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20 February 2020

Tony Blair has said that Labour must change fundamentally to win power. But is he right?

The unresolved debate of the last five years is whether the 2017 election result was a foundation for the party to build on. 

By Stephen Bush

Happy 120th birthday! The Labour Party will on Friday celebrate its big day in the way it has celebrated most of them: in opposition and with no clear way out of that unhappy state.

Tony Blair has marked the occasion with a speech, billed as a broad reflection on the state of the Labour Party and British politics but which has, let’s face it, an audience of one: Keir Starmer, the overwhelmingly likely candidate to be the party’s next leader.

Blair’s message is that to win and hold power, Labour must change from top to toe to combine both Britain’s left traditions – liberal and socialist. The message that has brought Starmer to the verge of victory – that has assembled a coalition running from the former national coordinator of Momentum to the chief organiser of Labour First – is broadly that a change at the top, coupled with a similar political offer to 2017 but with a more appealing centre-forward, can win.

Who’s right? The unresolved debate of the last five years is whether the 2017 was election a negative mandate – in which Labour probed the absolute limits of what could be won by default – or if it represented the beginnings of a way that Labour could win in a country with an ageing population, a sluggish economy and a fragmented media landscape (conditions that did not apply the last time that Labour won power in 2005). Was that election result a false hope, as Blair believes, or a foundation on which Corbyn failed to build, as Starmer argues?

There are clearly constituencies – Wycombe, which Labour failed to win; Leeds North West and Canterbury, which it still holds – where Labour is in a much stronger position, even after a disastrous election in 2019, than it was in 2010 and in some cases 2005 and 2001. What’s that about? The answer to that question will, I think, define what Labour’s route to power is – and whether it has one.

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