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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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.