Whoever wins the Labour leadership, Blairism is at death’s door

The ‘modernisers’ are curiously stuck in the 1990s – while the party membership has shifted far to the left

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

1 August 2015

9:00 AM

The exhausted Labour leadership contest takes a bucket-and-spade holiday next week, with all four candidates agreeing to an uneasy truce on hustings — but probably not hostilities. It’s clear everyone could do with a bit of a rest, not least because they need time to sit down, scratch their heads and ask how on earth things got to where they are.

Jeremy Corbyn, the veteran socialist, is still ahead — and not just in published polls, but in the returns all the campaigns are seeing. With private data putting him far ahead of the next candidate, Andy Burnham, even dry insiders believe there is a 50/50 chance of Corbyn winning. Labour staffers, fearing they may get the sack if he really does win, are dazed and miserable. Meanwhile, the candidate for the faction that claims it knows how to win elections, the Blairite Liz Kendall, is in last place. Whether or not Corbyn wins the leadership, one thing is clear: Blairism is finally at death’s door.

Blairites tend, rightly, to mention the three elections their hero won when critics ask if they know what they’re talking about. But to win a general election, you need to win your party’s leadership election first. And those keeping the New Labour flame alive aren’t doing so well at that.

Kendall herself talks to a membership she wishes existed: one that believes Labour should support some welfare cuts and Britain should live within its means. But when she made that last, seemingly innocuous point at a hustings in Brighton recently, she was booed. It would be a huge ask for any candidate to move the established political convictions of a party electorate during a leadership contest, and she has clearly failed.

Even Kendall’s allies accept she hasn’t managed to charm the membership. Initially, she seemed to be the exciting ‘change’ candidate, with bold policy pronouncements. But since then, an understandable attempt by her advisers to polish her rougher edges has had the counterproductive effect of making her less interesting. And some now question whether those first few weeks really were good for her campaign. ‘When you say Liz had a good campaign, what you mean is she was getting good write-ups in the media,’ says one supporter. ‘Everything she was saying was still really upsetting the membership.’

The Blairites seem genuinely surprised by the way the party membership is acting. It is as though they have failed to notice the way it has shifted over the past decade.

Blair never won the membership round to supporting his project for the long term. As far back as 2008, the party’s middle-class, middle-aged members were starting to drift away and be replaced by younger, more metropolitan and more left-wing members. That leftward drift was then intensified during Ed Miliband’s leadership, and again after this year’s election. But it seems most MPs were blissfully unaware of the changes. It was not ‘moronic’ of Labourites to nominate Jeremy Corbyn to ‘broaden the debate’, even though they didn’t support him, but it is a damning indictment of the parliamentary party’s understanding of the membership that they thought this would be just a wizard wheeze, rather than something that members hungered for. Labour handed membership data to the four candidates shortly after the ballot paper was finalised, and only then did they all really start to understand the character of the people they were trying to woo.

Leading Blairites accept they haven’t been as organised as the left of the party. A number of new left-wing Labour MPs have a paid Unite organiser co-ordinating their activities, and the unions are well-financed and savvy. The centrist Progress faction simply hasn’t caught up.

Indeed, the modernisers seem rather retro, stuck in a late 1990s groove. Kendall even managed to repeat almost verbatim Tony Blair’s speech about the contest in an article for the Observer last weekend. More thoughtful Blairite MPs point out that even a playbook as successful as the 1997 one does need updating. It should, for instance, recognise the rise of nationalism as being as important a sentiment as a yearning for a strong leader and trustworthy economic policies. Blair’s successors need to show they have added their own wisdom to his. At the very least, they need to find a new name: the media will always tag them with the toxic ‘Blairite’ until they offer a new, distinct identity.

Those who are unencumbered by the misery of the leadership contest are trying to work out how Labour modernisers can make their case while their party shifts to the left and George Osborne orders his tanks into the centre ground. Chuka Umunna held meetings this week with Italy’s Europe minister, Sandro Gozi, partly to take notes on Gozi’s Partito Democratico and its success in winning arguments from the centre left. Umunna is also interested in the way the Tories managed to strengthen their case in opposition by using external organisations such as the Taxpayers’ Alliance and the Centre for Social Justice. He feels Labour lacks that sort of institutional support, and is keen to replicate it.

