The party faces threats it does not understandby John Harris / December 11, 2014 / Leave a comment
Published in January 2015 issue of Prospect Magazine
In September 2005, back in the days when parties’ annual gatherings would still occasionally crackle with energy and intrigue, Tony Blair gave his 12th conference speech as leader of the Labour Party. As ever, it was an impassioned and daring address, so full of self-confidence as to seem almost unhinged. Blair had often seemed to lecture his party about the realities of the present and future. But on this occasion, he went much further. He enthused about an “open, liberal” economy that was “unforgiving of frailty,” but full of opportunities that would go to those “swift to adapt, slow to complain, open, willing and able to change.” I can vividly recall watching the speech from the upper balcony of the Brighton centre, and thinking: who exactly were these people? In the most high-flown passages, it sounded as if Blair was not just admonishing Labour for its timidity and conservatism, but despairing of the same instincts among millions of ordinary people.
Towards the end, Blair extended the scope of this sweeping critique to Labour’s past. He recalled a 90th birthday party for the former Labour Prime Minister Jim Callaghan, held at Downing Street in 2002. “Around the room: Denis Healey talking to Roy Jenkins; Tony Benn with Shirley Williams. Michael Foot, Jack Jones,” he recalled. “What brilliance; and what a pity.” He went on: “They were great people. But we were not ready then to see change was coming, accept it and then shape it to progressive ends.” One cannot imagine any leader since Blair having the chutzpah to be so condescending about some of their own party’s most titanic figures. There again, he believed he had the answers that had so eluded them: his three election victories proved it.
Yet there was a problem. Yes, Blair had just won Labour an unprecedented third term, but only thanks to the United Kingdom’s creaking electoral system. Labour had secured just 35.2 per cent of the vote, and the support of a mere 22 per cent of the electorate. In the wake of its victory in 1997, it had somehow mislaid four million votes. Particularly in its working-class heartlands, its core support was increasingly tending to sit on its hands, while middle-class malcontents looked to the Liberal Democrats. All told, the party’s support was unravelling, something which had actually been evident even when New Labour was in its pomp: at the 2001 election, for example, woeful turnout meant that Labour had attracted the support of only 24 per cent of the total electorate, and secured fewer votes than Neil Kinnock had managed in 1992.