Tony Blair’s unpopularity is one of the unappreciated wonders of the modern political world. Fourteen years after he stepped down as Britain’s prime minister, you might expect his ratings to have gradually improved, with people forgetting their original reasons for disliking Blair and coming to associate his premiership with a period of economic and political stability. But no amount of nostalgia can lift him out of his polling rut.
A decade after Blair’s departure from 10 Downing Street, 64 percent of people still had an unfavorable opinion of the man, with just 21 percent declaring their view to be positive. At a time of intense polarization in British politics, Blair has become a perversely unifying figure, eliciting negative attitudes from across the ideological spectrum. Whether people support Labour or the Conservatives, Leave or Remain, they have little time for the architect of New Labour.
If the pollsters dug deeper into the sources of this animosity, no doubt they would find many different reasons being offered for disliking Blair. However, there’s one straightforward explanation for his enduring and ecumenical image problem: the man simply will not go away.
Instead of retiring from the political scene with a modicum of grace, Blair has spent the last few years peddling his views with all the alacrity of a street-level drug dealer. The British public may not like Blair very much, but many British journalists hang on his every word, greeting his regular pronouncements on matters great and small as if they possessed the novelty value of a Bigfoot sighting.
His latest performance comes after a poor set of election results for the current Labour leader Keir Starmer. Blair’s essay for the New Statesman isn’t just a commentary on the politics of the British Labour Party: it purports to offer a road map for the entire Euro-American center left. Over the course of three thousand words, Blair reveals the sheer malignancy of his present-day political outlook.
The Bigger Picture
Blair starts off by noting that Labour’s current predicament fits into a wider pattern:
Joe Biden’s victory in the United States apart, progressive politics across the globe is badly placed: four election defeats for the UK Labour Party and no one betting against a fifth; the German SPD placed behind a moderate Green Party; the French Socialists, who won the presidency in 2012, now polling at 11 per cent; the Italian left imploded and divided; the Spanish and Swedish socialists hanging on to power, but way below their earlier levels of support.
When Jeremy Corbyn was the Labour leader, the crisis facing Europe’s center-left parties was every bit as obvious, but Blair had no interest in supplying the necessary context. In November 2017, he transferred a vacuous talking point to the field of respectable political discourse by claiming that Labour should be “twenty points ahead.” This was in a month when the party had an average polling lead of just over 2 percent.
Between the start of April and election day on May 6, Keir Starmer trailed the Conservatives by an average of 7 percent, after Boris Johnson’s government had presided over one of the highest death tolls in the developed capitalist world. One will search Blair’s article in vain for any suggestion that Starmer should be leading the Tories by two or three points under the circumstances, let alone twenty.
Blair is clearly anxious to expunge Labour’s 2017 election performance from the historical record. The 40 percent vote share achieved by Corbyn in that election was easily the best performance by a center-left party in any of the EU-15 states since 2010. In fact, Labour’s 2019 result — 32 percent — is still one that its sister parties in France, Germany, Italy, or Spain would envy.
These percentages are not simply a by-product of Britain’s majoritarian electoral system. Between 1998 and 2005, the German Social Democrats had an average party-list score of nearly 38 percent. In the three elections since, that figure has dropped to 23 percent. The Spanish Socialists broke the 40 percent barrier twice in the first decade of this century, yet they haven’t been able to win so much as 30 percent in five subsequent elections.
For anyone genuinely interested in the challenges facing European social democracy, Labour’s 2017 result cries out for serious analysis. Even if we were to conclude that Corbyn’s achievement was a fluke or the product of unrepeatable circumstances, that would still be an important piece of information. Blair clearly doesn’t believe that it was either, because he refuses to mention its existence — or even the date “2017.” Instead, he makes an absurd and easily disprovable claim about the 2019 election, claiming that Labour “went to the far left and suffered the worst defeat in the party’s history.”
Nobody can dispute what the worst defeat in Labour’s history actually was. In 1931, the party lost more than 80 percent of its seats, dropping from 287 to 52 MPs. There may be more to this omission than Blair’s habitual mendacity. Labour’s 1931 rout came at the hands of its former leader, Ramsay MacDonald, who led a so-called “National Labour” party at the head of an alliance comprised overwhelmingly of Tory MPs. MacDonald, the first Labour prime minister, had broken with his party because he wanted to impose swinging cuts to unemployment benefits in the midst of the Great Depression — all in the name of the national interest.
