What on earth does Blairite mean? Depending on who you ask, a Blairite could be a supporter of Tony Blair, who wants to defend New Labour’s record of Sure Start centres, civil partnerships and, well, the only elected Labour government of the past several decades – or, it could be a warmongering, MSM-controlled neoliberal who prioritises a slick media operation over political integrity.
Things have got even more confusing in recent years. After the release of the Chilcot report, Owen Jones wrote that Blairites who want a political future “need to divorce themselves from Blair” – only to be called a “Blairite traitor” himself after publishing an in-depth analysis of the weaknesses of the Corbyn administration. There were even tongue-in-cheek headlines branding Corbyn a Blairite and comparing Seumas Milne with Alastair Campbell, even though “in Corbyn-land, Blair is a byword for Satan”.
So what does it mean?
Like a surprising number of political terms – “Brexit”, a verb and noun, being an obvious contemporary example – “Blairite” has two definitions. The word is both an adjective and a noun: a politician can support “Blairite” policies, and also be “a Blairite”.
It was the adjective that came first. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the first recorded instance of the word “Blairite” in print was in a May 1993 Guardian article which suggested that “Labour radicalism in the sixties has become Blairite individualism in the nineties” (a sentence which, one suspects, might still chime with many on the hard left of Labour today).
It was another full year before the Guardian used “Blairite” as a noun, meaning specifically those politicians loyal to Blair. The usage became common: a 1998 Times article, for instance, explains how “those Blairites [unable to secure jobs in the new Labour government] are now to be found almost entirely in the worlds of lobbying and the media”.
This might be a slightly wonkish point, but it does have wider relevance. Because as the word “Blairite” changed from describing the views you hold to being something you are became more pronounced, so too was the term increasingly wielded as an insult – including, today, at MPs who weren’t even in Parliament during Blair’s tenure.
If Blairite initially meant policies or people aligned with Blair’s ideology – meaning, to crib the basics, public service investment, an Atlanticist, interventionist foreign policy, a focus on education and stronger law enforcement – then it also quickly came to mean “not a Brownite”.
This is a significant point, because it is the first hint that “Blairite” denotes something tribal, as well as something ideological.
It’s this tribal connotation which has allowed the term to retain such purchase today, over a decade after Blair was an MP. As Gaby Hinsliff wrote in the Guardian, Blair’s brand has become “toxic” for many – even though there is “a coming generation of voters who barely remember him in office”. It’s a deadly combination among the young, activist Left, who understand Blair’s legacy as being typified by the disastrous intervention in Iraq rather than anything positive that preceded it. For the Corbynistas doing everything possible to distance themselves from what they see as the unforgivably right-leaning New Labour, “Blairite” has come to signify the worst of Blair’s premiership – and an aspect of Labour tainted by association.
So, while there have been scores of articles over the years declaring that Blairites don’t really exist in any real sense anymore, the word “Blairite” continues to be used as often as ever. And while some might say that the fact it has become a primarily evaluative term might risk rendering the word meaningless – aside from anachronistic – the fact the term is held in common usage by the hard Left, even if it’s a usage increasingly divorced from its adjectival, ideological origins, means we’re unlikely to see the back of it anytime soon.