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Editorial: ‘Back to Blair’ won't work for Labour – and confronting his legacy is crucial to addressing today's crises

LABOUR’S decision to mark International Workers’ Day with a video from Tony Blair might seem to make sense on the 25th anniversary of its 1997 landslide.

But it is neither electorally helpful nor politically astute.

Blair stresses parallels between then and now that underline the narrative Sir Keir Starmer likes to promote on his own leadership: Labour had lost four elections in a row, it’s time to get real about winning power.

The idea that the left are not serious about power works to cloak the real ideological motivations of Labour’s right: were it genuinely concerned with electing Labour governments above all else, it would not have worked so hard to sabotage Labour’s electoral chances in 2017 and 2019. Starmer – who has kicked the Forde report into the appalling conduct of senior party HQ staff during the 2017 election into the long grass – seems determined to bury that truth.

In reality the divide between left and right in Labour is not one between sentimental lefties and pragmatic rightwingers, but between critics and defenders of the capitalist system itself.

Blair’s endorsement of Starmer is not good politics. The former prime minister, now a super-rich consultant hired by repressive regimes from Kazakhstan to Rwanda, is highly unpopular: a third of the population believe he should be on trial for war crimes.

Defending the unprovoked attack on Iraq – a war of aggression and thus the “supreme international crime,” as the right have no hesitation in pointing out when it comes to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine – is a minority sport these days. 

Most of Blair’s apologists seek to downplay it instead as an unfortunate blip on his record (a blip that has cost over a million lives, destabilised an entire region and vastly extended the reach of jihadist terrorism).

So it is important to look at the links between Blair’s domestic record and the crises facing working-class people today.

His governments did increase public spending and reduce poverty – contrasts to the Tory-led governments since 2010. 

But choosing to address poverty through a complex system of in-work benefits rather than unshackling trade unions from the anti-trade union laws has entrenched Britain’s low-pay culture, with employers paying inadequate wages that are then topped up by the public – laying the ground for later attacks on the recipients of those benefits as spongers.

And Blair began the infiltration of private-sector companies in the NHS, turning our public services into cash cows for parasitical profiteers. As journalist Aaron Bastani has argued, his governments also saw the cost of housing double relative to average pay – a legacy bitterly resented by millions who cannot afford decent housing today – and a decimation of British manufacturing, one among several factors that drove the steady, election-by-election collapse of the Labour vote in its heartlands, a process interrupted since 1997 only once – in 2017 under Jeremy Corbyn.

The acute problems we face now – part-privatised public services, endemic low pay, weakened trade unions, the housing and refugee crises – are all related to Blair’s policies, and cannot be addressed without confronting his record and the whole 40-year neoliberal experiment in Britain – as Labour understood from 2015-20.

The Blairite fantasy that we can turn the clock back to 1994 also ignores the yawning gulf between the “unipolar moment” when the United States had no rivals and credit-driven expansion reigned supreme, and today’s world of great power rivalry, economic protectionism and living standards that have been in decline since the bankers’ crash exploded the mythical economics on which Blairism rested.

Blair is not so widely disliked because of Iraq alone, though the lies that took us to war have permanently corroded trust in British politics.

People saw through the mirage a long time ago – and understand his toxic role in shaping today’s Britain. Celebrating his legacy is wrong – and no way to fight an election.

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