader on his faith, Blairism and his plan to replace Labour as the opposition. 

This is Tim Farron’s seventh general election. His first was in 1992, when his Tory opponent was a 36-year-old called Ther­esa May. He was just 21 and they were both unsuccessful candidates in the Labour fortress of North-West Durham. He recalls talking “to a bunch of ex-miners who weren’t best pleased to see either of us, some kid Liberal and some Tory”. Now he sees his former and current opponent as “the prisoner of the Ukip wing of her party . . . I think it has rendered Ukip almost pointless – she is Ukip now.”

May was elected to parliament in 1997, but it took Farron until 2005 to join her. She leads the dominant Conservatives while he heads a party of only nine Liberal Democrat MPs. Still, their reversal of fortunes gives him hope. “After the 1992 election, every­one said there’s no way for a non-Tory government, and it turned out there was. So let’s not assume it’s a given there’s a Tory government [for ever].”

In April, I accompanied Farron to Manchester Gorton, in the lead-up to a by-election that was cancelled by May’s decision to call a snap election on 8 June. Still, the 46-year-old’s party has been in campaign mode for months; Lib Dems spoke of using last December’s Richmond Park by-election to test their messaging. It clearly had an effect: the incumbent Conservative, Zac Goldsmith, lost to their candidate, Sarah Olney.

Brexit, to which the Liberal Democrats are vehemently opposed, will be a dominant theme of the election. Their party membership has just exceeded 100,000, close to an all-time high, and they have enjoyed much success in council by-elections, with more to come in the local elections of 4 May.

However, any feel-good factor swiftly evaporated when Farron appeared on Channel 4 News on 18 April. He was asked by the co-presenter Cathy Newman whether or not he believes that homosexuality is a sin, a question that he answered obliquely in 2015 by saying that Christianity started with acknowledging that “we’re all sinners”.

This time, he told Newman, he was “not in the position to make theological announcements over the next six weeks . . . as a Liberal, I’m passionate about equality”.

The Channel 4 interview divided opinion. One Liberal politician told me that Farron’s stance was “completely intolerable”. Stephen Pollard, the influential editor of the Jewish Chronicle, described it as
“a very liberal position: he holds certain personal views but does not wish to legislate around them”. Jennie Rigg, the acting chair of LGBT+ Liberal Democrats, said it was “as plain as the nose on my face that Tim Farron is no homophobe”.

Farron declined the chance to clarify his views with us in a follow-up phone call, but told the BBC on 25 April: “I don’t believe that gay sex is a sin,” adding, “On reflection, it makes sense to actually answer this direct question since it’s become an issue.”

For his critics, Farron’s faith and politics are intertwined. He sees it differently, as he told Christian Today in 2015: “. . . the danger is sometimes that as a Christian in politics you think your job is to impose your morality on other people. It absolutely isn’t.”

Tim Farron joined the then Liberal Party at the age of 16 but didn’t become a Christian until he was 18. Between completing his A-levels in Lancashire and going to Newcastle University to read politics, he read the apologetics, a body of Christian writing that provides reasoned arguments for the gospel story. “I came to the conclusion that it was true,” he told me. “It wasn’t just a feel-good story.”

In speeches, Farron now takes on the mannerisms of a preacher, but he had a largely non-religious upbringing in Preston, Lancashire. “I don’t think I’d been to church once other than Christmas or the odd wedding,” he says. “I went once with my dad when I was 11, for all the good that did me.”

When we meet, it is Theresa May’s religion that is in the spotlight. She has condemned the National Trust for scrubbing the word “Easter” from its Easter egg hunt, a row it later emerged had been largely invented by the right-wing press in response to a press release from a religious-themed chocolate company.

“It’s worth observing there’s no mention of chocolate or bunny rabbits in the Bible,” Farron reminds me. “When people get cross about, in inverted commas, ‘us losing our Christian heritage’ they mean things which are safe and comfortable and nostalgic.” He pauses. “But the Christian message at Easter is shocking, actually, and very radical.”

British politics is tolerant of atheists (such as Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg) alongside those who, like David Cameron, are culturally Christian but whose faith is “a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns: it sort of comes and goes”. But the reaction to Farron’s equivocation on homosexuality prompted many to wonder if a politician who talks openly about his faith is now seen as alarming. Nebulous wishes of peace and love at Christmas, yes; sincere discussions of the literal truth of the Resurrection? Hmm.

Tim Farron’s beliefs matter because he has a mission: to replace not only Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition but Theresa May in Downing Street. Over lassis at the MyLahore curry house in Manchester, he tells me that Britain is facing two calamities. “One is Brexit, indeed hard Brexit . . . and the other is a Tory government for 25 years. We have to present a genuine, progressive alternative that can not only replace Labour as an opposition, it can replace the Tories as a government.” This is ambitious talk for a party with nine MPs. “I understand the ridicule that will be thrown at me for saying those things: but if you don’t want to run the country, why are you in politics?” He pauses. “That’s a question I would ask most people leading the Labour Party at present.”

What does he think of May, his one-time opponent in North-West Durham? “She strikes me as being very professional, very straightforward, somebody who is very conservative in every sense of the word, in her thought processes, her politics, in her style.” He recalls her 2002 conference speech in which she warned Tory activists: “Our base is too narrow and so, occasionally, are our sympathies. You know what some people call us: the nasty party.”

“In many ways, she was the trailblazer for Cameron in being a softer-focused Tory,” he says. “It now looks like she’s been trapped by the very people she was berating as the nasty party all those years ago. I like to think that isn’t really her. But that means she isn’t really in control of the Conservative Party.”

Voters, however, seem to disagree. In recent polls, support for the Conservatives has hovered between 40 and 50 per cent. Isn’t a progressive alliance the only way to stop her: Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Greens, the SNP and Plaid Cymru all working together to beat the Tories?

“Let’s be really blunt,” he says. “Had Jeremy Corbyn stood down for us in Richmond Park [where Labour stood Christian Wolmar], we would not have won. I could have written Zac Goldsmith’s leaflets for you: Corbyn-backed Liberal Democrats.

“I’m a pluralist,” he adds. “But any progressive alliance has got to be at least equal to the sum of its parts. At the moment, it would be less than the sum of its parts. The only way the Tories are losing their majority is us gaining seats in Hazel Grove –” he ticks them off with his fingers, “– in Cheadle, in the West Country and west London. There’s no chance of us gaining those seats if we have a kind of arrangement with the current Labour Party in its current form.”

What about the SNP? “Most sensible people would look at that SNP manifesto and agree with 99 per cent of it,” Farron says. “But it’s that one thing: they want to wreck the country! How can you do a deal with people who want to wreck the country?”

There’s no other alternative, he says. Someone needs to step up and offer “something that can appeal to progressive younger voters, pro-Europeans and, you know, moderate-thinking Middle England”. He wants to champion a market economy, strong public services, action on climate change, internationalism and free trade.

That sounds like Blairism. “I’m a liberal, and I don’t think Blair was a liberal,” he replies. “But I admire Blair because he was somebody who was able to win elections . . . Iraq aside, my criticisms of Blair are what he didn’t do, rather than what he did do.”

Turning around the Tory tide – let alone with just nine MPs, and from third place – is one hell of a job. But Farron takes heart from the Liberal Party in Canada, where Justin Trudeau did just that. “I’m not Trudeau,” he concedes, “He was better-looking, and his dad was prime minister.”

There is a reason for his optimism. “I use the analogy of being in a maze,” he says, “You can’t see a way out of it, for a progressive party to form a majority against the Tories. But in every maze, there is a way out. We just haven’t found it yet.” 

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

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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