How did Labour’s most successful leader become so hated?

4th December, 2015

How did Labour’s most successful leader become so hated?

Hostility towards Tony Blair is like the nuclear reactor fuelling the Jeremy Corbyn insurgency. It is almost as if the so-called left has no independent life of its own. It sustains itself and is driven onwards only by the equal and opposite force of its hatred for the Labour Party’s most successful prime minister.

John McDonnell was at it yesterday on the Today programme, saying Hilary Benn’s remarkable speech reminded him of Blair’s speech before the vote on the Iraq war in 2003. In the new, kinder politics, that is the worst thing you can say about someone. “The greatest oratory can lead us to the greatest mistakes” he added, just in case the bulls had missed the red rag.

I have tried to understand Blair rage many times since 1994 when I first encountered it. I was berated by a teacher for agreeing with the new Labour leader that exam results should be published, allowing people to compile league tables. For a long time it was a minority pastime, but after Iraq it became widespread.

Sometimes I thought I had made sense of it, while thinking it was mistaken, but increasingly the furnace blazed with what looked to me like unreasoning fury and I wondered if there were deeper psychological explanations.

Just as I thought the last election would allow the reactor to cool down, it started to heat up instead, drawing its energy from the same sources, fiercer and more concentrated than before. Despite the defeat of the Blairites in 2007 and again in 2010, it seemed that the main point of the 2015 leadership election was to defeat the Blairites again – this time with the most heated antagonism so far.

So what is this about? It has little to do with the historical reality of the 1997-2007 government. A reasonable view of Blair is that he was, on balance, a good prime minister. If the British people generally had their doubts about his record it would be that he allowed too much immigration, but that is not the cause of Blair rage.

Those of us who want to see a Labour government again need to understand the causes of Corbynism. Iraq is a big part of it, more for its symbolism for a party that has always had a neutralist-pacifist wing than for what actually happened. The intelligence failure on Saddam’s chemical and biological weapons curdled into a myth of deception that still makes it hard for the party’s internationalist wing to argue its case, as Benn found on Wednesday.

The hostility towards Blair goes wider than that of course, taking in the unshakeable conviction that Britain has groaned under the unjust yoke of capitalism and inequality ever since Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister and that Blair was the continuation of her evils by other means. Against such religious belief, mere facts are powerless.

These beliefs are held by a small minority of the population, but, concentrated at the same moment into the Labour Party by historical accident, there are too many of them. Among Labour’s members and registered and affiliated supporters, 251,000 voted for Corbyn. Since he was elected, 78,000 people have joined the party – although some of them will be registered £3 supporters converting to full membership. So Corbyn’s power base must be more than 300,000, and I am told that Labour’s membership is still rising, as new recruits are coming in faster than centrists leave in despair.

It will take a long time to persuade so many people to compromise or give up, which is why talk of a coup against Corbyn is pointless for the moment. It may be years before the blaze of Blair rage subsides. When the time does eventually arrive, it will need better-chosen ground than military intervention abroad. Corbyn needs to be shown to be mistaken on economic policy, public services and people’s security.

By John Rentoul

The Independent on Sunday


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15 thoughts on “How did Labour’s most successful leader become so hated?

  1. I think it’s baffling too but it isn’t confined to the Corbyn left – middle of the road and non-political friends and acquaintances of mine find his personality grating and insincere and his post political activities objectionable particularly the amassing of a personal fortune. For a while the Beckhams attracted this level of unjustified hatred but only Blair seems to be the gift that keeps on giving as far as the haters are concerned.

