It is many unhappy returns to the Labour party, which has just celebrated its 120th birthday. In all that time, it has only managed to produce three leaders capable of winning a parliamentary majority. Two of those leaders are deceased. The other is Tony Blair, who is sometimes wished dead by unpleasant people on the left of the party he once led.
Before him, the party lost four consecutive elections. Under him, the party won three in a row, two by landslides. Since him, the party has reverted to its losing ways, going down to another four defeats on the trot. FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL BLAIR BLAIR BLAIR FAIL FAIL FAIL FAIL. Were we talking about any field of endeavour other than Labour politics, were we talking about football management or medical research or space exploration or novel writing or filmmaking, Mr Blair would be hailed as a genius, the more so for being the sole winner amid so many losers. Yet he is disdained or denounced by much of the party to which he delivered so much electoral success. Even in the wake of a spectacularly crushing defeat, they would do anything but look to their only living winner for any inspiration and guidance about how Labour might one day return to power.
In the most recent TV hustings between the remaining contestants for the Labour leadership, the trio were asked to name the Labour leader of the past 50 years whom they most admired. I am guessing that the producers set the time limit to exclude Clement Attlee in the hope that this would stop the contenders from selecting the easy Labour crowd-pleaser. The Corbynite continuity candidate, Rebecca Long-Bailey, picked Attlee regardless, not knowing or conveniently forgetting that the postwar Labour prime minister had a reciprocated hatred of the sectarian left, equipped Britain with nuclear weapons, fought wars and would loathe the politics of Jeremy Corbyn. Lisa Nandy swerved the choice of best leader by replying: “I’m hoping we’re about to elect her”, which was cheeky or vainglorious, according to taste. Sir Keir Starmer made the rather unfashionable pick of Harold Wilson “because he got the party to unite behind him”. The former DPP needs to brush up on his Labour history. There are things to be said in favour of Wilson, but his governments were not characterised by blissful harmony.
None of the contenders selected Tony Blair, the only person to have won an election for Labour since 1974. And he ruefully remarks that he will not be publicly revealing which of the leadership contestants he is going to vote for lest it “damage” their chances. When pollsters put a similar best leader question to Labour members, Mr Corbyn, the two-time election loser who smashed the party’s parliamentary representation down to its lowest level since 1935, was the activists’ number one. Tony Blair had the worst favourability rating, coming in below Jim Callaghan, who presided over the Winter of Discontent that ushered in 18 years of uninterrupted Tory government, below Michael Foot, who led Labour into the catastrophic “suicide note” election of 1983, and even below Ramsay MacDonald.
Some of this lack of respect for Mr Blair can be attributed to specific acts and events. The Iraq war, though it lies 16 years in the past, still casts its shadow. His well-recorded fondness for collecting money after leaving Number 10 didn’t enhance his post-prime ministerial reputation. He and his allies might have done more to defend their record when Ed Miliband foolishly thought he would prosper by attacking New Labour, a process of trashing the record of the last Labour government, which was then amplified by the Corbynites.
Yet that does not fully explain the vehemence of the hostility towards Labour’s only breathing ex-leader who secured power. It speaks to something deeper. Many on the British left have an eccentrically self-destructive relationship with the concept of success. All the leadership contenders would flinch at the suggestion that there is anything to learn from the party’s sole election winner in going on for half a century. Yet we have Ms Long-Bailey saying that she would “love” to have loser Corbyn sharing his wisdom in her shadow cabinet and someone is putting it about that Mr Starmer might resurrect loser Miliband to a front-rank role, possibly even as shadow chancellor. Throughout its history, Labour has had this perverse compulsion to revere its failures and recriminate against its winners.
Thatcher's record was far from spotless. Yet Tories prefer to champion her achievements and forget the mistakes
Note that this inversion is very particular to Labour. The Tories behave quite differently. Margaret Thatcher was her party’s three-times winning leader of the 20th century. Her record was far from spotless. Yet Tories prefer to champion her achievements and forget the mistakes. Many Labour people do the exact opposite. They obsess over the flaws and compromises of their periods in power and obliterate all the positives. This happened to Attlee and Wilson, too.
The most extreme exhibitions of this pathology are to be found on the hard left. Zarah Sultana, the Corbynite MP for Coventry South who introduced Ms Long-Bailey at her campaign launch, used her first speech in the Commons to denounce “40 years of Thatcherism”, in a breath dismissing the 13 years of Labour government between 1997 and 2010 as no different to the Tory governments that had preceded and succeeded it. The introduction of the minimum wage, the Human Rights Act, the use of tax and benefit changes to redistribute from the rich to the less affluent, the elimination of pensioner poverty, advances in equality on many fronts, massive investment in public services and the many other progressive achievements of the New Labour era, most implemented in the teeth of fierce Tory opposition, all this was, in Ms Sultana’s considered opinion, indistinguishable from Thatcherism.
A slightly more nuanced version of this attitude has been pervasive in the leadership contest. The contenders are habitually much readier to say what they didn’t like about the New Labour years than they are to find things to celebrate about the party’s longest stretch in power.
Mr Blair is self-aware enough to know that “my advice” is not “particularly welcome to today’s party”. Given the levels of abuse he typically receives when he dares to venture an opinion, he could be forgiven for keeping his counsel. Yet since the election he has made a couple of bracing interventions in the self-appointed role of the teller of blunt truths to his party. One reason he does so is because there is no one else prepared to do it. In a speech last week, he didn’t hold back: “Our latest defeat was entirely predictable and predicted. We went into an election with a leader with a minus-40 net approval rating, on political terrain chosen by our opponents, with a manifesto promising the earth but from a planet other than Earth, and a campaign which substituted a narcissistic belief in our righteousness for professionalism. So, here we are, back where we were before. And before that. And before that.” This pungently accurate analysis has been utterly lacking from a leadership contest in which the candidates either don’t grasp the scale of Labour’s failure or do get it but don’t think the membership can handle that much truth.
He went on to warn the party that it isn’t going to become competitive for power again if it merely performs a cosmetic makeover that dilutes the most repulsive aspects of Corbynism. “If Labour becomes more moderate and less extreme, of course it will do better. But not much.” This we can probably take as a coded critique of Mr Starmer. The frontrunner has the quiet backing of many of the party’s centrists and I guess he will receive the former prime minister’s vote on a best-available or least-worst choice basis. But there is no great conviction among them that Mr Starmer really grasps what it will take to shift the party on to a trajectory that might return it to government.
Is anyone listening to Mr Blair’s advice that Labour requires “head-to-toe renewal”? Outside the party, he still has an audience. He is correct to contend that much of the public are “willing us to succeed” at the challenge of becoming an opposition capable of being a “strong alternative” to the Tories. Within his party, I am sure he knows those willing to listen to him are in the minority.
It is a significant and illuminating aspect of Labour’s tragedy that its only triple election winner has become the embodiment of the chasm between the party and the voters. When the public are asked to rate recent Labour leaders, they don’t put Jeremy Corbyn anywhere near the top of their hit parade. Funny that. The voters, not sharing the perverse left’s preference for failure over success, place Tony Blair first.
• Andrew Rawnsley is Chief Political Commentator of the Observer