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

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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.