16th March 2016
Cllr Sean Woodcock says: We need to talk about Tony
I joined the Labour Party in July 2007. Barring a brief spell supporting the Lib Dems when I turned 18 (which must explain why they keep emailing me) I had always supported the party.
What prompted me to take the final step and officially become a member, however, was the resignation of the Prime Minister, Tony Blair.
My adolescence and political education was spent loathing Blair. In hindsight, I recognise this for what it was: youthful raging against ‘The Man’ and the system, alongside legitimate anger at things like the Iraq War and the raising of tuition fees, even though neither of them actually affected me because changes to the latter only came into effect once I had already graduated.
Fast forward 9 years to last weekend. A canvassing session in a council ward that Labour currently hold in my hometown and which we are confident of retaining in the all-out elections to the authority in. May. Among the canvassing team which largely consisted of local veterans was one of the new members who was so inspired by Jeremy Corbyn that they had decided to put themselves forward to be a candidate in the ward.
As we were wandering round from door-to-door, this new member was put out by a voter saying “You’re all the same”. Fishing for advice on how to respond to this perennial doorstep piece of drivel, he uttered the following – “Because apart from the minimum wage, Blair and his government were basically Tory”.
My response to this was short and sharp and sounded a bit like “Buttered Pollocks”.
Having reflected on this, aside from my own Damascene conversion to becoming a defender of the man I once hated, it reiterated something that has been touched upon time and time again by the likes of Zoe Williams & Jonathan Friedland; Labour needs to get over Tony Blair. Or rather, it must come to terms with Blair and his legacy if it is ever to return to government. As with the Tories after Thatcher’s demise, Blair’s shadow lingers over the Labour Party and blinds those inside it to the way forward for our party.
There are people who know Blair much better than I do. (This is hardly surprising, as I never met him.) And there are commentators who, unlike me, will know inside and out the history of this era. However, from where I sit, as councillor, member and former parliamentary candidate, it is obvious that our entire movement needs to do it.
This applies to the left of the party, many of whom share the views of the unfortunate victim of my potty mouth.
The idea that the Blair government was not noticeably different to the Tories is complete hogwash. The achievements of that government have been listed numerous times on a variety of media but just a few examples merit highlighting. Not just the minimum wage but the repeal of section 28 and the creation of civil partnerships, investment in our schools and hospitals, peace in Northern Ireland, the smoking ban and a free nursery place for every 3 or 4 year old.
All of these changes or reforms have lasted. More than that the attitudes that they represent have become part of the political mainstream in a way that they were not before. Hence why equal marriage was introduced under a Conservative-led government. It is why the Tories have ring-fenced the budgets for schools and the NHS. It is also why there is agreement across the political spectrum on the need to increase state provision for childcare.
Yes, perhaps more could and should have been done in that 13 years we had in government. Every government leaves office with unfinished business or missed opportunities. But to label the Blair government as no different to the Tories shows not just ignorance but lazy, ideological ignorance that really renders any further discussion pointless.
However, the opposite wing of the party must also draw a line under Blair. And that means a recognition, firstly, of what Blair was. Blair was a political superstar in his day. Like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton at their inaugurations. And like them, his personality and what he represented, was more important in many ways, certainly at the start, than his policies. The triangulation that we sometimes saw from the defeated leadership candidates last year showed not just a failure to connect to the membership but a failed attempt to recreate Blair’s initial success in confronting the party with home truths. Unfortunately none of those leadership candidates was the unique figure that Blair undoubtedly was.
After that, there also needs to be a bit more recognition from Labour ‘moderates’ to the rest of the membership that there are bits of the Blair legacy, as with Thatcher, that are not unqualified successes. A key example is Iraq, which I mentioned earlier. It may not have damaged Labour in the sense of costing it an election, but it did cause serious and long-term damage to the image of the UK abroad as well as to the Labour Party at home. This does not mean adhering to ridiculous calls for Bush, and by extension Blair, to go to The Hague; but it does mean contrition, which to be fair the former PM himself has expressed, for what went wrong.
There are other examples of where Blair’s record merits closer, more critical scrutiny. Issues like the EU, immigration and in some aspects of the party’s management of the economy. This should not surprise anyone. Being in government for so long means sometimes getting things wrong.
None of this should detract from the fact that Tony Blair at his best was a political colossus. I know from my own conversations with Tory councillors they worried that under him they were never getting back into power. And, if we think about it, it was only a combination of an unprecedented financial crisis and very clearly aping of Blair by David Cameron were the Tories able to return to government. And then only narrowly as part of a coalition. That is also Blair’s legacy.
He connected with the British people in a way that few politicians do. But the British people have largely forgotten and forgiven Tony Blair. The Labour Party now needs to do the same.
Cllr. Sean Woodcock