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Is Tony Blair Labour’s future? New Labour's legacy is finally becoming clear

'You can't win every election' (STEPHEN SHAVER/AFP via Getty Images)


April 30, 2022   4 mins

Fifteen years after he stood down as Prime Minister, 25 after he was elected, Blair still deserves to be listened to. The three Labour leaders after him — Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, and Jeremy Corbyn — defined themselves against Tony, and they all lost. Keir Starmer wants to build on Blair’s legacy, uses much of Tony’s language and many of his tactics — and he has been in the lead for the last 100 opinion polls. Point made, surely.

What was it about the final years of Blair’s premiership that ensured his political legacy? There’s the obvious point that when he became PM it was his first and only job in government and he had energy but no experience. By the time he left, he knew exactly how to get things done but was running out of road.

I was Blair’s Political Secretary between 2005 and 2007 and had a front row seat for the end of the “Blair Years”. They were rugged times. There were new opponents on the benches opposite with the election of David Cameron as Tory leader. And there were old enemies on manoeuvre on the Labour benches, as Brown’s attempts to dislodge Tony became increasingly obvious and frantic. Remember the rolling resignations of the Parliamentary Private Secretaries — Khalid Mahmood, Wayne David, Ian Lucas, Mark Tami, David Wright and Chris Mole? Probably not, but it was the “How many letters have been submitted?” moment of its day.

Eventually, Labour MPs were ground down by the relentless friendly-fire attacks and Blair stood down as PM in May 2007, a year earlier than he had planned. Yet he never became bitter. I remember a meeting in the Den, the PM’s room between the private office and the Cabinet Room, when a colleague exasperatedly said: “But Gordon just wants to be Prime Minister!” After a moment’s reflection, Tony replied: “It’s not an ignoble ambition.” Thoughtful and scrupulous.

The Labour Party’s internal wrangling was an opportunity Cameron seized. He repeatedly found ways to create alliances with Labour rebels to oppose government policy — the core was the awkward squad which included Corbyn who voted with the Tories numerous times. But the number of rebels was growing. It is an iron law of politics that ministers who serve loyally when in the government suddenly find their consciences when they return to the backbench in a reshuffle. Where once they had demanded the whips push through their policies, they now found their personal and political integrity required them to question — and often oppose — government legislation.

By the third term, there had been many reshuffles and the number of former ministers outweighed our majority. In response to this, I ran a small group we called the “Non-embittered Former Ministers”. We also added Keith Hill as the Prime Minister’s PPS. A former union official, he added reach to our political networks among MPs, and every week allocated the precious hour after Prime Minister’s Questions when backbenchers got to meet with the PM to raise concerns, float policy ideas or introduce guests. On one memorable occasion, I brought Shakira in to meet the Prime Minister — she was in Westminster for a parliamentary event. Tony started to explain that he knew her music and admired the way it combined Colombian music traditions with modern American pop music. “Ah”, replied Shakira — silencing us all. “So you think I am some kind of allegory of globalisation?”

But it wasn’t all about party management. There was the pressure, too, of external inquiries. This was the first time the Metropolitan Police had ever investigated Number 10 — a complaint from an SNP backbencher that should have been dismissed immediately as party politics led instead to the “cash for honours” probe. In the absence of any evidence, the Met spent 18 months trying, and failing to find any. The PM’s behaviour was respectful: he let it be known that being interviewed under caution would be a resigning matter — a contrast with the attitude of the current Prime Minister. And he unreservedly backed the few of us, including myself, who were questioned by the police. His confidence that it would come to nothing was morale-boosting during a deeply stressful period.

In the end, third terms should be critical for legacy. Margaret Thatcher’s third term, despite the disaster of the “poll tax”, embedded and made irreversible many of her changes. The task New Labour set itself was to leave most of the Tory reforms, but to rebalance some and to rebuild the public square which had been brutally neglected. So, mass picketing and car park show of hands strike ballots were left outlawed, but workers rights were extended, in particular with maternity rights and the statutory right to bank holidays on top of annual leave. The “right to buy” your council home was maintained, but two million social homes were renovated to Decent Homes standards. Choice in health and education was built on, and extended, while waiting lists were slashed — with a now nearly unimaginable guarantee of an 18-week wait for routine treatment.

In turn, most of Blair’s reforms became irreversible. The National Insurance increase to fund the NHS was kept, and has been mimicked by Boris Johnson’s government. Health performance has been hampered by persistent underfunding, the pandemic, and the ill-fated Lansley reforms which are now being abandoned — but the NHS was kept on the road by appointing former Blair adviser Sir Simon Stevens as Chief Executive of NHS England.

