Return of Blair: “This is what I call the theory that the electorate is stupid…”

So, in a world of blandness, an old New Labour blade returned to a rather more public sofa at a Progress event today, coinciding with a poll that suggests the Labour masses prefer a little old left Labour grit in their leadership cocktail…

Here’s some clips from YouTube before the main event…

“We should use defeat as an opportunity….”

“This is what I call the theory that the electorate is stupid…”

“So yes, move on. But don’t, for heaven’s sake, move back.”

“Russell Brand, who’s that? A sort of comedian, thingie?”

Here’s the whole of the formal speech from the Labour Leader, erm, former Labour leader…

Twenty-one years ago yesterday I became leader of the Labour party. A lot has happened since then. We discovered winning successively. And now we have rediscovered losing successively. Personally I prefer winning.

I could make a speech to you about how to win. You win from the centre; you win when you appeal to a broad cross-section of the public; you win when you support business as well as unions. You don’t win from a traditional leftist position.

But given the state of the debate in the party right now, I don’t want to.

Because this plays into the single most debilitating feature of the current debate: that this is a choice not only between government and opposition, but between heart and head, between the pursuit of power and the purity of principle.

It isn’t. The choice is precisely about principle. It is about what support for our values means in the modern world.

Social democratic politics in the early 21st century has one great advantage, and one large millstone.

The advantage is that the values of our age are essentially those fashioned by social democracy. We live today in a society that by and large has left behind deference, believes that merit not background should determine success; is inclined to equality of opportunity and equal treatment across gender and race; and believes in the NHS and the notion at least of the welfare state. This doesn’t mean to say this is the reality. But even the Tories, in the open, have to acknowledge the zeitgeist.

What should give the Labour party enormous hope and pride is that we have helped achieve all this.

However, the large millstone is that perennially, at times congenitally, we confuse values with the manner of their application in a changing world. This gives us a weakness when it comes to policy which perpetually disorients us and makes us mistake defending outdated policy with defending timeless values.

We then misunderstand the difference between radical leftism, which is often in fact quite reactionary and radical social democracy which is all about ensuring that the values are put to work in the most effective way not for the world of yesterday but for today and the future.

So when our reforms produced declining waiting lists in the NHS or transformed much of London’s schooling or cut crime these weren’t a betrayal of principles but implementation of them. Betrayal would have been leaving a system of failure in place, even if we created such a system in an earlier time.

So let me make my position clear: I wouldn’t want to win on an old fashioned leftist platform. Even if I thought it was the route to victory, I wouldn’t take it.

We should forever stand for social justice, for power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of the many not the few, as our constitution puts it.

But that is not the challenge. That challenge is: how to do it in the modern world.

And here is where the challenge deepens.

The most important characteristic of this world is: the scope, scale and speed of change. Change defines it.

Technology alone is a revolution with vast consequences for every sphere – business, public services, lifestyle and government. Globalisation is opening the world up, with attendant opportunities and of course risks. Individuals – partly through these changes – live quite differently, with infinitely more choice over their own life. Businesses grow and decline with bewildering speed, making a thriving entrepreneurial sector a necessity. Development of human capital becomes vital for the future economy. And the fall out from all this creates new problems – like social care for increased numbers of elderly – and new victims like those left behind or disadvantaged by the changes whirling round them.

This change requires new thinking. And 2015 is not 2007 or 1997. So yes, move on. But don’t move back!

If we do, then the public won’t vote for us, not because our thoughts are too pure but because they’re too out of touch with the world they live in.

So we should use defeat as an opportunity. We have to rebuild. But approached in the right way this is exciting not depressing. How?

We get thinking – about policy, real policy not one-liners which make a point (useful though those can be in a campaign). Technology and its implications for everything from the NHS through to government itself, is the single most important dimension. But across the board, from infrastructure to housing to tax reform to welfare, we should be thinking through new solutions framed against how people live and work now.

We need to regain economic credibility. There is a perfectly sound case for saying we should have tightened policy before the crash; there is absolutely no case whatever for effectively accepting that Labour ‘caused’ it. But we cannot address the future unless we are clear about the past and unless we show we’re completely confident in economic policy.

Some forward-thinking Labour local councils have done great work. Celebrate them and learn from them.