Blair resembles no Labour leader so much as Ramsay MacDonald. When the Conservatives returned to power in 2010, he endorsed their economic plan over that of his own party. In 2013, he attacked Ed Miliband for criticizing the Tory austerity program that would end up cutting more than £30 billion from social services by the end of the decade. It’s safe to assume that Blair remembers the 1931 election as a great triumph for responsible statesmanship over left-wing extremism.
“Uniquely Strange and Unacceptable”
While Blair may gesture toward the problems of the European center left, he has no interest in examining them properly — other than to imply that Germany’s SPD lost out to the Greens for being insufficiently moderate, after spending twelve of the last sixteen years as a junior coalition partner of the Christian Democrats. He has more to say about US politics, but doesn’t seem very impressed by recent developments:
No sensible Democrat or democrat should overplay the Biden victory. He won against an incumbent like no other, considered by center-ground voters to be uniquely strange and unacceptable in his behavior. In the middle of the Covid-19 crisis, Donald Trump’s actions appeared to have worsened the pandemic; and even then, Trump increased his number of votes in the 2020 presidential election from 2016, while the Republicans took seats in the House and probably only lost control of the Senate thanks to the bizarre post-election antics that ended in the storming of the US Capitol in Washington, DC on 6 January. The Biden victory was a heavy reaction not so much against the policies as the comportment of Trump.
Coming from another figure, this might be considered a sensible warning against triumphalism or complacency. Coming from Blair, it has a very different political inflection. The list of those who found Trump to be “uniquely strange and unacceptable in his behavior” did not include Blair himself.
In 2017, he urged people “from the progressive side of politics” not to greet Trump with “flat-out opposition” and look for common ground instead: “If something happens that is good, then don’t disagree with it just because of its author.” A careful reading of Blair’s Politico interview, and another conversation with his former spin doctor Alastair Campbell published that year, makes it perfectly clear what he had in mind. Blair expected that Trump would take a more hard-line stance toward Iran than Barack Obama — as of course he did — and thus advance Blair’s ambition to “build a strategic alliance in the Middle East whose purpose is to fight extremism of the Shia sort promoted by the theocracy in Iran, or the Sunni sort.”
We shouldn’t see that reference to extremism of “the Sunni sort” as a criticism of Saudi Arabia. The Saudis have bankrolled the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change to the tune of $12 million. Blair resisted pressure to cut his ties with Riyadh after the murder of Jamal Khashoggi inside the Saudi embassy in Turkey on orders from Mohammed bin Salman.
He has faithfully regurgitated the Saudi line on the Middle East at every opportunity, claiming in his Politico interview that the “real issue” for the region is “the destabilizing policies of Iran, right across the region, whether it’s their attempt to take over control in Iraq, or it’s what they’re doing in Syria, or in Lebanon, or down in Yemen.” A month after Blair uttered those words, Saudi air raids killed sixty-eight Yemeni civilians in one day, at a time when the Saudi-led blockade of the country was already precipitating a humanitarian catastrophe.
Blair’s insatiable appetites for war and money have always led him to embrace right-wing politicians. During his time as prime minister, he forged close relationships not only with George W. Bush, but also with European conservatives like Spain’s José María Aznar and Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi. As the mainstream Euro-American right has become more extreme in recent years, Blair has scurried along after them, reaching out to Trump and meeting with Matteo Salvini to promote a gas pipeline on behalf of his corporate sponsors. Salvini described his encounter with Blair in 2018 as “a long and positive talk … about immigration, Brexit and energy policies.”
His lack of enthusiasm for Joe Biden’s election victory must be seen in this context. Blair was probably hoping that the Democrats would lose so he could place the blame on Bernie Sanders and the Black Lives Matter protests. Denied the opportunity to crow about the Left’s baleful influence, his main concern now is to discourage any idea that fresh political horizons may be opening up.
He Was the Future, Once
The rest of the New Statesman essay is entirely devoid of a positive agenda for left politics, however moderate. Blair has nothing to offer but grinding negativity, which he attempts to mask with flowery rhetoric about the pace of technological change:
We are living through the most far-reaching upheaval since the nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution: a technology revolution of the internet, AI, quantum computing, extraordinary advances in genomics, bioscience, clean energy, nutrition, gaming, financial payments, satellite imagery — everything, every sphere of work, leisure and life is subject to its transformative power. The question is how it is used.
Industrial capitalism has transformed the world several times over in the past two centuries, but the fundamental questions about the ownership and distribution of wealth have never lost their relevance. Beneath his pragmatic rhetoric — “steadfast adherence to values but complete agnosticism as to the means of implementing them” — Blair is categorically opposed to any measure that will encroach upon the privileges of the wealthy elite to which he belongs.
