TONY BLAIR: Why kamikaze Left could plunge my party into extinction

Why I fear the kamikaze Left could plunge my party into extinction: In a major intervention, TONY BLAIR – the only Labour leader to win power since Harold Wilson – issues a grave and profoundly important warning

The challenge facing Britain’s Labour and Liberal Democrat parties cannot be overstated. Political parties have no divine right to exist and, Joe Biden’s victory apart, progressive parties of the centre and centre Left are facing marginalisation, even extinction, across the Western world.

And truth be told, no sensible Democrat or democrat should overplay the Biden victory. He won against an incumbent like no other; even then, Donald Trump increased his number of votes in the 2020 presidential election from 2016.

The problem is that, in an era where people want change in a changing world, and a fairer, better and more prosperous future, the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical. So the running is made by the new radical Left, with the ‘moderates’ dragged along behind, occasionally trying to dig in their heels.

The result is that, today, progressive politics has an old-fashioned economic message of Big State, tax and spend which is not particularly attractive. This is combined with a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics which, for large swathes of people, is voter-repellent.

‘Defund the police’ may be the Left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’. It leaves the Right with an economic message which seems more practical, and a powerful cultural message around defending flag, family and fireside traditional values. To top it off, the Right evince a pride in their nation, while parts of the Left seem embarrassed by the very notion.

All this is happening against the backdrop of the most far-reaching real-world upheaval since the 19th-century Industrial Revolution: a technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery — everything, every sphere of work, leisure and life, is subject to its transformative power.

‘Defund the police’ may be the Left’s most damaging political slogan since ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’, writes TONY BLAIR

The question is how it is used: to control humanity or liberate it, to provide opportunities for those presently without opportunity, or to put even more power, wealth and opportunity in the hands of those already well off.

This is the central political challenge of our time, and those who understand this revolution and show how it can be mastered for the benefit of the people, harnessed for the public good, will deservedly win power.

It is a challenge tailor-made for the progressive cause. It requires active government; a commitment to social justice and equality; an overhaul of public services, particularly health and education; measures to bring the marginalised into society’s mainstream; and a new 21st-century infrastructure.

It will require innovation, not the status quo; and the mentality of change-makers, not ‘small c’ conservatives. It will best be done in conjunction and collaboration with other nations, not with narrow-minded nationalism.

Why do progressives find it hard to rise to this challenge? For the same reason that it was so hard for Labour to abandon Clause IV, and the commitment to mass nationalisation, in the 1980s and 1990s — a deep psychological reluctance to let go of an outdated past.

It means discarding shibboleths. This new world doesn’t require a Big State per se, but a strategic and active one which is good at solving problems and good at promoting social inclusion and economic dynamism at the same time.

It will challenge all those who don’t adapt, including big business with a conventional centralised mentality, and trade unions which can’t get to grips with mobilising workers in the new economy. A myriad of small firms and the self-employed will be central, not peripheral, to the future.

It is the same with public services. The way we teach and provide medical care and education will change dramatically. New forms of social ownership will be needed to tackle the housing crisis. Solutions will often be practical, some more associated with traditional Left thinking but some more with modern centre-Right thinking. It will require steadfast adherence to progressive values but complete agnosticism as to the means of implementing them.

But the thinking of the new Left radicals — which is really the rediscovery of 1960s Marxist-inspired Left policy by a new generation — is largely redundant to answering the challenge.

Public ownership of industry, ‘free’ university tuition, much heavier regulation — none of these traditional solutions will materially impact people’s lives in anything like the manner of technological change, and they may be regressive if they reduce the power of social mobility and aspiration.

TONY BLAIR was the only Labour leader to win power since Harold Wilson, serving as Prime Minister from 1997 to 2007

It isn’t that traditional issues don’t matter. Of course, we have to determine levels of taxation and spending, appropriate regulation and what the state does and doesn’t do. And there will be political choices and trade-offs that democracy will decide. But these pale into insignificance beside the question of how we handle the all-encompassing vastness of the impact of modern technological change.

You can literally go through the policy catalogue, from crime to defence, the environment and the rest — and in every case the potential of technological change is revolutionary. This is the future. But you can’t organise the future with a playbook from the past.

Precisely because a younger generation are looking for radical policy, as every new generation does, and because they’re not really finding it in an economic message which doesn’t enthuse, progressives have defaulted to questions of culture, gender, race and identity. Handling these issues successfully is an equally great challenge.

A large part of moderate progressive opinion simply wants to steer clear of these matters entirely. The moderates — often of an older generation — don’t quite understand the strength of feeling over issues such as trans rights. They fear tripping up or saying the wrong thing, and so don’t want to play the culture war. I believe this is a mistake and merely reinforces a sense of them being weak people who don’t really stand for anything.