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  2. Partly it is because Tony and those around him – which I suppose in a relatively minor way included me – stopped defending Iraq. In my case that was not deliberate but in the run up to the 2005 election it was decided that we should try to make our peace with the haters on that one when, actually, all that did was legitimise their rage. Even as late as the autumn of 2004, when we were still defending it then the balance of opinion in the country was essentially 50/50 and it was very clear no large piles of WMD were going to be found before anyone says that was why opinion so balanced.
    But the other reason is projection – this is a rage of the left against itself, against its own inability to find a way to a city on the hill. The Labour government, while seeming to make big increases in public spending, was actually quite cautious (unlike the 70s most of the extra money did not go into big pay rises or increased benefits so the impact was much more widely felt). In effect Labour did not lift the size of the state beyond about 38% of GDP and even that level has proved impossible to sustain politically. The left’s arguments haven’t been sufficiently persuasive. But rather than re-examine the arguments the left has turned on itself.

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  3. Disappointment is the key.

    The left, believing that the ‘winter of discontent’ in the late 1970s would lead to major social change felt thwarted by Mrs Thatcher. Not only because of her policies, but because so many of ‘their’ working classes repeatedly voted for her. A phenomenon that the left did not expect and has never comprehended. It’s the main reason why the left, including some not born while she was PM, continue to demonize her.

    Forward to 1997, after so many years of ‘The Tories’, and Labour under Blair, comes to power. Sure, during the election, Labour has sounded mild, from the left perspective, but that’s OK if they win.

    But it wasn’t just for the campaign. There was no nationalisation, not even of those industries privatised by the Conservatives, still less the banks. There was no significant liberalisation of (again from the viewpoint of the left) anti-trade union laws, still less any sign of ‘taxing the rich until the pips squeak’, nothing like what proper Socialist parties were supposed to. So when Tony Blair agreed to join Bush in invading Iraq, an ‘imperialist’ response, the accumulated disappointment boiled over and became hate.

    Thatcher hate and Blair hate, continued dissapointment and frustration that ‘their’ working class continued to vote for these things, are all tied up together in the left mindset. This is the explanation you seek.

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  4. Interesting article and comments. I went through a period of disliking Blair, but for reasons other than Iraq. whereas the main motivation for much of the anger does seem to be the Iraq war. The recent leadership election cured me, I got so irritated with Corbyn supporters calling anyone who disagreed with them red Tories or Blairites I decided to self identify as one, and embrace the label. They are very easy to annoy and it can be fun!

    However there is a serious problem for the Labour party here. I cannot see these two factions co-existing in one party without sweeping areas of disagreement under the carpet and creating a bland totally false relationship where no one talks about the difficult issues, until they surface again with issues like extending the action against ISIL into Syria, and it all erupts again at regular intervals, a bit like a dysfunctional family.

    Oh well, nothing I can do except watch, but to me Corbyn’s closeness to the authoritarian left makes it impossible for me to vote for a Corbyn led Labour party. I sometimes wonder if a new party may be the only solution. Corbyn has revealed the extent to which the left is backward looking, many of his more fervent supporters talk about the working class as if they were still living in Victorian Britain, and moving on from the Iraq war seems impossible. Perhaps the only way to escape from the past is a new party, I just don’t know.

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  5. Blair once famously said there was only one labour tradition he hated – losing. An awful lot of left labour’s unqualified loathing of Blair doesn’t seem to come from Iraq, nor any of his policies. It seems to come from the fact he was a winner, willing to actually do what it takes to ensure a labour government.

    The gods of the labour left never win elections, nor could possibly win elections. Foot, Benn, and now Corbyn. Labour’s left enjoy being in opposition, outsiders and responsibility free. I suspect actually winning is crime enough.

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  6. I think that the time has come for people to realise that the leadership of the party is actually Marxist-Leninist in its outlook and methodology.

    In addition the people that are in charge are not, nor have they ever been, pacifist. They are unilateralists. They do not care what the rest of the world does, how many weapons they have or how many people they kill or things they destroy. They refuse to have Britain have a foreign policy backed by any kind of military force. They also refuse to have Britain take on violent revolutionaries at home, but to just give in to them.

    They demand disarmament because they would have this country destroyed. National destruction saw the rise of Communism in Russia and China; they want the same here.

