Richard North, 19/12/2019  

"Good governance based on our parliamentary system not only requires competence from the governing party, but a functional opposition as well". That much, stated in yesterday's piece is beyond dispute. It is also beyond dispute, however, that we are a long way from enjoying something even approaching that desirable state.

Therefore, years after we thought we were rid of him for good, we are having to put up with the re-emergence of Tony Blair, speaking on something he believes he is qualified to talk about – the state of the Labour Party.

Under normal circumstances, I could think of few things in which I had less interest than this party, but the thought of five years (and perhaps more) of an unchallenged Conservative government is one that focuses the mind, and forces us to pay attention to the condition of what is sometimes termed, "Her Majesty's Loyal Opposition".

Blair's intervention came yesterday in a speech in central London, where he asserted that the recent trouncing in the polls was "no ordinary defeat for Labour".

Said Blair: "It marks a moment in history", where the choice for Labour was "to renew itself as the serious, progressive, non-Conservative competitor for power in British politics; or retreat from such an ambition". And, in the latter event, he forecast that, "over time it will be replaced".

It thus seems it is Labour's turn to "die in a ditch", with Blair raising the temperature in what he is effectively making out to be an existential crisis for the Labour Party. If he had chosen to phrase it differently, he might simply have stated: "reform or die".

One of the telling points in his speech was his warning that this 2019 defeat "is much worse than 1983". Then, he says, "was our second defeat; now is our fourth. The country is different. Politics is different. The country is less fixed in political affiliation. Politics moves at speed accelerated by social media".

And these are some of the points this blog has been making: the country is different, in thousands of ways, and it would be absurd to imagine that politics might stay the same. Yet we still get the commentariat glibly talking about the "traditional working class", which the Labour must recover in order to regain power.

Yet, in that respect, Blair doesn't seem to be aware of the consequences of decades of unfettered immigration which his party has done so much to encourage and facilitate.

Thus, when it comes to discussing this mythical "traditional" working class, it takes Kimberley McIntosh in the Guardian to remind us that this term has become a euphemism for white voters, with "the unspoken implication is that Labour has lost the white working class specifically because it has pandered to the multi-ethnic 'metropolitan elite' in London and other cities".

Despite that, Blair spends time evaluating the conduct of "team Corbyn" in relation to Brexit. He argues that, following June 2016, it should have accepted the result and said it was for the government to negotiate an agreement.

He then argues that Corbyn should have reserved the right to critique that agreement and, should it fail to be a good deal for the country, "then advocate the final decision should rest with the people".

This actually puts Blair in the second referendum camp, which is not so very far from Corbyn's position, and is not much more coherent. Yet Blair believes that, while this might have lost "the most ardent Brexit support", with different leadership, "we would have kept much of our vote in traditional Labour areas, whilst benefiting from the fact that even in those areas, the majority of those voting Labour, were Remain".

Nevertheless, when we drill down into the speech, it becomes evident that even Blair thinks that it was not Brexit, per se, which led to Labour's failure, but the "absence of leadership" on the issue, which "then reinforced all the other doubts about Jeremy Corbyn".

Blair stresses that it is important to understand why his leadership was so decisively rejected. This was not, he says, about Jeremy Corbyn as a person. Rather, people saw him as fundamentally opposing what Britain and Western societies stand for.

Thus Corbyn personified an idea, a brand of quasi-revolutionary socialism, mixing far-left economic policy with deep hostility to Western foreign policy, which never has appealed to traditional Labour voters, never will appeal and represented for them a combination of misguided ideology and terminal ineptitude that they found insulting.

The takeover of the Labour Party by the far left turned it into a glorified protest movement, with cult trimmings, utterly incapable of being a credible government.

The result, he says, has brought shame on the Labour Party. "We let our country down. To go into an election at any time with such a divergence between people and party is unacceptable. To do it at a time of national crisis when a credible opposition was so essential to our national interest, is unforgivable".

And there we have the mention of that crucial phrase: " a credible opposition". I can't recall who said it and when, but a memory sticks with me that some notable politician once declared that, for a party to become a government, it must first prove that it can be an effective opposition. In that task, "team Corbyn" failed dismally.

For the future, Blair is comfortable with the idea of having a period of "reflection", but he warns that any attempt to whitewash this defeat, pretending it is something other than it is, or the consequence of something other than the obvious, "will cause irreparable damage to our relationship with the electorate". He adds:
Let us demolish this delusion that "the manifesto was popular". The sentiment behind some of the policy reflected public anxieties, but in combination, it was one hundred pages of "wish list". Any fool can promise everything for free. But the people weren't fooled. They know life isn't like that. And the loading in of "free broadband" run by government was the final confirmation of incredibility.
Messrs Johnson and Cummings, he said, "had a strategy for victory", and "we had one for defeat". He noted the cockiness of the Johnson visit to Sedgefield to rub salt in the wound, but he "would like to see their strategic brilliance measured against a team other than one whose striker was directionally oblivious, its midfield comatose, the defence absent in the stand chatting to a small portion of the fans and its goalkeeper behind the net retweeting a clip of his one save in a 9-0 thrashing".

Therein lies the story. Against a halfway competent opposition, Johnson's "victory" might have been less assured, which leaves for the Labour Party choices which are "starker than it realises". It can keep with the programme and positions of Corbyn with a new leader. In which case it is finished. Or it can understand that it must recapture the party from the far left, make radical changes and begin the march back.

But, says Blair – in a section which elevates the speech beyond the merely rhetorical - "the biggest necessity is understanding the challenge didn't begin in 2015. It is rather the culmination of political and socio-economic changes over the last half-century and the circumstances of Labour's birth more than a century ago".

This is a moment, he adds, "where either we use the lessons of defeat to build a progressive, modern political coalition capable of competing for, winning and retaining power; or we accept that the Labour Party has exhausted its original mission and is unable to fulfil the purpose for which it was created".

A cry of rage against "the system", he then says, isn't a programme for government. To win power, "we need self-discipline not self-indulgence; listening to what people are truly saying, not hearing only the parts we want to hear".  You can't play with passion alone, "but require strategy, preparation and professionalism; winning the intellectual as well as political battle".

The worst of it though is that while Blair correctly observes that the Party doesn't have "the luxury of the slow march back", noting that Labour can correct its historical and contemporary weaknesses, "or be consumed by them", there is no indication that the need for speed has been fully (or at all) understood.

While Johnson powers ahead with his agenda, Labour seems to be gearing up to a long period of introspection which may last one or even two electoral cycles. But if the Party doesn't have the luxury of a slow march back, neither does the nation. We need an opposition in place, and we need it now.

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