Apparently, our problem is “Blairites”. We’re not supposed to say “Blairite” any more and “moderates” is a misnomer – this isn’t about left and right. Perhaps the word is “modernisers”. Blair claimed he was a “moderniser” and therefore, whatever he wanted to do was “modern”. Hence “Progress”, I guess. They are the reason we who joined the Labour Party in the name of anti-austerity and democratic socialism are currently stuck. They are the neo-liberals. Their philosophy came into existence in the Thatcher-Reagan era, the time of winner-takes-all yuppidom.
Their ideology was and is personified by Tony Blair in the Labour Party. It was, initially, a very simple con. I remember Blair’s famous landslide. I remember how happy we all were that we’d finally got the Tories out of government. I hadn’t really asked myself who Blair was, just voted for the man who seemed to be sure he could oust the Tories. And the euphoria lasted nearly a whole day. It lasted until we found out that his first act on becoming Prime Minister was to go visit Margaret Thatcher. When asked what her greatest achievement was, she said “Tony Blair and New Labour”. We should all have recognised that as a sign that there was a new ruling class, and that it was wider and more dangerous than any one political party.
Blair won two more elections, but with decreasing majorities. He won because he was very, very good at winning things. The decreased majorities were because, as he segued to the right over time, and his one true goal was revealed, people went off him – but those who remember and revere the power of Tony the Winner are still with us. Over Christmas, I took drastic steps to find out who or what these people are, what it is that empowers them, and what we can do about it.
I found a copy of Blair’s biography in a junk shop. The face staring gimlet-staring out of the cover pic nearly put me off but it was only 50p, and it seemed unfair to write about Blairites without starting from the man’s own words, so I caved in and said “oh alright then.”
Even the shop lady thought I was mad. “You won’t learn anything – he’ll only be bigging himself up,” she said, as I handed her the 50p.
It’s called A Journey. What with that, and the gimlet stare on the cover, I decided to discard the dust jacket on the train home. I could cope with the plain blue cover underneath – or so I thought. I nearly chickened out and left the book on the train when I realised it had TONY BLAIR embossed on the spine in 2-inch high letters.
My revulsion is partly due to responsibility for the horror of the Iraq carnage being dropped onto our collective shoulders, partly due to an instinctive dislike of the ruthless. A party “moderate” would exclaim at this point that we scruffy lefties have a pathological fear of winning. Well, after a fashion. It’s like this…
If ever the first line in a book was perfectly prescient, Blair’s opener takes the prize… “ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS: When it was first suggested that I write this book, Bob Barnett, lawyer, friend and negotiator extraordinaire, expertly steered the negotiations that brought me to Random House.” There you have it – Tony Blair in a nutshell. Never mind policies, never mind principles, the one and only quality he notices in everyone and every event, is the potential for effective manipulation – for winning. I had a quick flick through. My eye was caught by the nature of the captions on the photo pages. Here’s an example:
“Clockwise from above right: some of the inner team. Peter Mandelson could tell you what people
would be thinking tomorrow; Anji Hunter, possessed of a naturally intuitive political instinct: Jonathan
Powell, a key operative in government; Sally Morgan, superbly attuned to the party; Philip Gould, chief
pollster, and central to our strategy” (The Journey opposite p142)
The words of praise are extraordinary – “operative”, “superbly attuned” – I remember how the phrase “on message” kept turning up in political columns when Blair was “team building”. It reminds me of how, when the 2015 Labour leadership election was a three-horse race, the three candidates were shunting and shifting, playing chess for the “winning message”. Nobody was unusually stirred. Politics hadn’t woken up again at that point. It didn’t until a forth contender came along, one who messed up the chess-game by just saying what he thought, regardless of whether it was popular, or part of a pre-agreed “message”.
According to Alex Nunns’ ‘The Candidate’, the strategy of those who allowed Corbyn to slip into the race was this: let him “broaden the debate” by being himself – way, way “off message” – he will be the boundary marker, allowing the three drones to spread themselves across a range of positions winnably to the right of him. It will enliven things nicely, and prove that the left is past it.