Develop a dialogue with business about their challenges and needs; about productivity, skills and a modern industrial policy.

Work out what a political organisation looks like today: how we make decisions, how we communicate, how we get our message across. There is a wealth of examples all over the world. We should access it.

The SNP and Ukip have clouded our sense of direction because they seem to point away from the centre. But our response should be likewise based on principle. The answer to the problems of Scotland is no more about being more ‘Scottish’ and leaving the UK than the answer to the problems of England is being more ‘English’ and getting out of Europe or blaming immigrants. So take them head on. I don’t know whether this is a winning strategy, but at least it’s one I believe in.

We won elections when we had an agenda that was driven by values, but informed by modernity; when we had strength and clarity of purpose; when we were reformers not just investors in public services; when we gave working people rights at work including the right to join a union, but refused unions a veto over policy; when we understood businesses created jobs not governments; and where we were the change-makers, not the small ‘c’ conservatives of the left.

We won not because we did what we thought was wrong as a matter of principle but right as a matter of politics; but when we realised that what is right as a matter of policy is right as a matter of principle.

Labour shouldn’t despair. We can win again. We can win again next time. But only if our comfort zone is the future and our values are our guide and not our distraction.

Mick is founding editor of Slugger. He has written papers on the impacts of the Internet on politics and the wider media and is a regular guest and speaking events across Ireland, the UK and Europe. Twitter: @MickFealty

  • Sharpie

    Jeepers – fairly breathless stuff there and totally missing the point behind the Corbyn phenomenon. Too many people are adrift, and too many others are no longer fooled by party propaganda. The very concept of meritocracy he waxes on about goes for him too. His party became firmly mainstream, actually slipstream of an economic system that was outside of Government’s control.

    People know this – they have just gone through 6 years of crisis, with nothing but gloom on the horizon. People are looking for something different, an alternative to what they are experiencing today. New Labour doesn’t hold that – even if he is right about what it takes to win in Government. People intuit that there is a lot of moral bankruptcy there and are backlashing.

    Some of Corbyns stuff is great, some not (my opinion), but the panic that is ensuing within the party and the media is sad. People in the Labour party should reflect on that – what the hell is going on and to what extent are they shutting their ears and shouting la la la la?

    Is it possible to be more left than a very centrist Labour elite and still be electable. I’d say its worth a punt. Labour are probably out for another election anyway so theres time to experiment.

  • the rich get richer

    If the choice is Labour out of Power without Blair, Brown and others of that Ilk


    Labour in Power with Blair, Brown and others of that Ilk.

    Then I would go for Labour out of Power. And I believe that more could be achieved for the Poor and disadvantaged by Labour without Blair, Brown and even Power.

    Anyone that thinks that Blair, Brown and others of that Ilk had the welfare of the poor and disadvantaged in their Actions and deeds was sadly mis-guided.

  • mickfealty

    When I hear people say Labour can do more out of power than in I think not of Michael Foot, but of the Miners Strike and the devastation of the UK’s industrial base. There is always a price to be paid in a two party system when one major party loses power/touch with reality.

    There’s a line in Jesse Norman’s Policy Exchange pamphlet “Compassionate Conservatism” about what he saw as the lefts primary weakness even back in 06/07, which was related to the lack of intellectual space it had to manoeuvre within.

    I have a hunch that that is what we are witnessing now. 

    I’ve been listening to the latest Labour hustings in Stevenage. Interesting, but essentially dull. Even Corbyn comes over as a rather demure free Christian bible-thumping preacher who likes short verses and easy refrains in their hymns. Lots of emotion, little heft.

    The bubble they all live in is in many ways, is the real problem. Not Blair, not neo Cons, not austerity or even (Lord forgive me for saying it) Welfare cuts.

    Most anti austerity talk I hear is (mostly) nonsense, because it doesn’t really propose (or even tangentially infer) a different set of realisable actions. 

    I’m constantly reminded of Charles J Haughey’s famous instruction to his party, when he temporarily lost power in Ireland: “wreck everything”. Great for defenestrating your opponents but, on its own and particularly at a time of such constant flux, it’s not a great way to construct an agenda for the future.

    It’s not good enough to have great (and not so great) policy ideas, you need to be able to sell them as an answer to a pressing personal question for the electorate. Neither Corbyn nor the three SpAds are doing it yet. 