In the short term, the Blairites are likely to end up at the back of the queue of people claiming they should still be listened to after the leadership contest. If Corbyn wins, they are not planning a coup against him, but instead say they will ‘give him enough time to hang himself with his own rope’. In that time, the centrists need to change their whole identity and pitch to prove they understand not just how to win a leadership contest — but a general election.

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Show comments
  • davidshort10

    Tell us something we don’t know.

  • Garnet Thesiger

    It is difficult to see how the Labour Party can be reconciled and an effective opposition for some time to come. This will certainly give the Iib Dem’s an unforeseen opportunity to claw back some of the ground conceded in May..

    • John Wheatley

      The only upside for everyone in Labour to the right of Corbyn is that there is a plausible home for the Left activists outside the Labour Party for the first time since the 30’s – the Greens. If they don’t like the way Labour goes after Corbyn’s probable defeat then they need not stay and poison the Party at some stage in the future. Labour’s coalition needs to narrow.

      • tohellwithit

        Errr..thr Green party is to the left of Corbyn!?!

        • John Wheatley

          Not that different. Much closer to the Greens than to Blairites

          • tohellwithit

            Why would someone to the right of Corbyn leave to join a party to left of Corbyn?

      • Kennybhoy

        WTF are you on? Wot tohellwithit wrote! 🙂

        • tohellwithit

          TBF either the original post has been edited or I read it wrong. The
          post, now, is refering to those voting Corbyn going to the Greens.

    • wildcolonialboy

      It’s only difficult to see if you’re young and you forget that everything comes in cycles and that a year is a long time in politics.

    • Kennybhoy

      “This will certainly give the Iib Dem’s an unforeseen opportunity to claw back some of the ground conceded in May..”

      Aye. Who wouda thunk it…?

      And it will likely complicate things in Scotland…

    • Damon

      It’s true. Labour pushing the self-destruct button may just be what the LibDems need to come back from the brink. After all, middle-class centre-lefties need ‘somewhere’ to go.

  • MikeF

    ‘Blairism’ was never more than allowing Tony Blair to strut his stuff as a smokescreen for the party beneath him to get on with the serious business of destroying democracy and freedom of speech. As a cogent political philosophy no such thing exists – the reality is that Blair was just a ‘useful idiot’ for the left. They got rid of him when they though he had served his purpose and could be replaced by someone more to their liking – Brown. When that tactic exploded in their face they tried someone a bit more overtly left in Miliband and now that that has failed they are seeking to install someone even more overtly of the left.
    But the election of Corbyn – if it happens though it might not because there is still a balance in the Labour Party between authoritarian bureaucratic opportunists who would prefer someone like Burnham and authoritarian ideological socialists who obviously want Corbyn – would not merely be the logical summation of everything that has happened over the last decade but of the last several decades. That is the timescale over which the Labour Party has been hollowed out and turned from a decent democratic organisation – albeit one with both genuinely Stalinistic and Trotskyist fringes – into an intolerant anti-democratic authoritarian narcissist cult. Whoever becomes leader of the Labour Party one overriding fact remains – it is an evil organisation beyond rescue that must be destroyed as a force in British political life.

    • Kennybhoy

      “…there is still a balance in the Labour Party between authoritarian bureaucratic opportunists who would prefer someone like Burnham and authoritarian ideological socialists who obviously want Corbyn…”

      Splendid analysis! Well said sir!

      • norto

        Yes Corbyn is a socialist, thank God, unlike his fellow contestants. But he is not as remotely left-wing as the British media claim. He also has the support of a large group of economists who point to the moderate nature of his policy proposals. Even more importantly for our country and our democracy he has the support of most people (81% in the poll I have just seen).

    • davidshort10

      Any chance of you giving us any factual evidence behind your assertions on conspiracy? Or is it just hot air blowing out of your skull?

      • MikeF

        ‘Events, events’ – as Harold MacMillan said.

    • Ron

      Hindsight is wonderful, what is more worrying is the tactic agreement that Milliband and Cameron had to unite should Farage gain seats and not have been shafted by the democratic Government.

    • Junis

      New Labour was as evil as UKIP/Tories. Old Labour is the best thing England can wish for.