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  7. I think you are significantly underestimating the impact of the Iraq war. I’m certain that Blair’s time in office would be looked on far more positively if he hadn’t supported the US so strongly in the run up to war and hadn’t committed UK troops to the coalition.

    I don’t think the problem with Iraq was the dodgy dossier or any actions by Blair. The problem was that the UK didn’t win the war and, by the time the final troops were brought home, appeared to have lost. I don’t think any democratic leader who takes a country into a major conflict and then fails to secure a definite victory is ever going to be considered successful.

    It would be interesting to see if there is a counterfactual. Has a political leader successfully lost a war?

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  8. The reason that Mr Blair is despised is that his administration was such a disappointment

    He avoided voting reform to the H of Commons this has contributed to the disconnect between ordinary people and politicians . His botched reform of the H of Lords is a joke. How can it be right that British lawmakers can live in a foreign country and not pay British taxes ?

    Like most people he did not foresee the financial crisis but his government went out of its way to pander to the financial services industry. Regulation of the banks was removed from the experienced regulator the Bank of England and given to officials overawed by the wealth of the City. He perpetuated the easy passage of civil servants into industry and vice versa facilitating regulatory capture and furthering corruption in public life

    He continued the Balkanisation of the health service . Every review of the purchaser provider split has shown that any gains in efficiency are dwarfed by the extra bureaucracy needed to administer it Fragmenting healthcare providers clearly results in poor care for patients with multiple chronic illnesses (ie most patients)

    If Islamic terror is the defining issue of our time why did Mr Blair participate in the overthrow of a secular Iraq and allow fundamentalism to thrive?
    He had the example of Afghanistan where the fall of the secular communist government was followed by the Taliban. Please do not say that he felt a moral duty to overthrow Saddam Mr Blair clearly had no problem with supporting Gaddafy an equally repressive tyrant

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  9. The reason Mr Blair is despised is because his administration was so disappointing

    He failed to reform the voting system This has contributed to the disconnect between people and politicians . His reform of the House of Lords was botched. How can it be right that our lawmakers can live in a foreign country and not pay British tax ?

    I do not blame him for failing to foresee the financial crisis but he and his chancellor advocated light touch regulation of the banks This made the effects of the crisis much worse Mr Blairs unseemly pandering to the City and his failure to prevent the easy flow of business executives into government and politicians and civil servants into industry has led to regulatory capture and the facilitation of corruption in public life

    He persisted with the purchaser provider split in the health service Any efficiency savings from this are dwarfed by the increased administration costs The fragmentation of healthcare amongst competing providers mitigates against joined up healthcare for patients with multiple chronic illnesses (ie the majority)

    If Islamic terror is the defining issue of our age why did his administration participate in the overthrow of a secular Iraq? He had the example of Afghanistan where the downfall of a secular communist state was followed by the Taliban Please do not say that he felt a moral duty to overthrow Saddam Mr Blair became an enthusiastic supporter of Gaddafy and equally vile tyrant

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  10. I’m always surprised how many people fail to grasp the Blairite notion that you apply your values to the world as you find it, rather than relying upon an ideology that was settled decades ago. For many people, this amounts to swallowing Tory ideology. Simon Jenkins is the most respectable proponent of this myth. These people think the Labour Party is all about nationalisation and high taxes. As if those were the end rather than the means of the party’s founders.

    Add to this the perceived ‘lies’ over Iraq and Blair is the great betrayal for many on the left.

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  11. It seems to me that there are three sorts of reasons that fuel the anti Blair fire:

    1, His basic positioning in the Party on social & economic issues. People in the centre & on the left of the Labour Party who sincerely believe that ‘the market’ needs to be limited to achieve desirable social outcomes have always reserved special contempt for those on the right of the party who basically see ‘the market’ as the main driver of social change. Gaitskell and Jenkins were equally disliked for the same reason.

