johnsmithWith many parties in flux right now, it’s a prime time for everyone to offer them advice, especially those outside the party with little to now knowledge of it, yet are absolutely sure they know what the party ought to be doing next. So, Labour people should feel free to completely ignore this on the grounds that I likely don’t know what I’m talking about.

The Labour Party leadership election appears to be taking place under a giant Tony Blair-shaped shadow, with much of the debate seeming to float around which of the candidates is the most Blairite, post-Blairite, worthy of the mantle of Blair etc That’s entirely natural, as Blair remains the only Labour leader to have won an election in the past forty years, but I think it misses a crucial part of the rise of Tony Blair.

The narrative of how Blair ‘made Labour electable again’ often ignores that Blair was not the leader the party turned to after its defeat in 1992. It was John Smith who the party turned to, and he was elected almost by acclaim, defeating Brian Gould by 91% to 9%. It was during Smith’s time as Shadow Chancellor that Labour had started to regain ground on the Tories on economic competence, and when he became leader he chose Gordon Brown to carry on that work as his Shadow Chancellor. Because of that work, when the Tory Government saw a complete collapse of its reputation for economic competence on Black Wednesday in 1992, Labour took a lead in the opinion polls under Smith that that they wouldn’t lose for the rest of the Parliament.

846_bigIt was Smith’s death in 1994 that gave Blair the chance to stand for the party leadership – likely several years before he ever expected it – and go on to become Prime Minister, but the important fact here is that Blair inherited a Labour Party that was already well ahead in the polls and widely expected to form the next Government even if the next election was still as much as three years away. To imagine that it was merely the election of Blair that somehow made Labour electable again is to ignore everything that was done before both by Smith (and Neil Kinnock before him) to put the party into a place where it could be seen as a credible choice again.

Regardless of the qualities of the candidates for the leadership this time, just imagining that electing one of them can magically replicate the Blair effect is to ignore the situation Blair inherited when he became leader. What Labour need is a new John Smith to steady the ship and do the work that needs to be done to reorganise the party’s strategy and policy before handing it over to whoever might be the ‘new Blair’ (or the first Jarvis/Creasy/Kendall/Cooper etc). I would suggest that what Labour need to do with this leadership election is consciously decide that now is not the time to decide who’s going to lead them into the 2020 election but instead a choose someone who’ll lead the party until 2018 or 2019, and do the work to rebuild the party that’s needed while encouraging the potential next leaders to develop their skills and public profiles, but not while being the sole focus of media attention as party leader.

As we’ve seen with Ed Miliband, five years is a long time to be Leader of the Opposition, and plenty of time for the media to slowly roast you while you have very little opportunity to actually do anything. Rather than putting someone else through that pressure again, wouldn’t Labour be better off asking someone like Harriet Harman or Alan Johnson to take on the job as an explicitly interim leader? That way, they can conduct the serious process of rebuilding the party ready to hand it on to their 2020 candidate, instead of thinking that five years of the sort of media pressure that’s made Chuka Umunna quit the contest after a week would be a good thing for any new leader.

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Worth Reading 168: Perfection multiplied

Tony Blair is right on Europe – Jonathan Calder makes some wise points on how a referendum on Europe would be a disaster for this country.
Try, try again – Why forcing tests on children and telling them they’re failures repeatedly, isn’t good for them.
Mediocre Failures – Another take on why expecting some children to be branded as failures is a terrible idea.
Is the future of America a crummy service job stamping on a human face, forever? – When Presidential candidates from both sides seem to think nobody is complete without a job, is there another way?
‘Distraction is a kind of obesity of the mind’ – Interesting Guardian interview with writer Matthew Crawford about how quiet space has become another commodity available only to the wealthy.

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People who were born after this poster was used are eligible to vote in this election

People who were born after this poster was used are eligible to vote in this election

When Margaret Thatcher went back on to the campaign trail in 2001, they managed to link it to The Mummy Returns, which was in cinemas at the time. Unfortunately for Tony Blair – but fortunately for us – no one’s yet come out with a series of Daddy movies, and none of the movies currently in cinemas really work for him. I very much doubt he’d want to be linked with a film called Insurgent, for a start.

His intervention may be something that affects the campaign, but I’m starting to get the feeling that we’re in a campaign where most people would like something to happen that would excite people. It’s all feeling a bit like 2001, where despite all the bluster from all sides (‘thirty days to save the pound!’), very little changed at the end of it. It’s the sort of campaign that feels of vital importance to everyone inside it, but it’s not reaching anyone outside. Then again, maybe someone’s taken one of my earlier Twitter ideas to heart and hacked the computers of the various polling companies to show no real change in the results when in reality they’re churning up and down. I think you could call it a psychological experiment to see what happens to academics and pundits over an extended period with no real change in their data. (The first symptom appears to be starting #constituencysongs on Twitter)

Of course, a lot of the campaign time at the moment is going to be taken up with people getting nomination papers filled in and returned. This can take up a lot of candidate and campaigner time, especially if there’s a council election going on and you’re having to chase round to get papers filled in, find out where your candidates have taken them off to , or just try and decipher the names they’ve got and work out if they’re on the electoral roll. Those are all things I’ve done in the past in an attempt to make sure everything’s done in time for the deadline. (And if you’re suddenly possessed by the desire to stand, you have until 10am 4pm (apologies for the earlier error) on Thursday to get a nomination form filled in and returned)

David Cameron visited the Game of Thrones set today, and claimed he’s a big fan, but I can’t see what attraction there’d be for him in a series about a bunch of feuding aristocrats whose feuds lead to terrible times for the (barely noticed) ordinary people. After all, a Lannistory always gets someone else to pay his debts.