There were also significant moments. The G8 meeting in Gleneagles in 2008 deciding to make poverty history by wiping out the debt of heavily indebted countries in the Global South. London winning the bid for the 2012 Olympics. And the tragedy of the 7/7 bombings which drew great compassion and leadership from Blair.

Of course, Blair’s leadership ended in resignation, and New Labour’s third term ended in defeat for Brown. Unfortunately, for a decade party members took the quixotic view that the only reason voters elected increasingly Right-wing Tory governments was that Labour was insufficiently Left-wing. And under Miliband and Corbyn the party moved further and further away from the centre and further and further towards destruction.

Blair didn’t despair. He made the argument about how Labour could win again. And he has consistently continued to make critical policy interventions — such as driving the argument on vaccination rollout. This strategic patience has paid off. The true legacy of the 2005-2007 Blair government is finally becoming clear. Labour’s desire to win is back. Policy ideas are unashamedly Blairite. And Starmer’s mantra “Opportunity, Security, Respect” could come straight from a Tony Blair conference speech.

History will be the ultimate judge of Tony’s reputation. It will weigh the Iraq war against the Good Friday Agreement which ended the war in Northern Ireland. For Labour Party members and activists it has thankfully settled into the realisation that Labour’s electoral record in the last eleven elections is: Lose, Lose, Lose, Lose, Win, Win, Win, Lose, Lose, Lose, Lose. And the only way to win is to build on Tony Blair’s record rather than spurn it.


John McTernan is a British political strategist and former advisor to Tony Blair.

johnmcternan

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Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 years ago

A fairly poor attempt to defend the indefensible. And as for this:
“…Unfortunately, for a decade party members took the quixotic view that the only reason voters elected increasingly Right-wing Tory governments…” 
Well, I must have missed all those Tory governments, as the only Tory governments I have seen since 2010 have been green / liberal left-of-centre carbon-copies, faithfully carrying on Blair’s ghastly policies. And that includes this government – led by someone who radiates a noxious miasma of half-truths and general untrustworthiness – just as did Mr Blair.

Last edited 2 years ago by Albireo Double
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Albireo Double

‘the indefensible’ = policies you don’t agree with, but get massively outvoted on!

Albireo Double
Albireo Double
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

“A cheap shot”. A content-free, thought-free, negative, and largely pointless comment.
When the UK population awarded Johnson and Co. a landslide victory, I think that they realised that they were voting in a PM of dubious ethics and moral standing, with a uniquely tenuous relationship with the concept of honesty. But, wanting Brexit, they had no choice, and probably didn’t mind the idea too much anyhow, after 25 years of sleazy left-of centre mis-governance..
But they were certainly not voting for ÂŁ100bn elitist train sets, ÂŁtrillion-loss “green” insanity, increased inward migration, uncontrolled borders, and continuing unbridled elitist social liberalism. These are the indefensible policies founded by Blair, and continued to this day by his spiritual heirs in the now completely mis-named “Conservative Party”. Wouldn’t you agree?

Last edited 2 years ago by Albireo Double
Steve Jobs
Steve Jobs
2 years ago

Tony Blair is a despicable human being.

He illegally took our country into a war that cost hundreds of British lives.

He ran up a level of national debt that will impoverish generations to come.

He expanded the civil service to obscene proportions and filled it with his unelected left-wing chums – thereby making it both impossible for subsequent governments to achieve anything using the levers of power and to do so without the sign off from people indebted to him or his toxic ideology.

This man shouldn’t be listened to or roll-modelled by anyone.

He should be in jail.

Last edited 2 years ago by Steve Jobs
ARNAUD ALMARIC
ARNAUD ALMARIC
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Jobs

Well said Sir!

Last edited 2 years ago by ARNAUD ALMARIC
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Steve Jobs

Yes, well, I don’t think we can exactly really on you for a balanced assessment.

The Iraq war, many things to say but how quickly we forget. The Tories supported it even more strongly. By the way, people serving in the armed forces do run the risk of being killed!

As a centre left government, New Labour spent modestly, even under Tory spending plans, with two big exceptions later. One they increased spending on the NHS to the European average (Blair rather jumped Brown into it). Two, we did also have this small thing called the financial crash, in response to which most western governments pumped huge amounts of money into the system. It probably prevented a 1930s like depression, but had long term baleful consequences but redistributing wealth to asset owners. National debt by the way has continued growing consistently under both the subsequent Coalition and Conservative governments.

And they did indeed put a lot of ‘their sort’ of people into running public and cultural institutions. Instead of whining about that, why doesn’t our current useless government DO something about it?