    2, His manner of speech and personality. Even before he became PM many people believed that he was self-serving, insincere and hypocritical. He seemed to be using the Labour Party as a vehicle to obtain personal power. He did not seem to come ‘of’ the Labour Party and never demonstrated any real empathy for or understanding of ‘ordinary people’. He became seen as a complete archetype of the ‘metropolitan elite’. Subsequent events seem to prove this view especially ‘deceptions’ in the lead up to Iraq.

    3, Iraq itself. As a poster mentioned noted, the main point is that the war was not cleanly won. Deceptions in the run up could have been survived but the loss of 180 British lives (& 450 more in Afghanistan) for no obvious positive outcome will always be a millstone that he & his reputation have to carry.

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  12. It seems to me that there are three sorts of reasons that fuel the anti Blair fire:

    His basic positioning in the Party on social & economic issues. People in the centre & left of the Labour Party who sincerely believe that ‘the market’ needs to be limited to achieve desirable social outcomes have always reserved special contempt for those on the right of the party who basically see ‘the market’ as the main driver of social change. Gaitskell and Jenkins were equally disliked for the same reason.

    His manner of speech and personality. Even before he became PM many people believed that he was self-serving, insincere and hypocritical. He did not seem to come ‘of’ the Labour Party but seemed to be using the Labour Party as a vehicle to obtain personal power. Sympathy for ‘ordinary people’ always came across to many as ‘fake’. Subsequent events seem to prove this view especially ‘deceptions’ in the lead up to Iraq.

    Iraq itself. As a poster mentioned noted, the main point is that the war was not cleanly won. Deceptions in the run up could have been survived but the loss of 180 British lives (& 450 more in Afghanistan) for no obvious positive outcome will always be a millstone that he & his reputation have to carry.

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    • I don’t agree that the problem with Iraq was that the war wasn’t cleanly won. There was huge opposition to the war before we even went in. Then, the military ousting of Saddam was swift and decisive. It’s true that the aftermath was a mess, but I don’t think that changed many minds. The most passionate opposition was there already.

      I think the perceived deceptions around the war are the big problem. I was (and am) an ardent New Labourite, but my heart sank when I read the dodgy dossier. It was the moment when New Labour slid into ‘out of touch’ territory, as most governments eventually do.

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  13. I would suggest 6 reasons, which are all played out in a re-enforcing loop. In brackets ive placed the main advocates for each. I do think it all flows from Iraq though

    1) Iraq (Ideological Opponents)
    2) Power without Principle, Purpose (Party Rivals)
    3) Poor Defense of Record (Allies)
    4) Applaud Blair Strategy (Conservatives)
    5) Actions since leaving office (Himself)
    6) Sleeping as the world went digital (Party, Allies)

    He has been primarily associated with Iraq. As JC said during his election when asked about Blair “he did some good things… but his legacy is Iraq” JCs advocates, and many more across the political spectrum have relentlessly drilled this message home for over a decade.

    When Daniel Kahneman describes the “associative machine” in his excellent book “Thinking Fast and Slow” – he describes how emotions and physical responses to 2 things can be transferred onto each other, and if repeated often enough together they become unconsciously inseparable.

    All the memories and emotions over Iraq are transferred onto Blair. Memories of feeling ignored when protesting prior to the invasion, emotions of a costly and poorly executed war. The belief in being proved right. Everything flows from here. From my chats with JC supporters you are never too far from Iraq whatever the subject is.

    The left understood this from the start, once you build a group who passionately agree with the first message (Iraq) it’s much easier to spread the next message. Stop the War have a mailing list of 150K of people that passionately believe in the first message.

    One last observation off topic (or maybe it’s not thinking about it) does the name of this group do it justice to your beliefs, principles and values? I would suggest you happen to be in “the middle” right now as you believe certain things – you do not believe in being in the middle 🙂 You are letting your opponents define you. Did anyone ever fight for the middle?

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    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. Re your last point – one of the hardest things in politics is fighting assertively (aggressively) for centrism. Moderation hardly inspires, even though it is where many consider they are placed. But you make an interesting point. The rest of your analysis I personally agree with.

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