      • MikeF

        Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

    • I love being called evil. It’s cool.

    • norto

      I have never read such partisan political tripe in my life. Perhaps you would like to comment on the destruction of the planet on a less partisan note, perhaps ?

  • Saleem Shady

    Labour is simply throwing off the mask that Blair placed on its face. Blair was the aberration. The truth is Labour has always been the lunatic left. These maniacs have always been below the surface and now they are going to take over. You can disguise a leopards spots for a while, but you cannot change them.

  • Peter Stroud

    Currently Labour is in a completely confused state. It lost an election, that even the most faithful Tory thought they had won. But then, in stead of quietly taking stock, panic set in. The leader did a runner and some political wags thought it would be a good laugh to put the most fanatical neo Trotskyite back bench MP on the list of leadership candidates – and he is leading on the first lap. Now more panic. How can a political party, so inept in managing its own affairs, hope to govern the UK?

    • Mary Jackson

      The most fanatical Trotskyite,? What on earth are you talking about,?

      • Peter Stroud

        Most fanatical neo Trotskyite.

        I stand by this opinion after reading about his past.

        • Jackie Ogden

          Past is past.

  • JSC

    They should just get it over and done with and elect Russell Brand…

    • Jean-Claude Cameron

      Comedy will only take you this far my friend.

      If Labour do unite with their second preference behind Ms Balls, Britain will not get its proper two party Parliament back.

    • John M

      Actually I agree. If you are going to have a useless, unelectable c**t leading your party you may as well hire a professional to do the job.

  • Malcolm Knott

    ‘Give him enough time to hang himself with his own rope.’

    Time which he would put to good use – ruthlessly.

  • wildcolonialboy

    The claim that the party membership has moved to the left is absolute crap, and it sounds like a lazy write up from a journalist in the Westminster bubble who can’t be bothered to go and speak to real party activists and members.

    If anything, Labour’s membership very much consolidated in the soft and centre-left as the extremists left to go to the Greens and TUSC. Without all the commie entryists, there’s no way Corbyn would win the leadership. And it’s clear that a majority of party members (as soon by CLP memberships) do *not* favour Corbyn.

    A majority of the membership favours a sensible, centre-left party which is approximately where Ed Miliband was (which is itself half way between Blair and Corbyn).

    • Jackie Ogden

      Problem is there is no candidate there. Cooper and Burnham are centrist; Kendall is right wing. Corbyn is obviously left wing, but hardly hard left. Corbyn is dynamic and has more life than the rest of them put together.

  • Grace Ironwood

    Far too early to declare “Blairism is finally at death’s door”, Isabel.

    1.We have Dave.

    2.When Labour has reaped the electoral returns of its self-indulgence it will have turn back to the Blairites. They will be stronger and have more legitimacy within the party.

    • The Dybbuk

      I know that Dave is indistinguishable from A Blair babe but Mr Cameron whilst carrying the flame is still, nearly, a Tory and they are welcome to him.

      • Grace Ironwood

        The only reason the fella is a Tory is because that’s where his contacts were.
        If he was Union Royalty he’d be Labour Leader.

  • More things that aren’t quite true merging into the purely fanciful and the blatantly lying. Rather than bore your self into a stupor ploughing through this just read the subtext, which has been helpfully summarised for you by a chimpanzee below.

  • John M

    It hasn’t actually occurred to the Labour leadership that all those people they were counting on to vote and support the New Labour candidates are probably all the same people who decided they’d had enough of Labour after Tony Blair’s lies and Ed Miliband started setting the policy and who have already buggered off to support the Tories and UKIP.

    Let now anyone forget, Blair’s sign off to his New Labour supporters was dumping the country with Gordon Brown, having clearly and specifically promised at the preceding election that he wouldn’t.

  • WhiteVanMan

    If he leads labour to oblivion in 2020, will be accept it, afoot accepted the 83 defeat was his, but most of Corbyn supporters will say we lost as it wasn’t left wing enough

  • Nick

    It’s difficult for me to express how thoroughly I am enjoying watching the Labour party tear itself to shreds following it’s humiliating GE defeat.

    The loony leftie Corbyn is my hero as he will put the final nail in the Labour coffin.