I’ve noticed something about the Tories’ ‘coalition of chaos’ leaflet (which is going out a lot earlier in the campaign than the ‘Danger! Hung Parliament!’ ones did last time). Obviously, there’s the fact they use Salmond instead of Sturgeon to represent the SNP, which both dates it and reveals their sexism, but they also stick Farage alongside Miliband, Clegg and Salmond on the ‘chaos’ side. The problem with that is that all those parties have ruled out the possibility of a coalition with UKIP, while the one leader who hasn’t is David Cameron…

No odd candidates to feature today, but when the nomination lists come out, I’m sure we’ll find some good examples. However, the contest for ‘silliest line written in an ostensible serious article’ has a frontrunner who may not be caught for the rest of the campaign: “Ed Miliband, surely as left-wing a leader as you’ll find outside Central America”. That comes from this article, which seems to stem from a bizarre idea of right-wing commentators that it’s surprising that contemporary Scots don’t share the same beliefs as the 18th century Scottish intellectual elite. Maybe they’ll suddenly swing to that belief in the campaign, but articles saying they’ve all gone mad are unlikely to be a catalyst for that happening.

Just a month to go until election day. We can survive this if we support each other, I’m sure of it…

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Worth Reading 164: No Scrabble bonus

Who wants to be a millionaire? Peter Oborne on Tony Blair – “Something has gone wrong with our national life and the sad story of Tony Blair helps to illustrate the scale of the problem.”
Controlling the past – The British and Greek economies were not in the same position in 2010, and the lack of challenge to this claim has let George Osborne get away with far too much, according to Simon Wren-Lewis.
Labour’s new identity policy – Alan Finlayson for Renewal on the lack of any real theory behind the bluster of Labour policy proposals.
Ours to Master – Automation is both an instrument of employer control and a necessary precondition for a post-scarcity (and possibly post-work) society.
Ramshackle coalition of interests: Black Country edition – Alex Harrowell does some digging around the Afzal Amin affair and discovers some very interesting connections behind the scenes.

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Eulogising Blair’s legacy ignores that he wasn’t as popular as you think

The disciples of Tony Blair exist in a strange situation, uncommon to previous followers of former British Prime Ministers. Unlike his predecessors, Blair left office while he was still relatively young and has hovered around the edges of British politics, with his followers still clearly hoping for his glorious return. For all the fervent belief of the Thatcherites, they never seriously expected her to make a comeback, but Blair’s still younger than several 20th century Prime Ministers were when they began the job. One can envisage him and the remaining true Blairite believers awaiting that time when a nation turns its eyes back to him and begs him to return at our hour of need.

Part of this process is the occasional hagiography of the Blair era from political commentators you’d expect to know better. Andrew Rawnsley’s today’s example, yet somehow managing to omit the word ‘moral’ before ‘vacuum’ in a description of Blair’s legacy to British politics. However, it’s the usual contention that Blair had a unique ability to get people’s support that no one currently has, and was thus solely responsible for Labour’s post-97 successes.

846_bigThere’s a myth put about by the Blairites that without him, Labour would never have won the 1997 election. While he may have had some influence on the size of the majority they won, to claim Labour couldn’t have won without him is, to use the technical term, utter bollocks. Claims like this forget just how toxic the Tories had become before Blair became leader and the general sense of national mourning that followed the death of John Smith. The Private Eye cover here is just an example of that – a sense that the country had lost the inevitable next Prime Minister. The job of any Labour leader post-92 was to hold their nerve, avoid any big errors and walk into Downing Street at the end of the process. Those that claim Blair delivered this victory need to explain how any other potential Labour leader wouldn’t have managed it, rather than pointing to his good fortune at being in the right place at the right time to benefit from it.

In a historical context, his victories weren’t as impressive as the encomiums like to portray them as either. It’s always worth remembering that the largest number of votes received by a party in a UK general election was by John Major’s Conservatives in 1992 and that Blair’s landslides were symptoms of a flawed electoral system that couldn’t cope with multi-party politics rather than any ringing endorsement of him. (For example, Labour received fewer votes in 2001 than they did in 1992) His supposedly great triumphs were the result of Labour being able to take best advantage of having a plurality of an electorate whose old allegiances were breaking down, not the ringing endorsement of the masses some would have you believe.

At his peak, Blair and New Labour were more popular than any leaders and parties are now, but that’s not exactly a difficult achievement. The trend in British general elections since the 70s has been a slow decline in the vote going to the big two parties, masked by an electoral system that protects them. Tony Blair’s just another point of data on that long downhill trend, where Labour’s decline was hidden by the absolute collapse of the Conservatives. To act as those resurrecting him would bring those times back is to ignore longer-term trends in favour of some Great Man theory of history, ignoring the luck of good timing and claiming it was skill instead.

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Worth Reading 18: Now legal in the United States

And today, we’re 80% Egyptian-related:

WorldNetDaily: The Rise of the Muslim Anti-Christ Explains Egypt Unrest – No, I’m not linking to WorldNutDaily, just to Richard Bartholomew’s analysis of another one of their bizarre conspiracy theories
Arseholes, considered as a strategic resource – Daniel Davies on how dictatorships keep themselves in power.
Why Egypt 2011 is not Iran 1979 – a very good explanation of all the differences by Juan Cole
da brother’s gonna work it out – The Yorkshire Ranter on Tony Blair’s support for Hosni Mubarak
A True Story of Daily Mail Lies – And finally, something that’s not about Egypt, but is the sad truth about how some of our media operate (via)

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EXCLUSIVE: First David Miliband campaign video

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