Today all the papers are marking the 20th anniversary of the Blair landslide, in which Tony Blair’s Labour party won a majority of 179, unmatched before or since, defeating John Major’s Conservative government and ending 18 years of Tory rule. It’s worth noting that his majority was bigger than Clement Attlee’s in 1945, and Attlee remained prime minister for only six years, losing an early general election in 1951 despite gaining more votes than the Tories; Blair served for ten years and Gordon Brown for three more. Today’s papers are heavy on reminiscence of the day of victory, of the atmosphere and of Blair’s and his team’s behaviour as they refused to believe there was a victory or show any sign of celebration until it was confirmed. The Observer (which I took at the time, and which led with celebratory stories about new Labour policies for several Sundays running following the result) has an interview with Blair in today’s paper, in which he proclaims that Labour can win an election any time it wants to by going back to “winning ways”, which shows how out of touch he is with today’s realities.
Now the things that I am afraid of, I’m not afraid to tell
And if we ever leave a legacy, it’s that we loved each other well
Why? Not because this will ever be said about the partnership of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, that’s for sure. No, it’s because this couplet grated on my nerves (along with the dodgy maths in the chorus) at the time because it confused something we might be remembered for with an actual legacy, something tangible we leave behind. Today’s papers are all about memories of that night and the following morning in May 1997 but are a little short on real legacy, and some of what Blair claims to be most proud of are things that had started to happen before he took office, such as the Northern Ireland peace process, while others have been cut back dramatically since he left office, such as the Sure Start nursery scheme (the same can be said for his investments in schools, which have also been subject to further political interference and fragmentation). The minimum wage is a lasting legacy which the Tories opposed at the time but which the Cameron government built on, but his investments in the health system were often based on Private Finance Initiatives (PFIs) which left hospitals with large debts which took priority over healthcare costs.
This hardly compares at all with Attlee’s legacy: the institutions built during those six years largely remain with us in one form or another to this day and the following Conservative government rolled them back only slightly (for example, repealing the monopoly of British Road Services over long-distance road transport), but the idea of a welfare state and, especially, that healthcare and education should be funded out of general taxation has held up to this day, cuts are heavily protested and their abolition is an idea confined to the fringes of the Tory party (though the same could have been said of Brexit — as opposed to not ratifying or withdrawing from Maastricht — when Blair came to office). Blair won a landslide, one respectable victory and one slim victory on a pro-EU platform and was in office for two big accessions of east European countries; today, Britain is on the verge of withdrawing from the EU altogether.
Blair is convinced that if only Labour just returned to doing things his way, it would win landslides again:
Why do you think the Daily Mail attack me every week, sometimes every day? It’s because they know that if my brand of politics ever comes back into fashion, the Tories are going to be where they were, which is flat on their backs with their feet in the air.
And further on:
One of the remarks that really made an impact on me in the 1980s was when Michael Heseltine was asked whether Labour would win again. And he said: ‘Labour will win when it wants to.’ And I thought at the time that was a very profound remark because the Labour party can win at any point in time it wants to get back to winning ways. It’s just got to make a decision that it’s going to do it.
The problem is that Blair was the leader for the mid-1990s; his way of winning elections and managing the party while in government is a large part of why Labour is out of office now. His followers remind us again and again that Blair won more elections than any other leader in Labour’s history as if going back to 1997 (or 1994) was an option in 2017. It is well-known that the party neglected its working-class base, assuming that they had nowhere else to go (Peter Hain claimed that Mandelson had stated this to him outright); it concentrated on winning middle-class votes in the suburbs and shires, and did very well, for a while — winning seats that had never voted Labour before in very non-traditional areas such as rural Norfolk and Lincolnshire. This is all just a memory now; some of those areas returned the highest Leave votes in last year’s referendum and Labour were not even second place there in 2015; UKIP was, while even homeowners whose houses gained enormous value during the Blair period did not thank the Labour party with their votes. Blair’s government failed to address the threat of the Far Right in white working-class areas with progressive measures based around jobs and housing, with Labour politicians stressing the ‘necessity’ of anti-immigration and other anti-liberal policies to ‘outflank’ the likes of the BNP.
The squabblings of Blair’s and Brown’s allies during his time in office were a regular news feature, and he left no credible successor, paving the way for the uncharismatic Brown, the dithering Ed Miliband and then Corbyn. Many of his more competent ministers have lost their seats or are retiring. He did not reform the electoral system, which he could have done in his second term, nor Parliamentary procedures which allow MPs to talk out bills; he left the press dominated by Tory-supporting corporations whose excesses were only exposed during Cameron’s premiership, and as might be expected, after the Leveson inquiry was up, the Tory prime minister left the Tory press alone. Corbyn’s assessment of Theresa May’s government as “strong against the weak, weak against the strong” could have been just as rightly said about Blair, always willing to send other people’s sons and daughters into war in the service of George W Bush, where they would remain for years, and rounding up “foreign criminals” at the Daily Mail’s demand (a press-pleasing policy copied from the Clinton-era USA), despite the fact that many had served their sentences years ago.
It’s easy to forget, for those of us now on the same side as Blair over Brexit, that we loathed him when he was in office. His intervention was not enough to swing the vote in favour of staying in the EU, and despite the narrowness of the vote and the economic consequences (collapse of the pound, the threat to move multinational companies and the certainty of EU institutions moving abroad), his opposition does not motivate even Lib Dem politicians, let alone Labour ones, to support staying in the EU rather than a pointless “soft Brexit” — I have heard it said that many are afraid of meeting the same fate as Jo Cox. Those politicians and writers who remind us of Blair’s three victories need to decide what kind of Labour government they want, and what kind of legacy they want it to leave that won’t be demolished the term after they leave office, before they crow “but he won, but he won, but he won!” at us while the membership votes for Corbyn (or someone else in that camp) again and again. If, as is expected, Corbyn loses to a Tory landslide next month, this group needs to do as much reflection and soul-searching as Corbyn’s supporters. Memories of a victory do not a legacy make; like the love in the Indigo Girls’ song, they fade into the past.
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