It's time Blair's last remaining disciples moved on. Photo: Getty
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The game is up for the Blairites: it's time to abandon the old faith

Even if Ed Miliband fails, there will be no Blairite restoration; it's time the old guard disbanded and reinvented itself.

If Ed Miliband had indeed been toppled last week, or manages to trip and fall under one of those new Routemaster buses in the near future, or even just fails to win next May, which direction will Labour go in? Will a soft-left successor raise the scarlet standard of Milibandism, or would the party look back to its election-winning recent history and opt for a Blairite to lead it?

The problem is that in today’s party, Blairite stock has reached junk status. The brief, flickering hope among some last week that Alan Johnson could be persuaded to take over if Miliband was forced to quit, came to nothing. He was the last, best hope of what remains of the party’s Blairite tribe. And he wasn’t interested. Most of its other chiefs are no longer involved in frontline politics (think David Miliband, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke).

There will be no sequel. The circumstances that propelled Tony Blair to the Labour leadership and on to Downing Street were unique, a conjunction of the party’s desperation to win after four general election defeats in a row and Blair’s personal reputation as “the man the Tories most fear”. For Labour, for a long time, winning became all that mattered.

As a result, Blair enjoyed unprecedented latitude in shaping New Labour, fusing together the old right-wing of the party with the metropolitan leftists who had literally shaved off their beards, donned designer suits, binned most of their Eighties posturing and moved to the political centre.

Even the trade unions were on-board in those days, with the then Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (forerunner of Unite) under Sir Ken Jackson, the most loyal of the lot. Only the remnants of the Bennite left were excluded from this big tent, and even a few of them, like Tony Banks and Chris Mullin, jumped ship to serve in Blair’s government.

Fast forward to today and it’s clear just how parlous the prospects are for contemporary Blairites. They enjoy none of the old master’s advantages. There is no working class base to build on. The old Labour right of the party feels short-changed that after 13 years in power, the north and midlands still lag behind London and the south east; demanding a focus on the heartlands rather that the marginals.

The metro-leftists, who flocked to Blair’s cause, have now reached their political dotage. For the new generation of activists, well to the left of the party mainstream, it will take several more years (and election defeats) before they make a similar journey to the centre.

The trade union movement, so important in providing finance, organisational muscle and political cover for Blair, (certainly initially) will no longer accept a policy platform of privatisation, contracting out and spending cuts. They have their own battles to fight, with the centre of gravity in the main affiliated unions, again, now well to the left of Labour’s.

The late Tony Banks, in explaining his own embrace of the New Labour project, once quipped that his members would “eat shit” to see a Labour government. Today’s party grassroots are nowhere near desperate enough to switch off their critical faculties, extinguish their idealism and countenance allowing the party leadership to do absolutely anything to win.

Moreover, Blairites no longer have a figurehead to unite around. None of the assumed frontrunners to become the next Labour leader (should a vacancy present itself in the next 18 months) are what we would describe as Blairites.

Chuka Umunna, a former acolyte of the centre-left Compass movement, has been careful in his brief as shadow business secretary not to do or say anything that falls outside the rubric of Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” narrative.

Andy Burnham, seen in the 2010 leadership contest as a Blair-lite candidate (but in reality, a product of the old Labour right) has done more than any other Labour figure to broaden his appeal over the past four years, using the health portfolio to become a darling of the grassroots, with Unite’s General Secretary, Len McClusky now tipping him as the union’s favoured successor (should a vacancy occur).

Again, Yvette Cooper has deep roots in the Labour movement (her father is a former senior trade union official) and has been careful throughout her long frontbench career to avoid reductive descriptions, but has certainly never been called a Blairite. Indeed, she like the other two surely realises that being described as such is the kiss of death in the modern Labour party.

Indeed, the best thing adherents to this dead religion can now do is abandon the very label “Blairite” and regroup as “modernisers”, building new alliances with other strands of thinking within the party, as Blair and Brown and others did twenty years ago. Eventually, this will distil into a viable new centrist movement within the party.

