Tony Blair has made his second intervention in the Labour leadership election, in a piece in the Observer that accuses the Jeremy Corbyn campaign as being fantasy politics from the world of Alice in Wonderland. He writes:
There is a politics of parallel reality going on, 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.
Some might feel that this is a bit rich coming from a politician whose historical legacy is likely to be his claim that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction that could hit the UK in 45 minutes. Some might even feel that the sentence I’ve quoted is a fairly sharp assessment of Blair’s own appeal. Leaving that aside, it’s fascinating to read his rhetortical technique, which is largely based around a straw-man Corbynista – allergic to evidence, hostile to the idea of winning and wielding power, placing a self-indulgent purity above the need to build a consensus for change. It’s fairly conventional stuff, and it’s looking increasingly desperate; the fact is that the Corbyn insurgency is a much bigger, more complex phenomenon than that, and part of the reason why Corbyn has build and sustained what now looks like a lead is the complete inability of his opponents to deal with that.
Blair is right when he lists examples of insurgency politics – of both left and right – from around the world. What he does not do is ask questions of why that might be the case – whether this is about a systemic failure of Western democracies in which there is increasingly no alternative on offer to a particular political and economic model – a neoliberal model that is failing on its own terms and driving, in the face of its claims to the opposite, huge increases in poverty and inequality. Blair is offering an insider’s view; he cleverly makes reference to bubbles outside the Westminster one but the Corbyn phenomenon – like other insurgencies – is at one level a reaction to the gulf between life as it is lived by millions and as it is described by political elites. To that extent it is wholly authentic.
In that context, the sentence I have quoted above can look very much like a critique of the economics and politics of the Western political mainstream; the insurgencies that Blair lists are all expressions of a rejection of that view. This is about a clash of realities, and ultimately represents a question of where political power lies. The danger is that Blair, and those who think like them, do not understand that in democracies you cannot simply ignore insurgency. The responsible reaction, as more people in the Labour Party are realising, is to seek to understand the insurgency and to ask why people are rejecting mainstream politics. The Labour Party’s genius is to allow radical aspiration to be expressed in power; and that means the ability to adapt. Blairism, if it means anything at all, was the ability of the Party to adapt and change to fit the particular circumstances of the late 1990’s and early 21st century. In doing so, and leaving aside the appalling failure of Iraq, it achieved an enormous amount – massive progress on education, health, on reducing child poverty, on equalities. But the Blair consensus was torn up by the crash of 2007/8; Labour’s survival depends on its learning to adapt again.
Labour’s ability to survive and become once more the dominant force it was under Blair lies not in replicating Blairism but in understanding and adapting to how the world has changed. It is this that Blair’s piece seems fatally to miss.