But the membership scented truth in Corbyn’s words, and they were in the mood for it. From that moment on, despite the other candidates’ attempts to adapt and appear more unrehearsed, Corbyn was the man: unbelievably, unstoppably popular – because in certain circumstances, people are ferociously loyal to truth, once they’ve spotted some. But how had the truth so totally and deadeningly disappeared from politics before that point?
Looking at the photos in Blair’s book of his chosen inner circle, I am reminded of a councillor I came across at our area’s party conference. He looked and sounded like a Blairite. He got on fine with the group he and I were both working in that was about winning council elections – some fine, efficient advice on campaigning… but he was the only one at conference who took to the main stage and advised a (largely Corbynite – the members are) audience to “stay off social media, it’s just an echo chamber.” The advice was greeted with a stony silence. We know where and how the membership at large got one up on the Blairite machine. If he noticed that manipulative tactics stick out a mile these days, he didn’t show it but then, come to think of it, he didn’t show his own feelings once, all weekend.
Pondering this, my eyes strayed to the page opposite the photos, where Blair is describing the role of Foreign Secretary, and explaining why it’s the job everyone wants. “…you basically spend your time with people who are polite to you…generally dispensing goodwill and opinions to those who seem relatively keen to receive them.” Sounds like the queen’s job to me – aren’t politicians supposed to be doing important, responsible things? Not the Foreign Secretary apparently – “…Not for you the horny handed sons of toil badgering you over fuel prices, or complaining about the government’s clearly ill-motivated refusal to spend money on this service or that, the minutiae of road schemes…” Is that, then, the root of the resentment Blairites hold for the Corbyn/McDonnell movement? Do Blairites hold the people and their need for services in such total contempt they resent Corbyn’s expectation that all politicians lower themselves to actually running the country and providing services?
Let’s see how Tony’s book is getting on: INTRODUCTION “Most such memoirs are, I have found, rather easy to put down. So what you see here is not a conventional description of who I met or what I did…” That, Tony, is pretty much what the lady in the bookshop said. “There is only one person who can write an account of what it is like to be the human being at the centre of that history, and that’s me.” Well okay, on the subject of Tony Blair’s experience of being Prime Minister, I suppose he has a point but is he going to keep the idea under control, or will he write as if he is god of the real world? “I describe, of course, the major events of my time, but I do so through the eyes of the person taking the decisions in relation to them…” – The person? Doesn’t this sound a tad like the memoir of a dictator? – “…I hope it is fair.” I doubt it, old son.
The word “loyalty” turns up regularly through the rest of the introduction and acknowledgements, and the putting together of Blair’s teams, first for the election campaign and then for government. All we hear about policies are that election policies must be vague enough that one’s enemies can’t pick them apart. Perhaps that’s why, on realising he’s won, his overwhelming emotion is fear, at the vast difference between campaigning and governing or, as he puts it, between “saying” and “doing” but then, after the landslide, once the spads are in place, we get a summary of the early policy statements. Here’s the bit where I get a chance to be fair…
This doesn’t sound too bad. We see a cut in VAT, a return of union rights for GCHQ workers, a ban on landmines, education reforms, with literacy and numeracy strategies for… primary… schools… ah – this is the beginning of the tyranny of “Tony’s Targets”, isn’t it. The Social Chapter is jubilantly taken on – as a trade-off against dropping “closed shop trades”. Apparently, this works because the unions have forgotten about closed shops… and oh, here is a “welfare to work package” – we know where that led – funded by “a windfall levy on privatised services” – oh. And all this because Tony is concerning himself with “middle class aspiration” as well as “the anxieties of the down-and-out.”
