Ed West

The Labour party loves to hate Tony Blair

The Labour party loves to hate Tony Blair
Text settings

I’ve met people at political events who seem otherwise normal, and then Tony Blair’s name is mentioned and their eyes light up in a way that suggest a chemical reaction has taken place in their brain. Likewise whenever the former Labour prime minister is mentioned online, it’s like a hand grenade has been thrown into the loony pond. Up they all chirp on social media, announcing how the war criminal must be sent to the Hague one day.

The most recent case was Tony Blair’s offer to fund Labour candidates at the election, and the decision by two of them to turn it down; in both constituencies, Northampton North and Dundee East, Labour are close behind an incumbent party and really need the money, especially as the election will be the closest in decades.

Neither has given a specific answer but the reason bandied around is that Blair’s cash is ‘blood money’ because of the work he does for various unsavoury leaders (who may have tortured the odd religious fanatic) as well as his invasion of Iraq. Yet some of the most vocal critics of Blair’s offer have said some rather nice things about dictators down the years, whether it’s Chavez, Saddam or Assad, all of whom make Blair’s friends look benign. The European Azerbaijani Society hosted an event at the last Labour conference and nobody batted an eyelid.

Just as the notes passing through Londoners’ hands all have traces of cocaine on them, political money normally has blood on it if you look hard enough. I don’t know how Labour expect to win an election without such money: perhaps through generous donations from social entrepreneurs who all pay the living wage, as well as the highest amount of tax possible.

I suspect the reason for all this bile is that Blair has become a sort of Lundy figure for the Labour Party. The aim is to promote internal cohesion through projecting hatred at a fallen leader. Blair is especially hated because he promised so much hope, even in comparison to other Labour politicians, and like all liberal-Left leaders his promises were unrealistic; likewise with Barack Obama, who was elected with almost absurd levels of optimism about America’s future and who has turned out to be a very average president who can't heal the nation's wounds. It’s not an accident that John F Kennedy is the only liberal-Left leader not to have left office widely despised by his former supporters.

I can’t understand this sense of resentment and betrayal because I was never that sold; I always thought his whole act was a con - the obsession with Cool Britannia and those tears for Princess Diana, and later his crazed ‘forces of conservatism’ speech. As Iain Martin notes, Blair was a truly authentic progressive, but that was his weakness: a love for the idea of the modern in place of the traditional, without any sense of what would replace the institutions he was knocking down. Iraq was just part of this wider vision that state intervention could solve intractable and deep-rooted problems. It failed because few could be bothered to understand the complex tribal and religious divisions that existed in Iraq.

The Labour Party is not unique in this need for a hate figure. Edward Heath fulfils the same rolls for the Tories, but Heath was a loser, while Blair was a winner; the main reason he saunters about the earth getting paid vast amounts is because he has the sort of charisma people will pay good money for, and his successor, alas, doesn’t. Were Blair leader of the Labour Party now I genuinely believe he would win – but Labour would never have him.

The great tragedy, and this reflects our absurd cultural preference for youth, is that Blair would make a much better leader now, in his sixties, than he actually did as a relatively young man. I’d certainly feel a great deal more comfortable with Tony Blair leading a European delegation to face Putin than than any of our current, much younger, crop.