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The Blair Fantasy

Starmer is desperate to become the next Blair — but there’s a yawning chasm between 1997 and 2024.

The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change's Future of Britain Conference (Photo by Stefan Rousseau / PA Images via Getty Images)

When I was appointed editor of Tribune in 1992, not on the basis of my experience but principally because I was not the candidate supported by Peter Mandelson, I received three telephone calls inviting me over for tea and a chat.

The first was from Tony Benn. I went to knock on his door at his townhouse in Notting Hill, only to see him looking up at me from the basement, pipe firmly clenched in his teeth. We chatted for a long while, and then he insisted that I listen to a scratchy gramophone record of Stafford Cripps (one of the founders and key financial supporters of Tribune) giving a budget speech in the late 1940s.

The next invitation came from miners’ leader Arthur Scargill. This time it was tea at a café in the Barbican where the National Union of Mineworkers also owned a flat. I recall from memory that Scargill spent some of the time quizzing me as a lawyer might, but then, had Scargill not gone down Woolley Pit aged 16, perhaps he would have been a lawyer.

The third call came from Tony Blair’s office. Blair was then shadow employment secretary and often spoken of in the media as an up-and-coming future leader of the Labour Party. I went to his house in Islington. It was something of a revelation, because it soon became apparent that Blair had little knowledge of or interest in the Labour Party and its history; instead, he seemed in a hurry to bury as much of what he saw as political baggage as possible. He was disapproving of renationalisation and had more interest in acquiring wealth than redistributing it. He also had charisma and a knack of appearing reasonable. Blair, after all, was very telegenic and plausible.

All he wanted, he said, from us at Tribune, was a chance to put his side of the argument: ‘We don’t seek to change Tribune in any way.’ To that extent, we kept our side of the bargain, and he kept his. He became an occasional contributor, while Alastair Campbell, later his press secretary, had a fortnightly column. None of this stopped Tribune from at times being the only voice warning of the perils of the Third Way, before it had even been imagined.

Contemporary columnists and pundits have been very busy in recent months trying to draw comparisons between the rise of Tony Blair — elected leader following the untimely death of John Smith — and that of another lawyer, Keir Starmer, who became leader in very different circumstances. As I look back over the years, I see some similarities — and yet there is a yawning chasm between the mid-1990s and today.

Let’s begin with those similarities. Tony Blair made much of the fact that he didn’t find the Labour Party; ‘it found him’. His protean demeanour was refreshingly light on ‘outdated dogma’, according to some of those who couldn’t believe that Blair was actually Labour, such as former Daily Telegraph leader Max Hastings, which meant he got an easier ride in what was then Fleet Street.

He capped that by abolishing Clause IV of Labour’s constitution, toyed with the idea of renaming the Labour Party, courted Bill Clinton’s pathway to power by ‘triangulating’ with the Tories, and thus appeared to offer more competent management, as opposed to Attlee and Wilson’s democratic socialism. Blair didn’t have the confidence to believe that a landslide victory was possible, because he had spent a great deal of time in a cabal with Roy Jenkins and Paddy Ashdown, hoping to fashion some post-election Lib–Lab coalition. When Robin Cook predicted a landslide at a pre-election Tribune rally at Browns restaurant in London, Blair summoned him the following day and forced him to recant.

Blair got to first base with New Labour and then changed the rules to ensure, he hoped, that left-wing MPs could no longer be elected to the all-powerful National Executive Committee, unwittingly allowing a handful of us from the constituencies to take their place. Then, as now, candidate selection became far more fixed and controlled from the centre. Then, as now, policies would be dropped and positions changed — all designed to court Middle England and the media.

Sometimes it’s eerie. When Keir Starmer dropped his commitment to abolish the charitable status of private schools — a commitment only made in July last year — I was transported back to an anguished phone call from David Blunkett, who was shadow education secretary when Tony Blair did exactly the same thing. Was Blunkett angry that he had first heard about this policy change from the radio, or because he really believed in the principle? He told me that if it the decision stood, he would have to resign. He didn’t, of course, which suggests the former.

Then, as now, Labour was riding high in the polls. The Conservatives had been in power for nigh on eighteen years. ‘Time for a change’ was a very powerful evocation.

And yet here is where those superficial similarities end. When Blair was elected leader of the Labour Party, much of the spade work for the subsequent victory in 1997 had already been completed by Neil Kinnock and John Smith. The latter had bequeathed an agenda and policies principally arrived at by the party and the trade unions, which could not just be chucked overboard, in particular the minimum wage and devolution for Scotland and Wales.

Labour’s deputy leader, John Prescott, although ritually ignored and sometimes humiliated by Blair’s lieutenants (although not by Blair himself), was a far more consequential figure than Angela Rayner and came up with the wheeze of putting Labour’s key election commitments on a ‘pledge card’, which was memorable and a cut-through with many voters. Fast forward to today, and it is probably fair to say that more people can remember the pledges Starmer made to get elected and then dropped than what his unquantifiable ‘five missions’ now are.

The 1997 general election took place against a backdrop of a stronger performing economy and a shadow cabinet containing a number of political heavyweights, including Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Mo Mowlam, Clare Short, and David Blunkett. Although like Rachel Reeves, Brown had committed to stick to ‘Tory spending plans’ — something Kenneth Clarke, former chancellor, told us at a Tribune dinner he never honestly expected him to stick to — Brown used a variety of macroeconomic levers to redistribute spending. Today, Labour would inherit a weak economy, and Rachel Reeves has still not managed to spell out what real differences voters can expect from her, other than more competent management.

In 1997, the trade unions were more engaged and involved with Labour and its policy-making process. They were also major donors. More unions were affiliated and more — if never enough — union-backed candidates managed to get selected.

Also in 1997, Robin Cook promised a new ‘ethical foreign policy’ based on human rights and nuclear disarmament, as well as the stopping of arms sales to various countries. In 2017, as shadow foreign secretary, Emily Thornberry promised that Labour would return to this policy. If her successor David Lammy has even ventured near the language of this earlier commitment, doing so has now been completely overshadowed by his and Starmer’s refusal to call for a ceasefire in Gaza and their failure to call out Israel, even as South Africa invokes the genocide convention at the International Court of Justice. While the illegal war in Iraq defined Tony Blair’s term as prime minister, the war on the Palestinians in Gaza is defining Starmer’s Labour Party before it’s even reached office.

And, of course, Starmer’s Labour has been notable for stifling dissent and a lack of serious debate. He has presided over a shrunken party where an influential and sizeable number of members have simply left in protest. Blair’s advance to power was defined by a substantial upsurge in membership, while Starmer is already losing the support of progressive young voters, British Muslims, and middle-class vocalists for the EU who thought that they had a champion in him.

There is another powerful factor that sharply differentiates between the time of Blair and the time of Starmer — the palpable public mood of optimism and hope that ‘things are going to get better’. Whether that mood was misplaced at that time or whether it reflected a happier reality, it seems to be largely absent today. For all too many, the choice at Westminster at least is between Tweedledum and Tweedledee.