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Former Guardian Reader
Former Guardian Reader
2 years ago
Reply to  Andrew Fisher

New Labour did put a lot of their sort of people into public institutions. Those sort of people helped create the “grooming gang” scandal by treating underage girls who had been plied with drink and drugs, raped, forced into prostitution and threatened as prostitutes rather than victims of organised crime. Instead of fulfilling their legal duty of protecting children people working in social services, education and health and corrupt police officers chose to protect the New Labour government which knew what was happening in Rotherham, Keighley and Huddersfield because it was repeatedly told in the early 2000s but didn’t want the general public to know about it.
Those sort of people also helped create scandals in the NHS such as at Stafford Hospital (where “appalling” standards of care led to at least 400 avoidable deaths between 2005 and 2008), Shrewsbury and Telford Hospitals (at least 210 avoidable deaths in the maternity department between 2003 and the present day) and Morecambe Bay (at least 12 avoidable deaths in the maternity department between 2004 and 2013).
New Labour promised to provide high quality public services but in some cases where the quality of service was substandard there were people employed in the public services who acted to protect the New Labour government, not the public. The public were fobbed off, whistleblowers were ignored or threatened, regulators failed and MPs who should have asked difficult questions on behalf of their constituents were more interested in fighting the Tories or fiddling their expenses. New Labour’s sort of people were principle-free Guardian-reading prole-hating self-serving back-stabbing money-grabbers.
Remember that New Labour were the party of Peter Mandelson, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon, Patricia Hewitt, Charles Clarke, Denis MacShane and David Blunkett who, based on what I have read from reputable news sources, is one of the worst politicians of his generation who at the very least should not have any place in public life and who should have been sent to prison for misconduct in public office. There were no depths to which some in the Labour Party (and especially New Labour) would not sink in order to protect the party.

Dustin Needle
Dustin Needle
2 years ago

So the legacy, in reality, is a series of irreversible giveaways to keep New Labour in power. Many of which are embedded in government spending and have to be repeated annually to avoid accusations of “Austerity”. All on an inheritance of a decent set of books from the previous Government and massive tax boosts annually from Bank profits. Good luck Starmer in repeating that trick, whilst funding UK’s role in the next Global conflict that gets pulled out of a USA president’s backside.
Even the one thing I have usually given Blair credit for, getting the Good Friday Agreement over the line, has turned into a nightmare where Sinn Fein will rein supreme over North and South, whilst UK’s servicemen are harassed in their old age by ambulance-chasing lawyers. Meanwhile, the electorate can’t even take a decision on the EU without getting hobbled by the GFA. All from a position of strength. Great, thanks Tony.
I am sure to be reading next weekend about how voters in the local council elections have provided a resounding rejection of “increasingly Right-Wing Tory governments”. Plus we’re upset about cakes and porn. Or maybe that’s what the National media want us to think?
Because in reality, the embedding of his secret army of placemen in British media and other institutions to protect his legacy remains Blair’s greatest achievement. No wonder Starmer need to keep him onside.

Neil Ross
Neil Ross
2 years ago

Incredible – even those around Blair are still trying to justify the unjustifiable with blatant dishonest and misleading statements. Not even a mention of mass immigration leading to Brexit or the financial crash permanently reducing living standards of millions or cheap credit making housing unaffordable for most young people. As for the GFA being weighed against the Iraq war lies – words fail me!

Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Neil Ross

You support Brexit do you? The irony is that it would not have actually happened without that immigration!

As for Iraq war ‘lies’, that is massively overstating it; the case for war was over-egged. Almost all informed opinion and intelligence at the time, including the UN Rapporteur Hans Blix, considered Saddam DID have weapons of mass destruction. And of course the Tories were even more gung-ho about the war than Blair.

Last edited 2 years ago by Andrew Fisher
Former Guardian Reader
Former Guardian Reader
2 years ago