In contrast, the Right know they’re on to something with these cultural issues. They are revelling in it and setting traps for the Left all over the field, which the Left are falling into one by one. Keeping your head down isn’t a strategy. There is a big culture battle going on.

Progressive folk tend to wince at terms such as ‘woke’ and ‘political correctness’ but the normal public know exactly what they mean. And the battle is being fought on ground defined by the Right because sensible progressives don’t want to be on the field at all.

The consequence is that the ‘radical’ progressives, who are quite happy to fight on that ground, carry the standard. The fact that it ensures continued Right-wing victory doesn’t deter them at all. On the contrary, it gives them a heightened sense of righteousness, like political kamikaze.

Progressive politics must disentangle this cultural question and get on to ground it can hold with public support. It isn’t impossible. But it requires deep thought and political courage.

Here are some principles around which such ground can be captured.

People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The Left always get confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday; they’re suspicious that behind the agenda of many of the culture warriors on the Left lies an ideology they find alien and extreme; and they’re instinctively brilliant at distinguishing between the sentiment and the movement.

Jeremy Corbyn handles a wreath next to the graves of terrorist leaders behind the Black September group which massacred Israeli athletes in Tunisia

They will support strongly campaigns against racism; but they recoil from some of the language and actions of the fringes of the Black Lives Matter movement. You could go through the entire litany of modern causes and find this — from Extinction Rebellion to trans rights to Reclaim the Streets.

People like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice. They support the police and the Armed Forces. Again, it doesn’t mean that they think those institutions are beyond reproach. Not at all. But they’re on their guard for those who they think use any wrongdoing to smear the institutions themselves.

The correct course for progressives on culture questions is to make a virtue of reason and moderation. To be intolerant of intolerance — saying you can disagree without denouncing. To seek unity. To eschew gesture politics and slogans.

And when they’re accused of being insufficiently supportive of the causes — which is inevitable — to stand up for themselves and make it clear they’re not going to be bullied or pushed around. This will lose some votes among a minority with loud voices; but it will bind the solid but often silent centre to them. 

And, of course, it will allow the causes themselves to be effectively pursued, as the last Labour government did with its own revolution in gay rights and the pathway to equal marriage — and the forced conversion of the Conservative Party on the issue.

The British Labour Party is the embodiment of this progressive challenge. Just 17 months ago it went to the far Left and suffered the worst defeat in the party’s history. It has now replaced Jeremy Corbyn, a classic protest politician completely unsuited to leadership, let alone to governing, with Keir Starmer — Sir Keir — intelligent, capable, moderate-minded.

He has taken a strong stand against the stain of anti-Semitism from the Corbyn era, been generally reasonable when opposing the Government’s handling of Covid-19, and looks and sounds sensible. But he is struggling to break through with the public, and last week’s elections are a major setback.

The Labour Party is now scratching its collective head and wondering why the replacement of an extremist with someone more moderate isn’t achieving the miracle renaissance. It is even asking whether Keir is the right leader.

But the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.

At present, Labour expresses perfectly the progressive dilemma. Corbyn was radical but not sensible. Keir seems sensible but not radical. He lacks a compelling economic message. And the cultural message, because he is not clarifying it, is being defined by the ‘woke’ Left, whose every statement gets cut-through courtesy of the Right. Equally, ‘spend more’ is a weak slogan when the Tory Government is already spending around record levels.

On cultural issues, one after another, the Labour Party is being backed into electorally off-putting positions. A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan or J. K. Rowling is not going to win. 

Progressive politics needs to debate these cultural questions urgently and openly. It needs to push back strongly against those who will try to shout down the debate. And to search for a new governing coalition. All the evidence is that it can only do this by building out from the centre ground.

Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner take the knee as part of the Black Lives Matter movement

Progressive parties must modernise their economic message. They need a unifying social and cultural message as well. The Conservative parties of Western politics have adapted and adjusted. But by and large they’re finding a new economic and cultural coalition.

Meanwhile, Left parties are fracturing, and a whole generation of talent that is not Conservative can’t find a political home. For now, the Labour Party cannot fulfil its historic mission. Except for the period of New Labour, it has never succeeded in being in government more than six years; and the devastating cul-de-sac it went down over the past decade has made those limitations worse, possibly endemic.

Progressive politicians open to the scale of the challenge are to be found in the Labour Party, in the Lib Dems and in the ranks of the politically homeless. Without the diverting drama of speculation around new political parties, we need a new progressive movement; a new progressive agenda; and a new governing coalition.

The construction of this new movement should start with an open dialogue between like-minded Labour and Lib Dem members and the non-aligned.

Otherwise, we will be in the business of fighting with a cause which is unclear, our hands tied behind our back, on ground we didn’t choose in a battle we can’t win, against a foe which doesn’t deserve to triumph; and hoping that another defeat will bring the clarity of purpose we should embrace now. It won’t.

  • This is an edited version of an essay that appears in this week’s New Statesman magazine.

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