A defiant Tony Blair has dramatically re-entered the debate over Labour’s future with an 11th-hour appeal to party members to come to their senses and reject the “Alice in Wonderland” politics of Jeremy Corbyn.
The former prime minister and winner of three general elections says Corbyn’s supporters are operating in a “parallel reality” which rejects evidence and reason, and says their leftwing choice for leader will be an electoral disaster.
With just 11 days to go before the ballot of more than 550,000 party members and affiliates closes, Blair admits that he does not fully understand the forces that are stoking what he calls “Corbynmania”. But he insists that those who dismiss his views on how Labour can win elections are making a tragic mistake and are trapped in their own “hermetically sealed bubble” in which “reason is an irritation, evidence a distraction, emotional impact is king and the only thing that counts is feeling good about it all”.
Writing in the Observer, Blair says he accepts that successive warnings about Corbyn from himself, Neil Kinnock and Gordon Brown have fallen on deaf ears and seem to have made people more likely to back the MP for Islington North than turn away.
However, insisting that the debate about the party’s future will preoccupy the Labour party for years to come, he refuses to back off, comparing the surge for Corbyn – now the strong favourite to succeed Ed Miliband – to a suicidal rush towards a cliff edge.
“It is like a driver coming to a roadblock on a road they’ve never travelled before and three grizzled old veterans say, ‘Don’t go any further, we have been up and down this road many times and we’re warning you that there are falling rocks, mudslides, dangerous hairpin bends and then a sheer drop’; and the driver says, ‘Screw you, stop patronising me. I know what I’m doing’.”
Blair came under fire from Corbynites and supporters of the other candidates, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper and Liz Kendall, when he intervened in July, saying that those whose hearts were with Corbyn “need a transplant”.
In an interview with the Observer, Dame Tessa Jowell, a cabinet minister in Blair’s governments and a political soulmate, who is now a frontrunner in the race to be Labour candidate for mayor of London, also criticises the ex-prime minister for attacking Corbyn and urges him and others to engage with Labour’s hundreds of thousands of new members for the long-term good of the party.
“I don’t think there is any point in people who are no longer engaged in frontline politics giving their view from afar. I really don’t. I think it would be great if they all get into the new activism,” Jowell says.
“We have to be patient and have the humility to accept that there is a tidal wave with all sorts of currents and that the general election is five years away, and I want to do everything I can to show Labour how it wins with a different kind of politics, which is engaging people.”
In his article, Blair’s tone is more understanding of those tempted by Corbyn – and he accepts he is not yet clear how to deal with it – but his warnings about the consequences of a Corbyn victory are just as blunt. He sees Corbynmania as part of a trend across western democracies that has seen movements from right and left, including the SNP in Scotland, suddenly prosper off the back of disillusionment with traditional politics and a resulting desire to “fight back against the system”.
Blair cites the support for Republican hopeful Donald Trump and his Democrat counterpart Bernie Sanders, who have attracted huge audiences in the United States, and Marine le Pen in France as in some senses comparable to Corbyn’s success. However, he says such movements provide a “refuge from reality” rather than a means of confronting it.
“It is a vast wave of feeling against the unfairness of globalisation, against elites, against the humdrum navigation of decision-making in an imperfect world. It persuades itself that it has a monopoly on authenticity. They’re ‘telling it like it is’; when of course they’re telling it like it isn’t.”
When he scraped on to the leadership ballot in June, helped by Labour MPs who said they wanted a voice from the left just to widen the debate, Corbyn was regarded as the rank outsider
Since then he has built a huge bank of support, much of it from young people enthused by his anti-austerity message, and has become the firm favourite in the race.
In the final 11 days, the candidates will make their final pitches for support from members who have yet to vote. On Saturday the two main threats to Corbyn – Burnham and Cooper – made last-minute policy pledges. Burnham said he would reduce taxes for companies that paid a new £11 living wage – over £12 in London – while those who shunned it would face penalties and higher contributions in a “carrot and stick” approach.
It is understood Yvette Cooper will this week raise the prospect of a legal challenge to the trade union bill, which limits the ability of unions to strike and threatens Labour’s cash flow from the political levy on union members.
She will say it contravenes human rights legislation and argue that it is unprecedented for a party of government to abuse its small minority in the House of Commons to try to cripple an opposition party through partisan measures to cut its funding.
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