There is one aspect of New Labour’s legacy which has finally become clear which hasn’t been mentioned in this article or any other article about the 25th anniversary of New Labour’s election victory on this website or anywhere else I’ve looked. After Tony Blair became Labour leader when in opposition he promised that New Labour would be “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime”, its policies were set out in its 1997 election manifesto and after New Labour won Tony Blair promised that the party which had been elected as New Labour would govern as New Labour. It is now clear that “tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” was a lie and the proof is the mass rape of underage girls in places such as Rotherham, Rochdale, Keighley, Huddersfield and Oxford, to name a few.
The scale of the scandal of the so-called “grooming gangs” only started to become apparent in the early 2010s thanks to the reporting of Andrew Norfolk in The Times which led to the Jay report and prosecutions of some of the rapists in Rotherham. More of what happened in Rotherham and elsewhere has been uncovered since then and there are three more official enquiries due to be published shortly and three large cases are going through the courts in one county (one set of trials should be in progress now but would be covered by reporting restrictions and two more haven’t reached trial yet). Many of those convicted at more than 50 trials committed their offences during the New Labour era but most of those trials took place after New Labour left office and at some of those trials the prosecution, witnesses and judges have spoken about how the police, social services and politicians were told what was happening but failed the victims.
For decades journalists and politicians have named scandals using the suffix “-gate”. The “grooming gangs” scandal is far bigger than Watergate but the media has not done the story justice: the established news outlets haven’t reported or investigated it enough (and at least one has tried to help New Labour cover it up), the established current affairs magazines haven’t discussed it enough and the new generation of opinion websites haven’t discussed it enough. UnHerd should and could have published a series of “deep dive” articles about the “grooming gangs” scandal but it hasn’t but has published a series of articles about the 25th anniversary of New Labour’s election victory which have mentioned the misogyny suffered by Cherie Blair, The Catherine Tate Show and Shakira. That’s not good enough.
The media hasn’t done the story justice because it hasn’t treated the “grooming gangs” scandal as a political story. Talking about the mass rape of underage girls in the late 1990s and the 2000s without mentioning New Labour is like talking about mass unemployment in the 1980s and the early 1990s without mentioning the Conservatives: both happened because politicians made the political choice to allow them to happen.

frank teague
frank teague
2 years ago

I am a 62 year old who is enjoying this series reflecting on New Labour/ Blair. As a nurses and parent to a profoundly disabled child my experience of living under New Labour was fairly positive in many respects.
I do wish they had reversed the sale of council houses and put in place rent control.
I always find it difficult to read the comments section where people q up to say how dreadful Blair was. Whilst I share some of that view myself especially with the money he and Cherie made out of property and of course the Iraq war I continue to struggle to understand why the benefits of time under a Labour government in Britain are so heatedly hated , as if the devil had been in charge.
I wouldn’t mind seeing a Labour government again before I die.

Last edited 2 years ago by frank teague
Jerry Smith
Jerry Smith
2 years ago
Reply to  frank teague

You are not alone.Thanks for this.

Paul Smithson
Paul Smithson
2 years ago
Reply to  frank teague

Maybe because Blair put in place policies that ultimately helped to bankrupt the nation or at least well and truly got the ball rolling. And that was just one of his minor sins. Any benefits that you saw under Blair’s Labour party came at a very big price and sadly the same would be true of a Starmer Labour government.

frank teague
frank teague
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

Please remember that prior to Blair there was a longstanding Conservative government that kept getting re elected and had privatised everything in sight ..
The benefits that I and many others received ( proper funding of NHS for first time in my adult life,DLA for children over 3 with profound disabilities,no longer the dirty man of Europe, tax credits that made a bigger contribution to reducing income inequality than anything I had ever seen in my lifetime) cannot and should not be ignored.
Yes he turned to shit post office,yes it’s sickening,yes re the war and his relationship with Bush was ugly,yes the public/ private partnership was a rip off yes it was ugly to see Labour get into bed with Murdoch…but ……it was the best government I have seen in my lifetime as far as benefiting the poor,the sick ,the disabled.
I fail to understand,to grasp as I said earlier why that period of Labour government is seen as the worst of times.Have a look around the current government.Would a Labour government not be preferable to this as far as benefiting the NHS,the poor and the disabled?.Not perfect but better than what we have got by a long shot surely? In the words of a popstar of my childhood,Alice Cooper’ I wannabe [ see a Labour Government] elected’
Ps it was the follow up single to Schools Out by Alice Cooper .I was around 10.

Last edited 2 years ago by frank teague
Andrew Fisher
Andrew Fisher
2 years ago
Reply to  Paul Smithson

He actually didn’t, sticking to Tory spending plans for several years. We did then have the financial crash, where almost every western government printed vast amounts of money.

NIck Brown
NIck Brown
1 year ago

 the tragedy of the 7/7 bombings”? Shouldn’t that be “the terrorist outrage of the 7/7 bombings”? We know there was tragedy but it wasn’t an accident, you know.
ï»ż

Marcia McGrail
Marcia McGrail
1 year ago
Reply to  NIck Brown

Shhh! You must not utilise truth in religious bloodletting. Words matter. Do and say nothing that could raise questions as to community integration, discrimination, radical proliferation or affiliation. Do not call it what it is otherwise ppl will need to stop fostering the evil amongst us. We must do nothing to hinder their brand of good ol’ multiculturalism.