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