BOY WONDER: INTERVIEW WITH TONY BLAIR

Tribune, 29 January 2003

The shadow home secretary talks to Paul Anderson about how he would like to see Labour modernise its appeal


Tony Blair has not had the easiest of rides of late. The MP for Sedgefield has been looked at askance by those who suspect his ambition or his politics ever since he was put on the Labour front bench by Neil Kinnock in 1984 at the tender age of 31. But in the past couple of months he has become a bogeyman of his party’s Left. John Prescott and Clare Short are only the most senior figures to have made barely veiled venomous public attacks on Blair.

The reasons for the intensification of the left’s dislike for Blair are complex. Long-standing resentments about his meteoric rise, which critics claim has more to do with his television-friendly good looks and middle-class manners than with anything more substantial, have been reinforced by his continued progress.

Since last year’s election defeat, Blair has landed the job of shadow home secretary, one of the three most senior front bench positions, has made it on to Labour’s national executive committee at his first attempt and has emerged as the clear favourite to succeed John Smith as Labour leader, particularly if Smith goes after losing the next election.

But what has caused the outbreak of Blairophobia at this particular juncture is something much more specific: his position on the relationship between Labour and the unions and his apparently boundless enthusiasm for learning lessons from Bill Clinton’s successful American Presidential campaign. Blair, for the Prescotts and Shorts, is the arch-moderniser who wants to cut Labour’s links with the unions, ditch the party’s commitments to the poor and move ever further to the right.

Unsurprisingly, Blair says that he is a little fed up with all this. He particularly rejects the idea that he is an uncritical admirer of Clinton who wants to import his methods and policies to Britain. “I simply thought it was sensible to see what could be learned from the Democrat victory,” he Says. “But, frankly, if we carry on debating what has been called by others, although never by myself, `Clintonisation’, then I think we’ll just waste our time. There are of course huge differences between the United’ States and here and huge differences between Labour and the Democrats.”

Nevertheless, he goes on, there is definitely something to learn from Clinton. “The Clinton team was tremendously effective, in having a central economic message around the notion of active government. The dedication to putting across that message, thee refusal to be diverted, is .a very important lesson for us.

“Secondly, some of the problems that the Democrats had, particularly that they seemed trapped with a declining base of support, are not dissimilar to the problems that Labour has faced here. The Clinton campaign reached out to a broader section of the population and we’ve got to do that too. Now how we do that, what policies we have, is going to be completely different.”

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If Blair is unhappy about the way his line on Clinton has been portrayed, he is positively annoyed by the way his opponents have characterised his attitude to union-Labour links. He has not been pressing the NEC working party on the subject, on which he sits, to go for divorce and an American Democrats-style settlement, he says. All he wants is a more democratic relationship, with one member one vote elections for the party leadership and for choosing Labour candidates, along with reform of the block vote at Labour conference.

“I think it is extremely important that Labour should not sever its relations with the trade unions,” he says. “What I do believe, however, is that we should make the democracy of our party as real as is possible, ‘”The idea that rna.’ tiying to distance Labour from the trade unions by advocating one member one vote is just extraordinary. To most people outside, the idea that we should select our candidates for the Labour Party on the basis of an individual franchise of members doesn’t seem a very revolutionary proposition.

“This has nothing to do with any idea that the trade unions are associated with the past or that they’re part of an ‘image problem’. What it’s actually about is getting a modern democracy for the Labour Party. To me it is simply common sense that that democracy should be based on one member one vote.” Blair says that he is “anti-block vote” but will not elaborate further on how he sees party conference being reformed. As far as union representation on local Labour Party general committees is concerned, “of course unions will maintain a role there and on the NEC”.

Most of the other members of the NEC working party have backed proposals for electoral collegesystems for leadership elections and selections, in which a share of the vote would be given to “registered supporters” recruited from among trade unionists who pay the political levy.

Blair thinks that the idea is unworkable and that it would be far better simply to cut subscriptions for full party members and recruit supportive trade unionists to party membership. “I certainly want to get more trade union levy-payers involved in the Labour Party,” he says. “My objection to the registered supportersscheme has been on the grounds of practicality. The motives behind it I fully applaud.

“But I think that the whole way we structure membership in the Labour Party is absolutely wrong. The high membership fee means that we’re going to end up with a small membership. I’d like to see us dramatically reducing the fee and going for a large membership.” Blair is waiting for the results of pilot schemes which will attempt precisely such a low-fee strategy before coming to final conclusions on the question of party organisation: if they don’t work, he says that he doesn’t rule out the possibility of a version of the registered supporters scheme being an acceptable compromise.

If Blair feels misrepresented on Clinton and on the unions, he nevertheless thinks that the fact that Labour is talking about its future is a healthy sign. “It would be absolutely bizarre if Labour did not conduct a debate after its election defeat,” he says. “After the election, the Tories went into a nosedive: it’s hardly surprising that Labour people took time out from the party’s debate to attack the Tories. But now the debate is beginning in earnest.”

There are, he believes, deep-rooted differences within the party about, how political strategy should be developed. “The real issue is whether you say: We’ve got these policies for women, these policies for ethnic minorities, these policies for the poor, these policies for trade unionists’ and so on and add all the minorities together in a sort of rainbow coalition to create a majority. That is just a false political perspective that’s dogged socialist and social democratic parties in recent years. I think you address the problems of the broad mass of people in the country and that you address people as individuals, not compartmentalised into various groups. For example, our central economic message has got to be the development of economic opportunity whether you’re employed or unemployed – not ‘here’s a package for those in work, here’s a package for those out of work’.”

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As far as his own portfolio is concerned, the key task is not so much taking on the big questions of constitutional reform as relating Labour’s approach to the law-and-order concerns of ordinary people. “It is important to show that we identify with the victims of crime,” he says.

“We should be giving our young people rights and opportunities and chances but we should also be demanding responsibilities. David Blunkett is saying much the same thing. Roy Hattersley took our policy quite a way but we’ve got to go further. That in no sense means embracing the Tory agenda on law and order.”

More generally, Labour now has to embrace the idea that it will have to change its approach in the run-up to the next election: the detail is less important, for now, than a commitment to flexibility of thinking and openness to innovation. “We’ve got to go beyond the traditional labels of left and right in the party. We should be prepared to take on board new ideas and consider them. The idea that the ‘left’ position in the Labour Party is that what we’ve done all the way along is fine, we’ve just got to do it with greater intensity – that is not radical. We should be prepared to open up the debate.

“We shouldn’t worry at the moment that the media will make something of it – of course they will. We’ve got to realise that, three or four years down the road, Labour, under John Smith’s leadership, has got to be in a position to ensure that what has happened at the last four elections is not repeated.” On that, it is difficult to disagree. Whether Blair has the recipe for success is, however, another question.

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