Wasn’t there someone in between the aspirational middle class and down-and-outs back then? Oh well – plough on. I dare say there’ll be more about policy and politics when he comes to neutering clause IV. In the meantime, let’s take a look at that idea of “aspiration”, something we tend to think of as a magic word the Tories use. Here’s Tony discovering his ambition in life, courtesy of a speculative visit to Westminster arranged by Cherie’s dad:
“…to be a Member of Parliament, to be one of the legislators of the land, to walk unhindered through those hallowed corridors and chambers; what excitement, what an adventure, what a sense of arrival at a new and higher level of existence.
Tom thought me a pretty strange bird that evening. We had barely been introduced when I started plying him with questions. How do you get here? What can you do for me? Who do I see? What do I do? How shall I do it?” (‘The Journey’ pp34-5)
So there we have it – nothing in particular that he wanted to achieve, no group or ideal he wanted to serve – he literally fell in love with the corridors of power. The same strange force of “aspiration” is in evidence at his first meeting with Tony Benn. He sits through a campaign speech of Tony’s “enraptured, absolutely captivated and inspired” – not by the ideas expressed ( “actually I didn’t agree with a lot of it” ) but by “the ability to use words to move people”. There follows a fairly detailed analysis of the speech – its structure, its delivery, the way the argument is built – with not one hint as to the subject under discussion.
We hear also of Blair’s careful alignment of himself with the party policy of the time as he builds his career, regardless of whether he agrees with it or not. Aspiration is not interested in policy or any consequences beyond the aspirant’s own outcomes (you can feel phrases like “collateral damage” being born). And that is why Jeremy Corbyn so very easily beat the Cooper-Burnham-Kendall field for the party leadership. Their policies were no more than tools for their respective aspirations. It also contains the answer to our current big question: why is it taking us so long, bearing in mind that Corbyn is now party leader, with a small but brilliant team of anti-austerity cabinet-members around him, all genuinely committed to the causes of social justice and democracy – why is it taking this half-million of us so long to get our party back, now we know we’re a majority and we want politics to be about honest administration?
At first glance, it should be easy – Cooper, Burnham and Kendall were sitting ducks because they just weren’t much good. Yes, they had imbibed the Blairite aspiration but Blair had two big advantages: one was a nation desperate to get rid of the Tories, the other was the element of surprise. Politicians weren’t generally clean, new, efficient and energetic. He built a machine for winning elections, and his efficient machine-operators still hang on in the party administration because that’s what they’re good at – that first, failed leadership election told them that PR and straplines do not work on people who are after something real. The sound and fury after the leadership election were echoes of that moment when they realised they were seriously at risk, and felt themselves exposed as a minority. Did we really think they’d give up and go away at this point?
There were really very few of them by 2015, but they were still equally committed to hanging on leechlike and WINNING. Corbyn wasn’t the only one who found it hard to get enough nominations to enter the contest. Having failed to get the wary party membership, who are sick to death of aspiration and spin, to vote for them, and then seeing Kendall’s huge lack of support in the actual election, they knew they were really scraping the barrel for possible replacements. Angela Eagle lasted about 5 minutes. Owen Smith got himself a contest and applied a typical Blairite formula: “Corbyn is popular therefore I agree with him”, but that strategy was easy to knock out in every debate by means of one simple question from Corbyn: “so why did you resign, Owen?” That’s when they started to get really angry.
2017: A new year, a new launch – We are the majority. Why not just sack the rebels? Two reasons. One is the nature of the leader. Jeremy Corbyn is most definitely not Tony Blair. He will stay calm and take his time. He will feel honour-bound to give his colleagues, especially those who are elected MPs, every chance to get beyond “aspiration” and start thinking of policy as statements of intention rather than negotiable lines for career advancement. Only when that hope is exhausted, and when he sees an undeniable majority demand from the party for a change of administration, will he give up on them.