In his 2017 Politico interview, he sneered at the whole idea of universal provision based on need rather than the size of your bank balance: “We’re going to give you this for free, or that for free.” Blair made that remark in a country, the United States, where the lack of public health care has well-documented lethal consequences for tens of thousands of people every year.
Instead of stating his right-wing economic perspective openly, Blair claims that such issues are no longer worth talking about, because new technology is what really matters:
Public ownership of industry, “free” university tuition, much heavier regulation — all of these traditional solutions, as well as being politically challenging, will not materially impact people’s lives in anything like the manner of technological change, and may be regressive if they reduce the power of social mobility and social aspiration. They seem “radical” because they come from a traditional left which presented them as such, but politically they are mostly now museum pieces, lingering relics of outdated ideology. It isn’t that the traditional issues don’t matter; it is just that they’re second-order compared with those accompanying the revolution.
This is a familiar rhetorical tactic of Blair’s. In his 2005 Labour Party conference speech, he insisted that there was no point discussing the various phenomena — political, economic, and cultural — that pundits refer to as “globalization”: “I hear people say we have to stop and debate globalization. You might as well debate whether autumn should follow summer.”
His goal is to shut down any space for democratic politics by conjuring up a vision of mighty impersonal forces subjecting human beings to their will, as if the World Trade Organization or Uber’s Proposition 22 campaign belong in the same category as the tilting of the Earth’s axis. From nineteenth-century textile mills to the modern gig economy, the exploitation of workers by capital has changed its form but not its content. And the defenders of such exploitation are still whistling the same discredited tune.
At one point, Blair refers to “Britain’s great Liberal tradition — Gladstone, Lloyd George, Keynes, Beveridge.” He may well be an admirer of William Gladstone, who led Britain in a pre-democratic age. Yet if William Beveridge or John Maynard Keynes were alive today, Blair would certainly dismiss their ideas as “an old-fashioned economic message of Big State, tax and spend.”
Universal social programs aren’t the only thing Blair finds objectionable. He devotes a large part of his essay to cultural issues, claiming that “radical progressives” are committing “political kamikaze” and dragging more sensible folk along with them:
People do not like their country, their flag or their history being disrespected. The left always gets confused by this sentiment and assume this means people support everything their country has done or think all their history is sacrosanct. They don’t. But they query imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday … people like common sense, proportion and reason. They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice. They support the police and the armed forces. Again, it doesn’t mean that they think those institutions are beyond reproach. Not at all. But they’re on their guard for those who they think use any wrongdoing to smear the institutions themselves.
Blair doesn’t offer a single concrete example of what he’s talking about here. Such vacuity is another staple of Blairite discourse — infamously, Labour’s election slogan in 2005 was “forward, not back.” However, he soon descends from the heights of abstraction to make his allegiance clear: “A progressive party seeking power which looks askance at the likes of Trevor Phillips, Sara Khan, or J. K. Rowling is not going to win.”
J. K. Rowling is a mega-rich celebrity with a record of attacking supporters of Jeremy Corbyn and provoking controversy with her comments about trans people (including the obligatory scaremongering about bathrooms). It’s altogether unsurprising that Blair would come to her defense. Rowling is a freelance commentator — albeit one with a vast public platform — but Trevor Phillips and Sara Khan are serious players in British political life, and Blair’s determination to protect them speaks volumes about his worldview.
Phillips, who began his career as a journalist, has served on various official bodies, including a stint as chair of the Equality and Human Rights Commission. He’s a regular columnist for the Tory press and a senior fellow at the right-wing think tank Policy Exchange. Khan was an advisor to the Home Office on “tackling extremism” during Blair’s time as prime minister. In 2018, the Conservative home secretary Amber Rudd chose her to be a “counter-extremism tsar” — surely the most absurd use of the term “tsar” by the British media, at least until the Tories appointed an ex-Labour MP, John Mann, as their “antisemitism tsar” the following year.
What Phillips, Khan, and other figures like Boris Johnson’s advisor Munira Mirza have in common is this: they all come from ethnic minority groups but express views about race and racism that are completely unrepresentative of those communities, much to the delight of the Tories and the right-wing press. Mirza even set up a commission that produced a shoddy report downplaying the extent of racism in British society. Trevor Phillips and his Policy Exchange colleague David Goodhart — a leading supporter of Theresa May’s “hostile environment” immigration policy — defended the Sewell report when experts lined up to pan its conclusions.
