The battle for the Labour Party’s soul is raging. The man who led the party to victory in an unprecedented three general elections has issued apocalyptic warnings of the consequences of electing Jeremy Corbyn as leader. Tony Blair says that under Corbyn Labour would be routed, and possibly annihilated.
I’m no Corbyn supporter or Labour party member, but I find it breathtaking that Tony Blair or Gordon Brown have the cheek to lecture people on whom to vote for. While they created an election winning machine and made voting Labour fashionable – for which they deserve great praise – their deadly feud threw away the huge opportunity that Labour had to transform Britain after May 1997. Brown was the worst culprit, obsessed by a corrosive sense of betrayal at Blair’s election as Labour leader in 1994. He took every opportunity to undermine Blair, while Blair always shrank away from moving Brown from the Treasury, for fear of the consequences. Yet Labour and Britain paid a heavy price for this tragically dysfunctional government.
The Iraq war was Blair’s fatal error, along with his determination to be George W Bush’s
poodle partner in Afghanistan. Just imagine how many schools and hospitals we could have built with the countless billions spent on those ill-judged military campaigns, which together lasted three times longer than the second world war. (And how those killed could have been spared.) Iraq in particular cost Blair his reputation.
New Labour achieved a lot. It invested money in our health and education services that had been neglected by the Tories. It turned a century-old dream into reality with home rule for Scotland and Wales. It brought peace and some measure of reconciliation to Northern Ireland, building on the work of John Major. And it created the national minimum wage. Yet there was no unifying creed behind Blair and Brown’s Labour administrations. Like too many Labour governments, they too often reverted to authoritarianism – disastrously failing to prevent Rhodri Morgan and Ken Livingstone coming to power in Wales and London. It tried to impose a national identity card for no practical reason. And Blair and Brown fought for the right to detain suspects for 42 days for purely political reasons – happily being defeated by the more civil-liberties minded House of Lords.
Brown spent a decade plotting against Blair. Yet when his moment of glory came, and he replaced his rival, we found he hadn’t given a moment’s thought to what he wanted to do in power. (Read Seldon and Lodge’s brilliant Brown at 10 for the full story.) True, Brown showed leadership responding to the banking crisis, but as Major found in 1997 the British people rarely give credit to leaders who clean up their own mess. Only at the very end did he start to find his voice and a philosophy. But it was too little, far too late.
Back to today. Corbynmania is bizarre. Jeremy’s views are those that sank Labour 30 years ago. I was a precocious Labour supporter from 1974 till 1980. I took pride in persuading a fifth form school friend, Lisa, that Labour was the party to support. But I was stunned by the way the authoritarian left seized control at the 1980 party conference (the week my niece Siân was born) and the Wembley special conference the following January. I lost faith in the people’s party.
Yet Britain is a more complex country today. Labour has been wiped out in Scotland – an unthinkable prospect even a few years ago. It has failed to defend the poor against austerity despite the fact fat cat bankers crashed the economy. While Davd Cameron won an unexpected victory in May, few warm to him or his party. (It was a classic case of ‘the devil you know’, supported by the UK’s notoriously right wing press.) We despise machine politicians who mouth platitudes. A Corbyn-led Labour Party is unlikely to succeed. But it would be foolish to write it off. Cameron’s awful response to the horror of the refugee crisis suggests that there is room for an intelligent, confident alternative that isn’t cowed by the Daily Mail and The Sun.
One thing is certain: I can’t see the wider electorate being any more enthused by Burnham, Cooper or Kendall than Labour members appear to be.