One or two did come around, and now seem to be genuinely working on being democratic socialists – but a lot more are simply posing – or else have been taken in by the latest Progress strategy. After the serial resignations and leadership challenges served up with rumour-based smears leaked to the press, they tried some policy-related attacks, based on passionately held stances on the EU and Trident, among others, but when it comes to political machinations, they are not stupid. They could see that they were just making themselves unpopular by making cynical use of issues people cared deeply about, so then came a new strategy. Labour MPs who were deeply taken up with the infighting and negative press-briefing earlier in the year, are now back in their constituencies, conspicuously doing virtuous things, often related to social justice and anti-austerity issues, some quite activisty … but surprisingly often involving press-bait actions on Corbyn’s national campaign days, almost as if they were staged to distract their constituents from their party leader…
The second reason we haven’t ploughed in and won the party back at the first attempt is that the party administration is in an appalling state. During and after the Blair years, membership had fallen away and, because of who Blair was and what he did, because of the Iraq War, the neoliberal misrepresentation of those in poverty and his endless demands for loyalty and aspiration, many of the most human and principled members of the active membership had left their posts in administration. Blair thinned out the ranks of all but the empty aspirants – not just by his own demand for loyalty to “the message” but in the same way Nick Clegg gutted the Liberal Democrats. For Labour, that meant all but the neo-liberals to one side and the most battle-hardened of the socialists to the other had left Labour in despair. The remainder of Blair’s team were now digging their heels in at every level of the executive. They are skilled manipulators. That’s what they do. It’s easy for them now because they are the establishment. Human institutions always have a strong bias towards today being the same as yesterday, so they don’t have to be that clever, just consistently immovable.
The half-million or so members and supporters who carried Corbyn into the leadership position did remarkably well to get past them once but, for the next stage we need more than half a million members. We are succeeding in that. The ranks are still swelling, and have passed 600 000 now. Even more crucially though, we need a much larger proportion of the membership to get active. Just being a member puts money in the party coffers but if it ends up being spent on, for example, court actions against supporters’ rights to vote, that’s not going to change anything. Those of us who do have active, anti-austerity CLPs are busy putting in motions to the party calling for better, bottom-up democracy, for fair dos at conference and on the NEC and yes, some are calling for re-selection of MPs or even for expelling Blair from the Party – but it’s not happening.
I asked a war-torn NEC member recently what happens to all those motions when they get to the NEC. “Go in the bin, probably,” she said with a tired smile. That does not mean they are pointless. It’s true, nothing much is moving – yet. If you’re not a member, please consider joining to help out. If you are a member, please get yourself down to some meetings or actions and get to know your local party. Find out how you can get together and become a part of the force for change. Those motions that may or may not be going in the bin now need to come in thick enough and fast enough that they cannot be ignored, and they need on-the-ball members following them up and demanding responses. Corbyn’s campaign days, and trades union and anti-austerity actions – the marches, the demos, the talks and events – need to be better attended and more enlivening than rebel MPs’ distractor-events are.
If you haven’t braved a CLP meeting or event yet, don’t be afraid to try it. Most of the membership are Corbyn supporters so you will probably get a warm welcome when you approach your local party. If on the other hand, you find your branch is one where the membership are locked out, or one that has not discovered activism, don’t give up. There will be local members who are seeking change. You might find them on social media, or at a local Momentum or People’s Assembly meeting, or in Trades Union branches. Go meet them, and join the movement. If you have been suspended or rejected by the Labour Party, don’t feel wounded. The rejection will have come from a few suits in an office somewhere, not from the party as a whole. You can still join in by joining a union and supporting Corbyn-oriented actions and policies from there. If you want the Labour Party back, do not be passive, do not be ignorable.
Join the party https://join.labour.org.uk/
Join Momentum http://join.peoplesmomentum.com/
Join a Union https://www.tuc.org.uk/join-union
It wouldn’t do any harm to also pop over to the Facebook pages and Twitter pages of all those Labour MPs who are chatting away about their doings and add something polite, positive and Corbyn-policy centred. If you *really* want to put them on the spot, mention the guy’s name in your post – after all, he’s the party leader – they can hardly complain!
Richard Seymour’s ‘Corbyn’ http://www.circaidygregory.co.uk/Corbyn_Richard_Seymour.htm
Alex Nunns’ ‘The Candidate’ http://www.orbooks.com/catalog/the-candidate/