The Thinking of Today
Blair presents no evidence that Labour has antagonized potential voters by criticizing the likes of Phillips and Khan. When he talks about “people,” he really means “me.” As Daniel Trilling showed recently in an excellent article on the Home Office, New Labour pioneered many of the racist policies now associated with the Tories:
In one notorious episode in 2003, Downing Street collaborated with the Sun on a special “asylum week,” a series of articles that began on a Monday with a piece headlined “Halt the asylum tide now” and ended on a Friday with a column by [David] Blunkett promising “draconian” measures to clamp down on illegal immigration … the hostile environment wasn’t an entirely new idea: the term, which originated in Home Office counter-terrorism policy, was first applied to immigration in 2008 by the Labour minister Liam Byrne, when he declared his intention to “flush illegal migrants out.” May took what Labour had created and intensified it.
Since he first became prime minister, Blair has been groomed and radicalized by the consequences of his own actions. He cannot accept responsibility for the disastrous outcomes of his plan for violent social transformation in the Middle East, so he blames the societies that were on the receiving end of that project instead. As Blair said to Alastair Campbell in 2017: “The reproach I often make is not what people reproach me for; it is that we did not at that point understand the depth of this Islamist question.”
He has repeatedly denounced “Islamic extremism” and claimed that “millions of Muslims” hold views that are “fundamentally incompatible with the modern world.” At the same time, he has taken care not to mention the Saudi regime whose oil revenues underpin the most reactionary interpretations of Islamic doctrine. When Trevor Phillips made his provocative comments about British Muslims, Blair must have nodded approvingly, and felt personally attacked when Labour suspended Phillips as a party member.
Research from the polling company YouGov has punctured Blair’s confident assertion that “progressive folk tend to wince at terms such as ‘woke’ and ‘political correctness,’ but the normal public knows exactly what they mean.” In fact, 59 percent of the British public say they have no idea how to define “woke.” Of the people who think they understand the term, just over a third consider it to be a bad thing — that’s 15 percent of the population as a whole.
Unfortunately, the small minority of anti-woke obsessives includes a wildly disproportionate number of people employed in the national media, and those are the people whose opinions Blair really cares about. He has been in thrall to the right-wing press ever since his Australian pilgrimage in 1995 to kiss Rupert Murdoch’s ring — although the two men subsequently fell out because Murdoch came to believe that Blair was having an affair with his wife. Whether this is actually true or not is much less important than the fact that it’s very, very funny.
YouGov also conducted a survey in the so-called “red wall” constituencies that flipped from Labour to the Conservatives in 2019:
There is nothing in our data to suggest that Red Wall voters are particularly socially conservative or especially concerned about progressive policies or social movements. In the majority of cases, we found more support for socially liberal attitudes than conservative attitudes, and where we did find support for socially conservative positions, this was not particularly out of step with the British population as a whole.
Blair’s claim that ordinary people reject “imposing the thinking of today on the practices of yesterday” sits awkwardly with one finding in particular. Seventy-eight percent of Britons, and 73 percent of those who live in Labour’s lost constituencies, agreed with the following statement: “It is important to teach school children about Britain’s colonial history and its role in the slave trade.”
It would be tempting to dismiss Blair’s compendium of obsolete dogma and saloon-bar prejudice as the death rattle of a political corpse. Unfortunately, while his faction may lack a popular base, it still has the institutional heft needed to obstruct those who want to address the challenges of the modern world.
Blair’s ally Peter Mandelson, one of the few people who can rival him for cynicism, amorality and subservience to billionaires, is seeking to impose his line on Labour in the wake of its Hartlepool by-election defeat. Keir Starmer’s only response to a political setback in which the Labour right was deeply implicated has been to appoint one of that tendency’s most rebarbative figures, Rachel Reeves, as his shadow chancellor. Reeves once promised to be tougher than the Conservatives in harassing welfare claimants, at a time when the Tory government was quite literally hounding people to their deaths.
If Keir Starmer can’t deliver on his promises of “electability,” his position as leader may soon become precarious. Blair is clearly anxious to reduce the influence of Labour’s party membership and the trade unions before Starmer faces a challenge:
The Labour Party is now scratching its collective head and wondering why the replacement of an extremist with someone more moderate isn’t achieving the miracle renaissance. It is even asking whether Keir is the right leader. But the Labour Party won’t revive simply by a change of leader. It needs total deconstruction and reconstruction. Nothing less will do.
The people of Iraq could tell you all about Blair’s track record when it comes to “total deconstruction and reconstruction.” He has no interest in reviving Labour’s electoral fortunes: his only concern is to eliminate any channel through which working-class people can express their opposition to the policies he supports. Repudiating his malign agenda is a question of elementary moral hygiene for the British left.