Why was Keir Starmer so keen to win Tony Blair’s endorsement in a video message praising the Labor leader’s “strength, determination and intelligence?”
Officially, allies say Starmer saw the 25th anniversary of Blair’s 1997 landslide as a reminder, ahead of tomorrow’s local elections, of what Labor could achieve in power. Although Blair’s reappearance grated with left-wingers, it was yet another reminder that Starmer is “not Jeremy Corbyn”. Whether the left likes it or not, Labor needs to win back 2019’s Tory voters to have a sniff of power, and not all of them hate Blair as much as the left does.
So New Labor is back. I’ve never understood why some Labor figures have been so keen to trash their own brand since 2010; it hardly improved the party’s electoral prospects. At last, Labor is starting to celebrate the domestic policy achievements of its 13 years in office (don’t mention the Iraq war). Its online shop now uses New Labor branding to recall the party’s historic election victory and record in government.
However, all is not quite as it seems. There was an unpublicized reason for Blair’s re-emergence in a Labor campaign. Starmer allies were very keen to lock in his support of him because they are nervous about his launch next month of a new centrist movement, The Britain Project. He will be joined by Tories including former cabinet ministers Rory Stewart and David Gauke, and the initiative will be headed by Monica Harding, a Liberal Democrat.
Blair has been itching to launch a cross-party group to draw up reforms addressing three big challenges: Brexit; the technology revolution, and climate change. He said in January: “I don’t think it can be done unless politicians work across traditional party lines to create a plan that is sustainable over at least a decade, because reforms as far-reaching and difficult as these require consistency of policy over time, even through a change of government.”
Team Starmer fears it will invite comparisons with Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche – Blairites were fans of his well before he became president – which would hardly be a ringing endorsement of Labour. Although Blair’s project is about policy rather than fielding candidates, he previously hoped that about 70 Labor MPs would walk out during Corbyn’s leadership to form a new group. In the event, only eight left to launch Change UK, and it flopped.
Blair’s move will be viewed as reflecting an impatience that Labor and Starmer are not doing even better in the opinion polls against a discredited Boris Johnson and a Conservative Party running out of steam after 12 years in power. In less flattering remarks, Blair has called for a “total deconstruction and reconstruction” of Labour, and described Starmer as “a work in progress”.
Blairites are divided over whether to put their energies into the new movement or to reform Labor from within. These behind-the-scenes tensions put Starmer under even more pressure to show real momentum in the local elections; a strong showing would make Blair’s project less threatening. But the results may be less conclusive than people expect.
The irony is that Starmer is accused by left-wingers of swallowing the Blair playbook. A cogent left-wing critique was set out last week by Oliver Eagleton in The Starmer Project: A Journey to the Right (published by Verse). Eagleton lists the project’s main features as: “a ‘values-led’, non-antagonistic electoral strategy; an unsparing crackdown on the Labor left, seen as more dangerous than the Conservatives; an Atlanticist-authoritarian disposition, combining intervention abroad with repression at home and a return to neoliberal economic precepts, overseen by Blairite leftovers”.
Eagleton writes: “The Blairites may have regained the party bureaucracy, but they remain starved of relevant ideas.” I suspect he is too pessimistic about Starmer’s willingness to “confront” the rentier economy or climate change, but he is right to highlight the need for some big dividing lines with the Tories.
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The left is alarmed by Starmer’s hints that he might suspend MPs such as John McDonnell and Diane Abbott over their hostility to Nato. That would alienate some on the soft left who support a “broad church” party. Like Blair, the left has a dilemma over whether to stick with Labor or launch a new vehicle or party. (Will the last person to leave Labor please turn out the lights?)
When New Labor celebrated the anniversary of its 1997 triumph at a pub in London’s Chancery Lane on Sunday, Peter Mandelson told the revellers: “I am glad the Labor Party is now starting to be proud of New Labour’s record in government again… we are on the way to getting our party back. Labor has the instincts of a centre-left party again. Keir is not Tony [Blair]. He’s not Gordon [Brown] either. He’s sort of ‘third way’. Level-headed. Good character and values. Tough when he needs to be.”
Starmer’s “third way” upsets both the left and the right of the Labor Party. Perhaps that’s the only way he can unite it. Perhaps it means he’s getting it right. Despite Blair’s timely words of support, Starmer might reflect that, “With friends like these…”