    As for Blair, the ‘move on, but for heavens sake don’t move back was a fair warning. I personally like Corbyn’s sound bite on housing (a big big issue) but it’s just a steal from history not a big idea to move forward in a way that’s both practical and a distinct line of travel from Tory policy.

  • murdockp

    the UK’S industrial Base was not destroyed as you claim. The paradigm shifted and old industries were replaced with new. e.g. car production where UK leads the way in Europe even though all companies are owned by overseas parents . technology is another good example.

    this classic labour line about the destruction of industry is why they keep loosing elections as industry was not destroyed and people want security rather than tax and burn socialism.

    obviously communist NI is a different case entirely as the private sector is seen to be evil.

  • Sharpie

    Yes but diversity is where innovation and creativity are to be found. All the political establishment (of two parties) crowding round the honey pot of big business, pro-financier, media-centric, lawyer based centrism leaves very little room for engagement of the rest of the ideas and competencies that exist across society. A radical rethink of values, priorities, and methodologies is a good idea, but its hard to do that when you are spending most of your time not wanting to cock up in the medias eyes. Debate and dialogue should be seen as a sign of a mature democracy, a source of strength, not some signal of weakness and callowness as is presented everywhere in the media.

  • murdockp

    I agree with you. all I was saying was the industrial Base was not destroyed old industries died and new ones created. redeployment and retrining of labour is a different discussion and I agree enough was not done.

  • mickfealty

    I go with A=I’s note below/above.

    New Labour did what it could to push public money back into the hole created in the industrial north, but it was never going to be enough to compensate for the evisceration of the industrial north.

    The outflow of population from the likes of Liverpool over the last 30 years is pretty shocking. Whole swathes of public housing have simply been ‘disappeared’ rather than privatised as armies of city born people got on their bikes and moved south.

    You only have to see the economic devastation in villages around the Yorkshire Main coalpit to see the human cost of snatching away people’s livelihood in one go (and I’m not excusing the stupidity of Scargill in that debacle).

    You need to talk to some of the more thoughtful Tories in the North and North East of England to understand the effects of the budgets of 1980 and 1981 have had a lasting effect on economic distribution in the country, and virtually created an independent state of the City of London.

  • 23×7

    No, the UK industrial base has been destroyed as successive governments encouraged our best and brightest minds to pursue careers in gambling in the city rather than engineering. This is the nation of Brunel, Stephenson and Babbage and the nation that invented the web. We’ve pissed that legacy up against the wall seeking a fast buck in the city.

  • kalista63

    I know David McCann was watching it but I found the LBC debate really interesting. As well as being a great format, I think igot an insight in to the gender issues within politics. The way the two female candidates behaved to wards Corbym was bitchy and very damaging for the party, as well as giving Jeremy another leg up.

    Andy’s reactions to their behaviour was was telling, he could see what they were doing Amd he wasn’t going to have any part of it. It’s not that Andy was going gently but he clearly understood that there were people at the other end of those cameras.

    When Cooper pestered Corbyn about if he wanted to become PM, it became pretty clear that that wasn’t his mission.

    Another extraordinary thing was Kendall & Cooper virtually attacking the party membership and rather than welcoming new members, virtually calling them blow ins, joining to sabotage the party.

    The video is on the LBC website and worth a look.

  • kalista63
  • ted hagan

    I feel envious that at least Labour can have this debate on the shape of their party. Their time will come again. Meanwhile, back in Northern Ireland…

  • Kevin Breslin

    So permanent Conservative government, “annoyed” by left wing demagogues. That’s not a strategy for change or emancipation.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Well nothing to say that they WILL get in power again they could always go the way of the Liberals, I don’t believe in the roundabout of governance, parties are not deserving of a “turn” after say five to thirty years. It might end up being re-branded or remade for example an English style “US Democrats” party ruling over England as the main rival to the Conservatives. Same rationale exists for the Conservatives if they get kicked out, they have no guarantee of a “turn” again.

    For years and years and years the Ulster Unionist were guaranteed of having their turn as the leaders of Northern Ireland at every election.

  • Kevin Breslin

    Totally agree about “financialist” economy, Switzerland as an example par excellence have been forced backing into “making things” like neighbouring Germany and Austria.