Pity Tony Blair. Unloved and discredited in his own country, he still fails to understand the role he played in the anti-centrist backlash on both sides of the Atlantic
A panicked, uncomprehending Tony Blair is struggling to understand the appeal of left-wing insurgents such as Bernie Sanders and Jeremy Corbyn, LabourList reports:
Tony Blair has said he finds it difficult to understand the surge to prominence of Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders amid doubts over both men’s capacity to win general elections.
The former prime minister said the two veteran left-wingers faced a “question of electability” but admitted that stagnating living standards for people on lower- and middle-incomes had generated anger at elites in Britain and the US.
Blair also warned political parties they would be powerless to help people unless they “selected someone who is electable”.
[..] Blair, who was speaking to The Guardian and The Financial Times, said candidates who could “rattle the cage” were emerging, in a reference to Corbyn, who came from the left fringe to easily beat the party establishment to claim the Labour leadership, and to Sanders, who hopes to emulate him by winning the Democrat nomination ahead of Blair’s friend Hillary Clinton.
“It’s very similar to the pitch of Jeremy Corbyn,” Blair said. “Free tuition fees: well, that’s great, but someone’s going to have pay for it. An end to war, but there are wars.”
Where to begin?
Let’s start with Tony Blair’s “pass the smelling salts!” terror at the supposedly unhinged and crazy far-left politics of Bernie Sanders. That’s the same Bernie Sanders who would be chased out of Britain with flaming torches and pitchforks for being too right-wing, were he the UK prime minister, thanks to his support of private sector-delivered healthcare and the right to bear arms.
The interesting thing – and Todd Gillespie at Spiked has also picked up on this – is that with his support for civil liberties and the rights of the individual over the big guy (corporation or government), Bernie Sanders is in some ways a better conservative standard-bearer than most of the people currently squabbling for the US presidency – and certainly far more so than our own Coke Zero Conservative prime minister, David Cameron.
In many ways, when Tony Blair comes charging into the US presidential contest in support of Hillary Clinton and against Bernie Sanders, he is not making the principled case for a pragmatic, centre-left policy platform capable of winning elections, as he so smugly claims. After all, the American Right is also tearing itself apart at the moment, and there is nothing to say that Sanders could not defeat one of the more inexperienced or unpalatable GOP candidates still standing.
No, what Tony Blair is doing here is siding with the political elite – of which he is very much a part – and the tired old orthodoxies which people have grown so heartily sick of that they are now desperately casting around for alternatives in people like Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. A former Labour prime minister who remembered anything at all about his party’s roots might not be quite so quick to publicly embrace a US presidential candidate awash in Wall Street donations and influence.
But Blair genuinely can’t see the problem with consistently, publicly and unapologetically siding with globalisation’s winners and richest beneficiaries while either ignoring or actively harming those who are left behind. And he cannot understand why this fawning deference to money and power is creating a populist backlash which has changed the course of his party.
Which brings us on to Jeremy Corbyn. LabourList’s report of Tony Blair’s comments continues:
He suggested the sudden rise of Corbyn and Sanders, each after years spent toiling in relative obscurity on the left of their parties, reflected a loss of faith in the centre-ground of politics as well as the changing technology of political communications.
“I think there is a combination of factors behind these movements which are happening both sides of the Atlantic. Part of it is the flatlining of lower and middle income people, the flatlining in living standards for those people, which is very frustrating. It’s partly an anger for sure at the elites, a desire to choose people who are going to rattle the cage.
“And it’s partly also about social media, which is itself a revolutionary phenomenon which can generate an enormous wave of enthusiasm at speed. When I first started in politics, these things took so long to build up momentum; your decision points were well before that moment was achieved. But it’s also a loss of faith in that strong, centrist progressive position and we’ve got to recover that…
“One of the strangest things about politics at the moment – and I really mean it when I say I’m not sure I fully understand politics right now, which is an odd thing to say, having spent my life in it – is when you put the question of electability as a factor in your decision to nominate a leader, it’s how small the numbers are that this is the decisive factor. That sounds curious to me.”
Blair is absolutely right that there has been a loss of faith in centrist politics. But centrist politics is not an innocent victim. Centrist politics has delivered a cross-party political consensus which was defiantly pro-European in face of public euroscepticism, which doggedly refused to talk about immigration even as a centre-left New Labour government spurned transitional controls and allowed hundreds of thousands more economic migrants a year into Britain without ever consulting the people, which sought to label anyone who questioned this policy as racist, and which trotted out the same tired old tropes about Our Beloved NHS and precious public services while doing almost nothing new or radical to reshape them for the twenty-first century.
