In a desperate appeal to Labour members and supporters, the former prime minister urged them to set aside their opinions about his three terms in power and save the party from self-destruction by rejecting Corbyn’s politics.
“It doesn’t matter whether you’re on the left, right or centre of the party, whether you used to support me or hate me,” he wrote. “But please understand the danger we are in. The party is walking eyes shut, arms outstretched over the cliff’s edge to the jagged rocks below. This is not a moment to refrain from disturbing the serenity of the walk on the basis it causes ‘disunity’. It is a moment for a rugby tackle, if that were possible.”
He made his plea in an article for the Guardian after a YouGov opinion poll suggested Corbyn, a veteran leftwinger, is heading for a landslide victory, with Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall having failed to enthuse the electorate.
Last month, Blair urged people not to wrap themselves in a leftwing comfort blanket and claimed the that Conservatives want Corbyn to win, while his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell this week called on Labour members to pick “anyone but Corbyn”.
However, Blair’s latest article represents a significant intensification of the warnings and suggests there is mounting panic in the party establishment about the idea that Corbyn is heading for victory. His appeal is directed mostly at longstanding Labour members and newer supporters who have joined “without an agenda”. Yet some MPs who oppose Corbyn are concerned that it will backfire because of their former leader’s divisive reputation and would rather the message came from Ed Miliband or Gordon Brown.
In the article, Blair said it was “laughable” to think that Corbyn was offering anything new and the situation was worse even than during the 1980s in the days of Michael Foot, who was at least a “towering figure”, and Tony Benn, who was “a huge political character with a long experience of government”. “If Jeremy Corbyn becomes leader, it won’t be a defeat like 1983 or 2015 at the next election. It will mean rout, possibly annihilation,” he wrote.
In response to Blair’s article, a spokesman for the Corbyn campaign said: “We are keeping our campaign positive and remain focused on our policies that offer the sound economic choice of investment and growth, not the politically driven agenda of austerity and cuts preventing economic recovery.” In July, Corbyn dismissed Blair’s “silly” warnings about his campaign and highlighted the former prime minister’s loss of support after the Iraq war.
Michael Meacher, a Labour former minister and supporter of Corbyn, said Blairites needed to understand that the surge in enthusiasm for the Islington North MP represented the dismantling of the New Labour era. “It is the biggest non-revolutionary upturning of the social order in modern British politics,” he said. “The Blairite coup of the mid-1990s hijacked the party to the Tory ideology of ‘leave it all to the markets and let the state get out of the way’, and when asked what was her greatest achievement, Mrs Thatcher triumphantly replied, ‘New Labour.’
“After 20 years of swashbuckling capitalism, the people of Britain have said enough, and Labour is finally regaining its real principles and values. Understandably, the Blairite faction is disconcerted by their abrupt loss of power, but they have a duty to remain loyal to the Labour party as the left has always done.”
Blair made his intervention on the day there was a massive last-minute surge in new members and supporters signing up to vote before the deadline, as tens of thousands of activists appear to have been galvanised by Corbyn’s clear anti-austerity message.
In the last 24 hours, the trade unions have more than doubled their number of signed-up supporters to 190,000, and the total who have paid £3 to become registered supporters soared from 70,000 to 120,000. The surge in union-related support in particular is expected to benefit the Corbyn campaign, given that many of the biggest – including Unite and Unison – have endorsed him.
The party has been struggling to cope with almost 400,000 new members and supporters, taking the total possible electorate to more than 610,000, each of whom is being checked to make sure they are not “entryists” from other parties trying to influence the result.
At one point on Wednesday, the party’s website crashed amid a surge in people attempting to sign up at the last minute. Labour issued an apology and extended the deadline by three hours, but there were numerous complaints on social media about problems with signing up and worries, especially among Corbyn supporters, that they could be excluded.
Corbyn paid tribute to the Labour party’s staff, “who have worked so hard to deliver a robust selection system in totally new circumstances”. However, his confidence in the system is not shared by the three trailing candidates – Burnham, Cooper and Kendall – who wrote to the general secretary, Iain McNicol, expressing concerns about the way the process is being handled.
It is understood that their biggest complaint is that they will not get access to the list of affiliated supporters for around another 10 days, while they have suspicions that the unions could already have shared this with Corbyn. A senior source in one of the leadership camps said his team also had big concerns that tens of thousands of the registered supporters did not share the values of the Labour party. So far, 1,800 people have been weeded out after vetting.
On Wednesday night, John Mann, the Labour MP for Bassetlaw, who has previously called for the election to be suspended until proper checks can be carried out on the tens of thousands of new members, suggested that Labour MPs should renominate and choose their preferred candidate from Burnham, Kendall and Cooper to challenge Corbyn in a head-to-head contest.
He told BBC Two’s Newsnight: “It needs to be a head-to-head now. Jeremy Corbyn is framing the debates. It’s him versus the rest. What … the rest need [is] to have one candidate. The three of them can agree [to] let the MPs renominate informally, and whoever gets the most nominations amongst those three should stand as the candidate. Let’s have a proper head-to-head, including a televised debate, which would have a huge amount of interest, and then Jeremy Corbyn can be put under some proper scrutiny with actual debates.”
Fellow Labour MP Angela Eagle, who is also standing as deputy leader, said it was up to the leadership candidates to decide if Mann’s idea should be implemented. She told the same programme: “I certainly wouldn’t want to stand down in any circumstances, having slogged round the country talking to tens of thousands of party members for the last two months. Let’s wait and see. Let’s just remember, not a single vote has been despatched yet. I’m convinced that the party is doing verification properly.”
With a month to go before the winner is announced, Burnham, the shadow health secretary, will on Thursday go on the attack over the government’s bulk release of NHS performance statistics, which is expected to show longer waiting times for some conditions. His camp also argued that its data – and figures from another candidate’s campaign – now show he is clearly the only candidate who can beat Corbyn.
Cooper is expected to give a speech on Thursday tackling some of Corbyn’s arguments head on.
Meanwhile, Kendall sent Corbyn a letter asking him to clarify his position on restoring clause IV of the Labour party constitution.
While Corbyn appears to have the support of the majority of activists, the mood of the parliamentary party is extremely gloomy about the prospects of his victory. One senior Labour MP and former minister said that now was the time for figures such as Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown to speak out, but the interventions of arch-Blairites were self-indulgent and unhelpful to the other three candidates.
On Wednesday, Shirley Williams, the Liberal Democrat peer and former SDP co-founder, even suggested that Labour centrists could join with Lib Dems to form a new group if Corbyn wins.
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