Tony Blair. Photo: Sang Tan - WPA Pool/Getty Images
Show Hide image

When Labour comes to terms with embarrassing Uncle Tony, it can finally start to defend its record

Blair's most memorable legacy, the Iraq war, has Labour MPs distancing themselves from their own time in power. But there's a lot more to the post-1997 years - and some of it's pretty good.

Almost every family has an embarrassing relative – the one who makes eyebrow-raising comments about Chinese gymnasts or once had to be carried out of Aunt Sylvia’s second wedding face down in the top tier of the sponge cake. Even the Middletons, who produced our preternaturally perfect future queen Kate, have one: Uncle Gary, once caught by the News of the World with drugs and ladies of the night in his Ibiza pad, La Maison de Bang Bang.

But that’s enough about a man with lounge-lizard dress sense and a deep tan who has been accused of trading on his personal connections. What I really want to talk about is Tony Blair.

Our former prime minister is the Labour Party’s embarrassing uncle: the rich one who slips you cash but you’d rather people didn’t know is related to you. This was made obvious earlier this month when Blair donated £106,000 to help candidates in 106 of Labour’s target seats. The structure of the donation felt like candidates were being forced to take a test on how they felt about Blairism. In the end, only a handful turned the money down; one of the few who did was a PPC who served in the Iraq war.

This is a decisive moment. All the indications are that the 2015 Labour intake will be more left-leaning than its predecessors – for example, a snapshot poll by CND found that three-quarters of them did not want to renew our commitment to Trident. So it is heartening that so many of them accepted Blair’s money. It suggests the party is finally coming to terms with the legacy of his premiership in a way that recognises the good as well as bemoans the bad.

To be fair, the left has always been more prone to self-flagellation. The ability to criticise your own side can even be an endear­ing trait, particularly when contrasted with the ridiculous over-veneration the right gives to its most divisive leaders. As Simon Heffer argued in these pages in January, some right-wingers call it heresy to mention Winston Churchill’s prejudices and pre-war failures. When Margaret Thatcher died, some newspapers practically patrolled the streets searching for anyone who didn’t look sad enough in order to berate them for their lack of patriotism. Somehow, I doubt the Guardian and Mirror will return the favour when Our Blessed Tony shuffles off this mortal coil. In fact, lefties will probably lead the effigy-burning.

This hypercritical streak has its downsides. In the 2010 Labour leadership election, Ed Miliband’s candidacy was undoubtedly helped by the simple fact that he was not in the Commons at the time of the Iraq war vote in 2003, unlike his brother, David. He is said to have opposed it ­privately at the time but that was a much less difficult decision to make from the safety of Harvard. He simply never faced the choice between party loyalty and conscience. As a result, Ed Miliband was free to reject the toxic legacy of the war, as car bombs scarred Baghdad and instability spread across the region. Because he didn’t have to “own” the decision to back the Iraq misadventure, he was free to present himself as a break with the past.

The trouble was, that rejection spread to encompass not just the Iraq war but all the good bits of New Labour. The party’s economic legacy is now defined just the way the Tories want it, by the financial crisis (as if the right would have regulated the banks much more strictly during the boom years) rather than by years of growth, lower poverty rates and higher living standards.

It would have helped, of course, if Blair had behaved differently on leaving office. Even his closest supporters must wish he had dis­appeared from sight and emerged only to show off his nauseating paintings of West Highland terriers, like George W Bush. Instead, there he was, looking harried in open-necked shirts in his role as the Quartet’s Middle East peace envoy. In terms of symbolic reminders of failure, this is like Gordon Brown leaving No 10 and going to work in H Samuel.

As a result, Labour kept feeling the need to distance itself from Blair, hobbling its ability to defend its record. For fear of someone – probably from its own side – shouting “Iraq!”, its politicians and activists have taken a voluntary vow of silence, preventing them from boasting about creating the national minimum wage and enshrining child poverty targets in law. They have been reluctant to mention successes in Kosovo, Northern Ireland or Sierra Leone, even in the same breath as condemning the failure in Iraq. It is now taken for granted how dramatically New Labour changed Britain’s centre of gravity by wrenching the Tory ­party leftwards on social issues such as gay relationships, racial equality and the promotion of women in public life.

As Zoe Williams observed in the Guardian last year: “Even to say that ‘other things happened during the Labour term besides a war many of us did not agree with’ is seen as disrespectful.” At its worst, this distancing strayed into an overt longing for the purity of opposition. If only the Tories had been in government! They never would have gone to war in Ira– sorry, what’s that? They voted for it, too?

I am not arguing that politics should be without morals, or that politicians should not be held to account for their mistakes. But Labour’s failure to come to terms with Blair’s legacy is a microcosm of the new perfectionism sweeping politics, where it feels morally purer to vote None of the Above rather than to risk getting it wrong. I worry that we don’t want politics to involve compromises, or hard choices, or human frailty.

Like any occasionally embarrassing relative, Uncle Tony still causes Labour twinges of shame. But it seems the party is finally ready to acknowledge that he has always been part of the family.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 19 March 2015 issue of the New Statesman, British politics is broken

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

How the row over Jackie Walker triggered a full-blown war in Momentum

Jon Lansman, the organisation's founder, is coming under attack. 

