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Tony Blair: Must we love him or loathe him? Don Brind says No

July 17th, 2017

Tony Blair was at his brilliant best in his Sky interview with Sophy Ridge who introduced him as someone people either love or loathe. Blair demonstrated his supreme ability to present evidence and argument in an accessible and compelling way. I didn’t need convincing that Brexit is a looming disaster but it was a joy to hear the case made so impressively.

The big question, though, is whether anyone now listens to Tony Blair? What does he need to do better to influence the debate on Brexit about which he clearly cares so deeply.

In so far as these labels are helpful I think of myself as a Kinnockite. I always bridle at the “Tony Blair won three landslide victories” mantra. This is not to say that Blair wasn’t a skilled leader and a gifted communicator — just that his inheritance from Neil Kinnock, John Smith and Margaret Beckett was a handsome one.

No party was ever in better shape than the Labour party when Tony Blair took over the leadership of the Labour party in 1994. If that was acknowledged by Blair and the Blairites they would boost not diminish his influence.

The 1997 triumph was a long time in the making and involved many people – among them Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, Mo Mowlam, Harriett Harman, Clare Short, John Prescott, Peter Mandelson, David Blunkett, Robin Cook and Jack Straw – to name but a few.

There was also one other indispensible ingredient –  a Tory leader who had nose-dived in the polls. It was equally important to Labour’s better than expected result in June.

John Major had been living on borrowed time ever since Black Wednesday in September 1992. Britain’s departure from the European Exchange Rate mechanism exposed Tory economic mismanagement –as Brexit is now exposing how weak and shaky the economy is after seven years of George Osborne and Philip Hammond.

One of the failings of Jeremy Corbyn and his close allies is their unwillingness to defend and celebrate the achievements of the Blair-Brown government. By the same token I believe Blair would do himself a favour if he engaged more seriously with current Labour policy under Corbyn.

Take austerity, where Blair appears to have bought into the Tory caricature of Labour’s programme being all about nationalisation and unfettered public spending. As I argued here  there is a strong economic case for ending the public sector pay cap as part of a drive to get the economy growing.

Austerity is also under challenge on a European level. It’s significant that the new French President Emmanuel Macron is putting German driven austerity under the spotlight.

He said Germany benefits from the woes of other euro countries and warns that the Eurozone cannot survive on such foundations. Monetary union must be rebuilt in a radically-different way. “It doesn’t work because it has brought about divergences. Those that are already indebted have become more indebted: and those that are competitive have become more competitive,”

Blair and Corbyn should be cheering Macron forward.

In his Sky interview Blair lauded the Germans for their industrial strategy. He can be forgiven for not having heard of Labour’s industrial strategy, which deals with many of the issues he is concerned about. One of the failures of the Labour election campaign was that this thoughtful document was launched on the day of the BBC Question Time leader programmes — and so was guaranteed virtually no coverage.

Blair should also reconsider Corbyn’s signature of policy scrapping university tuition fees. His Downing Street head of policy Andrew Adonis,  who was responsible for the introduction of higher fees in 2004 now says “tuition fees at their current level are politically dead,” and should be scrapped.

And for an excellent “warts and all” analysis of Labour’s manifesto the Huff Post article Richard Angell the director of Progress is highly recommended.

“There was much in it that I, and every progressive in Britain, would like to see achieved under a future Labour government, says Angell. “This manifesto will be the blueprint for a future winning Labour manifesto, in the same way, as Stephen Bush at the New Statesman has pointed out, much of the contents of the 1983 manifesto were reiterated in the 1997 successor and then implemented by Tony Blair’s government. I look forward to this happening; I just hope there are not 14 years in the intervening period.”

I would like to see Blair playing an influential role in the debate on Brexit. The danger for him is that he appears muttering “plague on both your houses” from the lofty perch of his global institute  and from television studios. What he needs to do is to engage with the dilemmas and choices the leader of the Opposition. He’s done the job. He knows how hard it is.

Don Brind