Tony Blair once joked that he knew his project would be completed when the party learned to love Peter Mandelson. It never did. But it doesn’t love him any more either. Its time his last remaining disciples faced up to that.

Kevin Meagher is associate editor of Labour Uncut and a former special adviser at the Northern Ireland office. 

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Four times Owen Smith has made sexist comments

The Labour MP for Pontypridd and Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour leadership rival has been accused of misogynist remarks. Again.

2016

Wanting to “smash” Theresa May “back on her heels”

During a speech at a campaign event, Owen Smith blithely deployed some aggressive imagery about attacking the new Prime Minister. In doing so, he included the tired sexist trope beloved of the right wing press about Theresa May’s shoes – her “kitten heels” have long been a fascination of certain tabloids:

“I’ll be honest with you, it pained me that we didn’t have the strength and the power and the vitality to smash her back on her heels and argue that these our values, these are our people, this is our language that they are seeking to steal.”

When called out on his comments by Sky’s Sophy Ridge, Smith doubled down:

“They love a bit of rhetoric, don’t they? We need a bit more robust rhetoric in our politics, I’m very much in favour of that. You’ll be getting that from me, and I absolutely stand by those comments. It’s rhetoric, of course. I don’t literally want to smash Theresa May back, just to be clear. I’m not advocating violence in any way, shape or form.”

Your mole dug around to see whether this is a common phrase, but all it could find was “set back on one’s heels”, which simply means to be shocked by something. Nothing to do with “smashing”, and anyway, Smith, or somebody on his team, should be aware that invoking May’s “heels” is lazy sexism at best, and calling on your party to “smash” a woman (particularly when you’ve been in trouble for comments about violence against women before – see below) is more than casual misogyny.

Arguing that misogyny in Labour didn’t exist before Jeremy Corbyn

Smith recently told BBC News that the party’s nastier side only appeared nine months ago:

“I think Jeremy should take a little more responsibility for what’s going on in the Labour party. After all, we didn’t have this sort of abuse and intolerance, misogyny, antisemitism in the Labour party before Jeremy Corbyn became the leader.”

Luckily for Smith, he had never experienced misogyny in his party until the moment it became politically useful to him… Or perhaps, not being the prime target, he simply wasn’t paying enough attention before then?

2015

Telling Leanne Wood she was only invited on TV because of her “gender”

Before a general election TV debate for ITV Wales last year, Smith was caught on camera telling the Plaid Cymru leader that she only appeared on Question Time because she is a woman:

Wood: “Have you ever done Question Time, Owen?”

Smith: “Nope, they keep putting you on instead.”

Wood: “I think with party balance there’d be other people they’d be putting on instead of you, wouldn’t they, rather than me?”

Smith: “I think it helps. I think your gender helps as well.”

Wood: “Yeah.”

2010

Comparing the Lib Dems’ experience of coalition to domestic violence

In a tasteless analogy, Smith wrote this for WalesHome in the first year of the Tory/Lib Dem coalition:

“The Lib Dem dowry of a maybe-referendum on AV [the alternative vote system] will seem neither adequate reward nor sufficient defence when the Tories confess their taste for domestic violence on our schools, hospitals and welfare provision.

“Surely, the Liberals will file for divorce as soon as the bruises start to show through the make-up?”

But never fear! He did eventually issue a non-apology for his offensive comments, with the classic use of “if”:

“I apologise if anyone has been offended by the metaphorical reference in this article, which I will now be editing. The reference was in a phrase describing today's Tory and Liberal cuts to domestic spending on schools and welfare as metaphorical ‘domestic violence’.”

***

A one-off sexist gaffe is bad enough in a wannabe future Labour leader. But your mole sniffs a worrying pattern in this list that suggests Smith doesn’t have a huge amount of respect for women, when it comes to political rhetoric at least. And it won’t do him any electoral favours either – it makes his condemnation of Corbynite nastiness ring rather hollow.

I'm a mole, innit.