The battle for control within Momentum, which has been brewing for some time, has begun in earnest.

In a sign of the growing unrest within the organisation – established as the continuation of Jeremy Corbyn’s first successful leadership bid, and instrumental in delivering in his re-election -  a critical pamphlet by the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL), a Trotskyite grouping, has made its way into the pages of the Times, with the “unelected” chiefs of Momentum slated for turning the organisation into a “bland blur”.

The issue of contention: between those who see Momentum as an organisation to engage new members of the Labour party, who have been motivated by Jeremy Corbyn but are not yet Corbynites.

One trade unionist from that tendency described what they see the problem as like this: “you have people who have joined to vote for Jeremy, they’re going to meetings, but they’re voting for the Progress candidates in selections, they’re voting for Eddie Izzard [who stood as an independent but Corbynsceptic candidate] in the NEC”.  

On the other are those who see a fightback by Labour’s right and centre as inevitable, and who are trying to actively create a party within a party for what they see as an inevitable purge. One activist of that opinion wryly described Momentum as “Noah’s Ark”.

For both sides, Momentum, now financially stable thanks to its membership, which now stands at over 20,000, is a great prize. And in the firing line for those who want to turn Momentum into a parallel line is Jon Lansman, the organisation’s founder.

Lansman, who came into politics as an aide to Tony Benn, is a figure of suspicion on parts of the broad left due to his decades-long commitment to the Labour party. His major opposition within Momentum and on its ruling executive comes from the AWL.

The removal of Jackie Walker as a vice-chair of Momentum after she said that Holocaust Memorial Day belittled victims of other genocides has boosted the AWL, although the AWL's Jill Mountford, who sits on Momentum's ruling executive, voted to remove Walker as vice-chair. (Walker remains on the NEC, as she has been elected by members). But despite that, the AWL, who have been critical of the process whereby Walker lost her post, have felt the benefit across the country.

Why? Because that battle has triggered a series of serious splits, not only in Momentum’s executive but its grassroots. A raft of local groups have thrown out the local leadership, mostly veterans of Corbyn’s campaign for the leadership, for what the friend of one defeated representative described as “people who believe the Canary [a pro-Corbyn politics website that is regularly accused of indulging and promoting conspiracy theories]”.

In a further series of reverses for the Lansmanite caucus, the North West, a Momentum stronghold since the organisation was founded just under a year ago, is slipping away from old allies of Lansman and towards the “new” left. As one insider put it, the transition is from longstanding members towards people who had been kicked out in the late 1980s and early 1990s by Neil Kinnock. The constituency party of Wallasey in particular is giving senior figures in Momentum headaches just as it is their opponents on the right of the party, with one lamenting that they have “lost control” of the group.

It now means that planned changes to Momentum’s structure, which the leadership had hoped to be rubberstamped by members, now face a fraught path to passage.

Adding to the organisation’s difficulties is the expected capture of James Schneider by the leader’s office. Schneider, who appears widely on television and radio as the public face of Momentum and is well-liked by journalists, has an offer on the table to join Jeremy Corbyn’s team at Westminster as a junior to Seumas Milne.

The move, while a coup for Corbyn, is one that Momentum – and some of Corbyn’s allies in the trade union movement – are keen to resist. Taking a job in the leader’s office would reduce still further the numbers of TV-friendly loyalists who can go on the airwaves and defend the leadership. There is frustration among the leader’s office that as well as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell, who are both considered to be both polished media performers and loyalists, TV bookers turn to Ken Livingstone, who is retired and unreliable, and Paul Mason, about whom opinions are divided within Momentum. Some regard Mason as a box office performer who needs a bigger role, others as a liability.

But all are agreed that Schneider’s expected departure will weaken the media presence of Corbyn loyalists and also damage Momentum. Schneider has spent much of his time not wrangling journalists but mediating in local branches and is regarded as instrumental in the places “where Momentum is working well” in the words of one trade unionist. (Cornwall is regarded as a particular example of what the organisation should be aiming towards)

It comes at a time when Momentum’s leadership is keen to focus both on its external campaigns but the struggle for control in the Labour party. Although Corbyn has never been stronger within the party, no Corbynite candidate has yet prevailed in a by-election, with the lack of available candidates at a council level regarded as part of the problem. Councilors face mandatory reselection as a matter of course, and the hope is that a bumper crop of pro-Corbyn local politicians will go on to form the bulk of the talent pool for vacant seats in future by-elections and in marginal seats at the general election.

But at present, a draining internal battle is sapping Momentum of much of its vitality. But Lansman retains two trump cards. The first is that as well as being the founder of the organisation, he is its de facto owner: the data from Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns, without which much of the organisation could not properly run, is owned by a limited company of which he is sole director. But “rolling it up and starting again” is very much the nuclear option, that would further delay the left’s hopes of consolidating its power base in the party.

The second trump card, however, is the tribalism of many of the key players at a local level, who will resist infiltration by groups to Labour’s left just as fiercely as many on the right. As one veteran of both Corbyn’s campaigns reflected: “If those who have spent 20 years attacking our party think they have waiting allies in the left of Labour, they are woefully mistaken”. 

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