The Blairites have forgotten how to win

Tony Blair would never have talked to Conservative voters they way his successors have talked to Corbynites. 

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Who would have imagined that, eight years after he stepped down as leader, the Labour party would still be talking about Tony?

Tony Blair is the central figure in Labour’s leadership election. Not because of his own clumsy and unnecessary intervention, but because his enemies find him so enormously useful. He gives them something to get excited about.

The truth about the left of the party is that there is nothing there. It has no big ideas about how to change the world, and is stuck with interpreting it, through the prism of self-righteousness. “Anti-austerity” doesn’t count. When you look at it hard, all it comes down to is a promise to raise public spending from, say, 40 per cent to 43 per cent. You call that a vision?

Sure, there’s a respectable case for more public spending. But it is sad that this is what the left, even on its own terms, has come to: vote for us and the government will spend more and run more stuff (or don’t vote for us, we don’t care).

In place of a vision, the left is against stuff. It’s against austerity. It’s against Tories – though mysteriously uninterested in unseating them – and it’s definitely against Tony Blair. This last is why the word “Blairites” has featured so ubiquitously in the election, despite there being so few of them, and despite the ones that do exist refusing to accept the label.

Blairites figure in Labour’s mythology the same way immigrants do in Ukip’s: as a metonym for multiple ills. Ukip does best in areas of the country where the are very few immigrants. Similarly, the Labour party, having purged itself of Blairites, talks about little else.

At least Ukip turned this into a successful electoral strategy. Labour’s fatal problem is that the phantom of Blairism obscures a whole area of the debate that any party ought to be having when it elects a leader: how to get elected. Anyone who engages seriously with that question – who asks, what was the real message of May 7, and why was it so different to the one we expected – instantly gets slapped with the poisonous label.

But having bashed the Blair-bashers, let me now, and not just in the interests of balance, bash the Blairites. The few MPs and pundits aligned with the New Labour approach to politics are in a very difficult position, which they have contrived to make impossible. I say this for two reasons.

Firstly, they’ve been counter-productively abusive to their opponents. I can be rude about the Labour left because I’m an outsider; I’m not attempting to win or influence the leadership election. But for Blairites who hope to win to do so is – how can I put this? - moronic.

It’s fascinating to see errors repeat themselves unconsciously. The Blairites say to the party, you may not agree with the voters, but you have to respect them. Try and understand where they are, and use that as your starting point, otherwise you are merely indulging an anger spasm, rather than seriously attempting to win votes. Yet the Blairites say to the voters in this leadership election: you are idiots. Idiots! Now, vote for Liz Kendall.

Chuka Umunna told Labour’s voters that they need to grow up. Even if you agree (OK, I agree), has telling someone to grow up ever, in the history of the world, made them grow up? It invariably has the opposite effect.

Kendall wasn’t quite so blunt, but she failed at the outset of her campaign to talk to her electorate as equals rather than as dim schoolchildren. She forgot the cardinal rule of influencing people: never tell them that they’re wrong. Instead, search for the part of them that agrees with you, and amplify that.

Voters, in any electorate, are people, and people are not logic machines. We think with our feelings. Good politicians understand and welcome that fact and know how to work with it. Blair admittedly had four election defeats to point to in 1994. But, long before making cheap cracks about transplants, he used to be very good at speaking to his party’s heart (see here, for example).

The second reason is that the Blairites have done so little to argue for their vision of the country. Burnham and Cooper – not Blairites, but the supposedly ‘electable’ candidates - have fought unforgivably empty campaigns. It is quite a feat to make Corbyn’s stale leftist conservatism appear exciting. Meanwhile, the actual Blairites, from Kendall to her supporters in the media, have said almost nothing except that, “Our way is the electable way.”

Again, I understand the impulse. It is boggling that anyone in a major political party should openly admit they aren’t interested in political power. But by spluttering on about that and little else, the Blairites are making the kind of elementary tactical error of which they are so fond of accusing their opponents. The Corbynites say the Blairites are only interested in power; the Blairites have done everything they can to prove it.

The man himself, it ought to be said, has not made this error. In a part of Blair’s speech to Progress that got overlooked he said he wouldn’t want to run on a leftist platform even if that was the path to victory. Most Blairites agree – they, as Blair used to say of himself, “really believe this stuff” – but they have devoted little energy to explaining their ideas for helping the poor and the powerless, once in power. As a result they have ceded the moral high ground to their grandstanding opponents.

How might a Blairite (not that she would call herself that) win at the next leadership election? Given the evidence of this one, that might appear to be an impossible task, and perhaps it is, but it’s the skill of good politicians to perform the impossible.

I don’t know the answer, but I think that, at a minimum, our imaginary candidate will say to the party, I love Labour, because it has turned the best instincts of people like you into actions. I think she will say, forget about Blair. Let’s change the world.

Ian Leslie is a writer, author of CURIOUS: The Desire to Know and Why Your Future Depends On It, and writer/presenter of BBC R4's Before They Were Famous.

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