Ex-Blairites must find new agenda or face the political wilderness

Liz Kendall Labour

At least the Blairite rump has a sense of humour, billing themselves as the 4.5% in reference to the derisory share of the vote it got in the leadership election.

It is also a mock homage to the “45% resistance” formed in the wake of the Scottish nationalists’ defeat in the Scottish independence referendum last year by 55% to 45%. However, if the 45% snatched a form of moral victory from defeat, no one in the Liz Kendall team regards her 4.5% as anything other than a rout.

The Alamo looks like a sensible advance position in comparison with the state of the Blairites in the contemporary Labour party. Kendall won the support of only 13,601 full party members, 2,500 of the new registered supporters who paid £3 to vote and 2,682 affiliated union supporters.

Desperate straws can be clutched – the trio of “anyone but Corbyn” candidates won 123,769 votes in the full membership in the first round of the ballot – fractionally more than the 121,751 secured by Jeremy Corbyn alone. Andy Burnham even won only 307 fewer votes among the membership (55,698) in the first round than David Miliband achieved in the 2010 leadership battle. If the same electoral college was used as in 2010, Burnham would arguably have won due to the support of now marginalised MPs. But there the straws end.

As recently as 1994, Blair won 508,000 votes to win the leadership, and the party membership soared to 450,000. Some 68% of individual members, 61% of MPs and even 52% of union members voted for Blair. Three general election victories followed.

The reverse signalled by Corbyn’s victory has not just been political and organisational, but almost a rejection of a whole style of professional politics. Yet Blair’s popularity inside Labour was always shallow, and conditional. He himself once described New Labour as the newest political party on the scene and the smallest.

As leader in opposition he fought long battles to reform the party structures – including conference and the national executive – but had only partial success. In 1997, with Blair in his pomp, Peter Mandelson was defeated on a “one member one vote” contest among constituency members by Ken Livingstone for a seat on the national executive. Livingstone’s vote rose by 43% on the previous year. The following year, in a titanic internal struggle, Blair was again defeated when the leftwing Grass Roots Alliance won four of the six seats on the national executive. His defeat was partly due to the contest being seen as one between control freaks and pluralists.

Blair did try to build a party in his image through a “healthy party project” led by Phil Wilson, now the MP for Sedgefield. But many of his reforms, such as direct referenda and recruiting more party members, failed. Blair could secure a landslide in the country but was rejected by the party rank and file.

His solution by the end was largely to ignore party conference, dampen turnout in NEC elections and rely on a malleable national policy forum as the focus for policy formation. But it built up the seeds of resentment inside the party membership. All the while “moderate unions”, once the bulwark against the constituency left were falling to the left.

Neither Gordon Brown nor Ed Miliband did much to revive party democracy until Miliband, in near-panic, pushed for the dramatic reforms to the way in which the party leadership is elected.

The new deputy leader, Tom Watson, referenced this in his acceptance speech, saying: “I have a very clear sense this election is as much a referendum on the political culture of the Labour party as it is about the candidates’ policies.”

But in the case of the Blairites, there has also been a policy crisis. By its final period, Blairism had descended into “what works”, as well as the narcissism of small differences with Brownites over issues such as foundation hospitals.

Yet after all the battles of the first two parliaments, it was apparent once Brown became leader that he had no new political agenda and instead became engulfed by the banking crisis. During the 2010 leadership election, David Miliband did not quite articulate a new post-Blair politics, perhaps because he felt constrained by the presence of his brother.

The leitmotif of Ed Miliband’s leadership was a remorseless attack on the Blair record. In the Sunday Times, Lord Mandelson claimed that “we allowed ourselves to be cowed and scared off by his systematic attempt to delegitimise New Labour opinion in the party”.

Blair, himself crippled politically by the Iraq war, made sporadic attempts to defend his legacy and gave his successors repeated licence to update his ideology. He even admitted that in office he had under-emphasised equality.

But the membership started to drift further and further away from him, as well as from Progress, the party organisation he spawned more than a decade ago. Blair’s own Middle East business dealings and the absence of the Chilcot report hardly increased his party’s willingness to absorb his advice.

In the wake of the 2015 election defeat New Labour lost the internal party argument about the causes of defeat. It pointed to the mountain of polling on the deficit, welfare and immigration. The left said Miliband had been austerity-lite and confused and pointed to Scotland and Ukip as proof that a return to the centre was no answer for the future.

By mid July, Tristram Hunt, the leading intellectual, sensed that a popular left surge was gripping his party and the leadership debate was in need of shock treatment. He acknowledged the demand for emotion in politics and “the completely new level of aggression against distant elites”. But, like so many others, he did not foresee the urgency of the revolt facing the party establishment.

Once defeat stared her in the face last week, Kendall, the leader of the 4.5, was brutally honest about the failure.

She admitted: “Many people who’ve joined our party in recent months do not believe the modernisers are offering change, and some of them doubt our principles altogether. This is partly because too often in the past we’ve come across as technocratic and managerial.

“We’ve allowed ourselves to be defined as purely pragmatic – concerned with winning elections alone rather than winning for a purpose – thereby ceding the mantle of principle to the far-left”.

As the ex-Blairites face the wilderness years, there is only one upside. Those who oppose Corbyn will finally have to stop looking back to the glories and rivalries of Labour’s yesteryear. Survival will demand a new agenda, new leaders, a new organisation and unity. Otherwise, the only way may not be up.

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Patrick Wintour Political editor, for The Guardian on Sunday 13th September 2015 20.03 Europe/London

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