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Being told to hate Tony Blair makes me feel like a useful idiot for the right

The eager Blair-bashers of the left are following a line encouraged by the right: that the sin of Iraq is all we should remember of the New Labour era.

My name is Helen and I have a problem: I don’t hate Tony Blair the way I’m supposed to. I don’t know what’s wrong with me. I was a student during the lead-up to the Iraq War, when we spent hour after hour railing against the failure to wait for a UN resolution and the shameless bullying meted out by the popular press to anyone who stood against it.

Yet my visceral anger has gone, and I think I know why. Last year, I noticed a feeling you rarely get as a left-wing commentator: the sense of being in tune with a wider consensus. Bash Jeremy Corbyn and you were bathed in support; your opinion was treated as sensible, moderate, obviously correct. Oh, my God, I thought. This is what it must be like to be right-wing.

That realisation has since tempered my criticisms of the current Labour leader. Yes, I might think that abolishing tuition fees is a worse use of money than rolling back benefit cuts, but that doesn’t mean I think Labour’s manifesto was a joke compared to the magnificence of Theresa May’s offering. My occasional disapproval of Corbyn is not an endorsement of the alternative.

Unfortunately, I think the eager Blair-bashers of the left are luxuriating in the same warm bath of consensus, following the line encouraged by the right for its own purposes: that the sin of Iraq is all we should remember of the New Labour era. Tony Blair? War criminal. Take your opinions about Sure Start elsewhere. No, I don’t want to hear about the minimum wage.

Perhaps I’ve been thinking about this because on 4 September the BBC Parliament channel broadcast the 1997 election in its entirety. The Nobel Prize-winning psychologist Daniel Kahneman often speaks about the difference between the “experiencing self” and the “remembering self”. “The psychological present is said to be about three seconds long,” he told a TED conference in 2010. “In a life, there are about 600 million of them.” But clearly we remember only a fraction of these moments. The remembering self discards most of them as it creates a story of our life. And the ending of an experience matters more than what happened during it. Kahneman adds: “We go on vacations, to a very large extent, in the service of our remembering self.”

For that reason, the 1997 election broadcast is a mind-melt, because you are switching from the remembering self to the experiencing self – or, at least, David Dimbleby and his assorted guests are. At one point, the BBC programme wondered aloud if Labour would fulfil the promised radicalism of its manifesto and mentioned House of Lords reform. And I thought: bloody hell, House of Lords reform.

In the early years of New Labour, there were 1,330 benchwarmers clogging up the upper house, and because of the dominance of hereditary peers, the Conservatives had a guaranteed majority. The reform bill only passed after a compromise in which 92 kept their seats. As Robin Cook wrote in 2005, “Britain shares the unenviable distinction with Lesotho of being the only two countries with reserved seats in their parliament for hereditary chieftains.”

There are other achievements that now seem similarly unremarkable. Accusations of betrayal preceded the Countryside and Rights of Way Act in 2000, which established the “right to roam” – that is, it upset landowners by letting us plebs walk across their fields. In 1998, workers finally got the right to four weeks’ paid holiday; before that, six million Britons received less than four weeks, and two million got none at all.

Other victories are better known: the reduction in pensioner poverty, the creation of Sure Start centres, the introduction of the minimum wage (against fierce opposition from William Hague, back in the pre-Brexit days when the Tories could claim with a straight face that they were guided by the best interests of businesses).

The mood of the late 1990s and early 2000s was much less tolerant than our remembering selves might allow: I recently watched a TV clip in which Mel B from the Spice Girls had to explain why she didn’t find blacking up particularly funny. In 1999, a homophobic neo-Nazi set off a nail bomb in a Soho gay bar. We’ve kept the memories of Kula Shaker and platform trainers and forgotten that it took until 2001 for the gay age of consent to be lowered to 16; and until 2003 for Section 28 to be repealed. In 1995, 44 per cent of Britons said that same-sex relationships were “always wrong”. By 2010, that had fallen to 20 per cent. There’s a temptation to see social issues as “soft” – the art history of the political world – but the change in our attitudes to gay rights has improved the lives of thousands of people.

Unfortunately, the remembering self finds it hard to hold on to these facts, given the horrors of Iraq and Blair’s oligarch-tickling post-premiership career. Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership by promising a break with the party’s compromised past. His supporters now use “Blairite” as their most deadly insult.

I don’t think Tony Blair should be “forgiven”. I have no interest in defending a war I didn’t support. But I do feel a bit like a useful idiot when Blair appears on television to defend internationalism, or call Brexit a disaster, and the right demands that the left joins it in furious condemnation of his very existence. Twenty years after he won a landslide victory, and with his name supposedly mud among all virtuous people, the right is still frightened of him. And if you listen to his words – his ability to analyse and his interest in understanding more – I can see why.

So if that’s the game, let’s see how the right reacts when we point out that David Cameron’s austerity caused untold misery, or that Kim Jong-un’s desire for nukes is influenced by our intervention in Libya. I suspect we will discover that there are limits to owning your mistakes. 

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 14 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The German problem

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Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.