Many people in Britain yearn for more genuinely left-wing solutions to be offered by a political party. Many would like the railways renationalised, and the energy companies too. This blog believes that such moves would be hugely regressive and statist, and very quickly result in poorer service and less choice for consumers. But those who believe in nationalisation deserve a voice in the political debate – a voice which Labour studiously excluded for many years. If Tony Blair seriously believed that high-handedly shutting people out of his party would store up no resentment for the future and possibly one day result in a backlash, then he is quite delusional.
Blair acts as though the rise of Jeremy Corbyn is merely a function of social media, and angry far-leftists hijacking the conversation. But it goes far deeper than that. The rise of Corbyn on the British Left, Sanders on the American Left and Trump on the Right are not an inchoate expression of public rage, but rather an indicator that a fully rational public has finally realised that the political consensus of the main political parties is not delivering what they need – be it middle class job security or success on the world stage.
The growth and prosperity delivered by the centrist political consensus in Britain has not been experienced uniformly by all citizens. That much is understandable – different policies will impact different socio-economic groups differently. What is unacceptable, though, is the fact that the centrists from both main parties never made a concerted effort to tweak those policies to help people who were left behind. They simply advocated more of the same.
More European Union. More government spending on the bloated, unreformed welfare state. More uncritical praise for the NHS. And more of the depressing view of Britain as nothing more than a nation of schools, hospitals and public services rather than a great nation built on our commercial, private sector initiative, and with boundless untapped potential.
Choose to treat the people like mindless, avaricious consumers rather than thinking, engaged citizens with a stake in their world, and you had better make damn sure that you deliver sufficient prosperity to keep everyone happy and distracted. This is how the centrists have treated us for years – essentially saying “you leave the global governance and great ideological questions to us, and in exchange we will deliver you a cheap supply of flat-screen TVs and other consumer goods”.
But when not everybody can afford the flat-screen TV or the iPhone or to scramble on to the property ladder, they start to look around them and notice things. Awkward things. Things like the fact that they no longer have the final say in issues affecting them, because sovereignty has been outsourced to the European Union. Or things like the character of their towns and cities – even their whole country – visibly changing because of levels of immigration about which they were never consulted. Or things like a broken welfare state which ensnares some people in lifelong dependency while allowing others to fall straight through the safety net to their deaths.
Brendan O’Neill picks up on this point – the fact that it is those who have not benefited economically from centrist consensus politics who are most likely to recognise that all is not well with our democracy – in his excellent piece in the Spectator:
The Third Wayists are quaking in their boots. The middle-class, middle-of-the-road technocrats who have dominated politics for the best part of three decades are freaking out. These people who bristle at anything ideological, are disdainful of heated debate, and have bizarrely turned the word ‘moderate’ into a compliment feel under siege. And no wonder they do, for on both sides of the Atlantic their very worst nightmare — a revenge of the plebs — is becoming flesh.
You can see this sometimes clumsy but nonetheless forceful reassertion of pleb power in everything from Trumpmania to the staggering back to life of Euroscepticism — or what snooty moderates call ‘Europhobia’, because every point of view that runs counter to their own must be a mental illness, right?
[..] In both Middle America and Middle England, among both rednecks and chavs, voters who have had more than they can stomach of being patronised, nudged, nagged and basically treated as diseased bodies to be corrected rather than lively minds to be engaged are now putting their hope into a different kind of politics. And the entitled Third Way brigade, schooled to rule, believing themselves possessed of a technocratic expertise that trumps the little people’s vulgar political convictions, are not happy. Not one bit.
And with regard to euroscepticism specifically:
We’ll see more of this in the coming months, more defamation of those who dare to say: ‘I don’t like Brussels.’ But Euroscepticism represents, not some swirling, xenophobic disgust with Europeans, as it has been pathologised by the pleb-fearing PC lobby, but a people’s feeling of exhaustion with the ossified oligarchy of the Brussels machine. It speaks to a desire among ordinary people to take back some control over their lives and destinies. And as The Economist pointed out, this Eurosceptic urge is strongest among the less well-educated — that is, the plebs, those tired of being treated as welfare, nudging and paternalism fodder by the new political elites.
So bring it on, this revenge of the plebs. Let’s cheer their rude, intemperate injection of ideology into the flat, lifeless sphere politics has become over the past 20 years. And let’s enjoy the squirming of an aloof political class and commentariat who mistakenly thought they had put the pesky masses and their troublesome views out to pasture.
If Tony Blair does not understand the anger and disillusionment directed not just at him but toward consensus politics in general – and there is no reason to doubt that his bewilderment is genuine – then one has to ask: what happened to the political nous of the man who won three consecutive general elections for Labour?
Why, when he has one foot firmly planted on each side of a massive new fault line emerging in our politics – not between Left and Right but between consensus politics’ winners and losers – is Tony Blair unable to understand his own starring role in precipitating the earthquake?
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