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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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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