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  • Torybushhug

    Commie Corbyn and the Tractor Production Politburo, the dream team for every sponger and victim in the land.

    How much fun are the coming 5 years going to be, lol!

  • cohenadmirer1 .

    In the beginning , blairism offered both a position sufficiently to the left of the tories to keep many labour members on board as well as offering a prospect of winning and an illusion of a party less involved in the political ‘ sleaze’ that the press in those days had seized on.It was the prospect of winning though that enthused labour people of all complexions and even most left wingers felt the euphoria of the 1997 victory. It took several years for blairism to lose its intellectual and emotional hold on labour , and it has been going through ‘death throes’ for at least a decade. Except , that is , in the conservative party , which of course can be characterised as very ‘blair influenced’. Cameron/Osbourne/clegg/ many others – all had post graduate education in the Blair school of how to win.
    Even if he doesn’t last too long , Corbyn will change the tone of opposition politics and be part of a process which gives labour a chance of refinding core values which may well continue to resonate with large parts of the electorate , especially the young . A Corbyn victory will also give political pundits like isabel so much to write about !

    • Captain Nemo

      Your post would be easier to read if you understood that a space should come AFTER a comma – not before.

  • new_number_2

    Those who identify as Blairites in the Labour Party need to take a hard look at themselves and be a bit more modest and humble. I don’t think they’re capable though as they’re arrogant and elitist by nature with a strong sense of entitlement as demonstrated by the likes of John McTernan who believe they are the “sensible” and the ones who deserve to be listened to and taken seriously.

  • Dave Muller

    Blairites forget that during the 3 election victories under Tony Blair, the party lost 5 million voters who had been loyal to Labour. Those votes had gone to the Liberal Democrats, who were, prior to 2010, to the left of Labour, particular under Charles Kennedy. But obviously the Lib Dems are no longer relevant and we have seen the growth of the SNP in Scotland, UKIP in England along with the “Green surge” and in Wales a slight growth of Plaid Cymru. Move back to the “centre-ground” (actually right-wing of the party”, and you wont have a hells chance in winning back any seats from the SNP, more votes will go to UKIP (whatever the result of the EU referendum) and the Greens as well as Plaid Cymru. The consequence will be Labour further splitting its vote allowing the Tories to win, not through popularity, but merely through them winning slightly more support than Labour in those marginal seats. That would be catastrophic for the party!

    • Hi Dave, I see you’ve concocted a bogus account electoral history since 1997. Just in case anyone believes you I’ll set the record straight.

      1. Labour lost 5 million voters between 1997 and 2010. One third of these were lost under Gordon Brown who became Prime Minister in 2007.

      2. Turnout fell by 5 million between 1997 and 2001, affecting all political parties, including the Lib Dems.

      3. As the gross Labour vote fell in the subsequent two parliaments, turnout increased and the Lib Dems and the Conservatives each gained 2 million votes, whilst 1 million votes were gained by other parties.

      All of the three main parties of c. the 1980s have lost between 3 million (Labour) and 4 million (Lib Dems) voters since 1992. Meanwhile, turnout has declined by 5 million overall and 5 million more votes are going to other parties (mainly nationalists of one stripe or another). The UK electorate is 45 million.

  • Jackie Ogden

    Let’s get the champagne out!!!

  • Mynydd

    Isms never out last their leader, ‘Blairism’ has been no better at it than ‘Thatcherism’ Mr Cameron/Osborne have moved so far from the extreme right of Mrs Thatcher they have now parked their tanks on the center left.

  • jonathan veale

    The Blair legacy – for the Labour party – has not only infuriated Tory waverers who thought they had a fellow traveller, but has destroyed the principled idealism that formally informed the movement.
    Jeremy Corbyn never bought into the nonsense and the younger element recognises this.
    Sweep the old guard away and soon enough a younger leader will emerge, all in good time. The Tory party is nowhere near as impregnable as many suggest.

  • Alan Hall

    Actually, Corbyn summed it up with his staement saying there could be a case for Blair being prosecuted for War crimes, but wouldn’t that also include his cabinet colleagues who did not have the decency to vote him down

  • Fanoftony

    Just remove the ..ism from the headline, maybe a pre-warning of events to come at the Hague?