Blair can’t and won’t be his own heir
This post is partly based on data which can be found here. According to their blurb, this information may differ slightly from the Labour Party’s final figures — but not substantially so. The Party’s figures no longer seem to be available so I have chosen to use this information. Any errors here are my mistake and not that of the CLP Nominations team. Thanks too to Lewis Baston for his advice. Again, my mistakes are my own and not his.
This week, the political world was abuzz with rumours of the return of Tony Blair. The man himself has said that he may be returning to frontline politics. Many are hinting at the setting up of a new party. Possibly because they know something and want to look prescient, possibly as genuine speculation.
In this piece I want to examine all the potential routes back to a senior, formal political role for Blair and how these are all either incredibly difficult or incredibly unhelpful to Blair’s wider cause.
The most obvious route for a former party leader is through the party he served in and led for many years.
To be re-elected as a Labour MP Blair would have to find a winnable seat, with a CLP that would select him. In the recent leadership contest, Jeremy Corbyn was supported by 273 CLPs of which 249 were English so I suspect we can rule all of these out for the moment.
53 CLPs voted to give a supporting nomination to Owen Smith. Of these 19 are not English (given the current hostility of both Welsh and Scottish Labour to Westminster, I think we have to assume Blair would have to run for an English seat). Of the 34 remaining, only 19 have sitting Labour MPs.
Of the remaining 15, 8 are in seats that appeared on the 2015 list of 106 winnable seats which were not subsequently won by Labour (in these Labour made only 22 gains, 12 from the Lib Dems and 10 from the Tories) the highest being Warrington South — 22nd on the list. This requires only a swing of 2.3% away from the Conservatives for Labour to win. For Labour are to win an election at all, it will have to do considerably better than that. But polls do not currently indicate this is at all likely. Recent polling shows that 2016 Blair would be less popular as leader than Jeremy Corbyn so it is not clear it would be more likely with him in charge.
Despite what those supporting Corbyn might have you believe Owen Smith is no Blairite. In fact, the PLP chose him over Angela Eagle precisely because they believed he would be more appealing to more left wing members. So there is very little guarantee that a CLP that supported the anti-Iraq, pro-public ownership Smith would welcome Blair with open arms.
There are 250 English CLPs who chose not to support either candidate. Of these 121 currently have Labour MPs. There may be a percentage of these seats who chose not to nominate because they found both candidates too left wing. But when both Progress and Labour First were vocal in their support of the non-Corbyn candidate that seems unlikely. Some CLPs are not particularly active — even now with our vastly increased membership — some have a tradition of not taking sides and some chose not to on this occasion.
These factors make any CLP selecting Blair as a candidate unlikely. This is all of course, before we bring boundary changes into the equation. These mean even those MPs who might want to stand aside will likely be replaced by a neighbour with first dibs, and there will be a great number of newly seatless MPs searching for a competitive seat.
Blair was always to the right of the membership in general, and even many Labour Party members who were his greatest supporters were dismayed by his post-government career. His willingness to advise oppressive dictators turned the stomachs of many of those who had backed him to the hilt over Iraq. And then came Chilcot. A devastating verdict on Blair’s judgement in the run up to and during the Iraq war. Many Labour Party members remember the good that happened under the Blair governments. They want to return to power. But they will not forgive the catastrophic errors that led to the carnage in Iraq. Blair is too damaged goods for them to give him a second look.
Another parliamentary option would be to move party. Of course many of Blair’s strongest detractors would tell you this would be a natural option for him but they would be wrong. A man who started his Parliamentary career being elected under the 1983 manifesto who went on to lead his Party to three victories has to have a current of tribalism running through him. The Labour Party may not love him back right now, but he has dedicated himself to it for better or worse for most of his life. People do change Party but not many and not often for precisely these reasons. It’s a lonely decision to make. You may be able to take some friends with you but not many and those you leave behind will not forgive you.
And which Party would Blair join? Whatever his views on private involvement in the public sector, Blair is a liberal interventionist and pro-European by nature. He wouldn’t be at home in either Theresa May’s highly illiberal, Hard Brexit enforcing Tory Party nor in Tim Farron’s non-internventionist Lib Dems.
The next option would be to return as a Labour Peer. Making former Labour prime misters a peer is fairly common — Clement Attlee, Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan all served in the House of Lords after they left office.
But to be appointed as a Labour Peer right now would require being nominated by one Jeremy Corbyn. And Jeremy Corbyn loathes Blair. He has also previously said he didn’t want to appoint Peers to an unreformed House of Lords, though he has since appointed Shami Chakrabarti and is under pressure to keep up levels of appointments as the Tories stuff the house (David Cameron appoint 13 new Peers in his resignation honours list, and it has been by defeating votes in the House of Lords that Labour has managed to curb Tory excesses recently). But there is no way the man who has spent his life fighting for the left of the Labour Party, who was the Chair of the Stop the War Coalition, is going to give the man he considers may have committed war crimes a peerage. So as long as Jeremy remains leader of the parliamentary Labour Party, that option remains closed.
He could become a cross-bench Peer. But while this is ostensibly a non-partisan process, the committee aren’t going to recommend a figure as ostensibly partisan as a former party leader. So the only way this could happen would require the patronage of the Prime Minister. Theresa May probably doesn’t loathe Blair — but unlike the Cameron generation (who she’s not very fond of) the doesn’t think of him as “The Master”. Also, unlike George Osborne, she doesn’t seem much of a game player. While Cameron and Osborne might have enjoyed trolling the current Labour leadership by ennobling Blair, that doesn’t fit May’s more grown up style. She also doesn’t need the headache she’d get from her backbenchers. I just don’t see this flying.
So there isn’t a current party through which Blair is likely or able to take a new high-profile role. But that’s not what the gossips are hinting at, nudging us towards. The inference is that Blair may be about to start a new party. A centrist body to fill the gap between the May’s extremely right wing Tories and the Corbyn’s ultra-left Labour. I can see two routes to this — a PLP split where they set themselves up as a separate parliamentary party (much discussed this summer) and a whole new party set up to compete against Labour in elections.
Both options are possible and deserve further examination and I will try and write such a piece in the next few days or weeks. But this piece is focused specifically on the role Blair might play in either.
If a split PLP did get recognised as the largest opposition party and therefore the official opposition the leader of such a group could then presumably appoint peers. One option would be for this group to appoint Blair to play a leading role in their organisation. I can’t think of a bigger mistake.
If the PLP were to split, they would — I assume — still need to be reselected as Labour MPs. To do that, they would have to prove that they are not what their opponents from the Corbyn camp would wish to paint them as. Letting Blair within a mile of them just looks like a confirmation of all of the worst suspicions of the Labour Left. It move the terms of debate from the electability of Corbyn and his platform, to one considerably to the right of a great deal of the PLP themselves. But most of all, however unfair this is it just stinks of giving up on the future. It would scream “We have no faith in our current pool of talent”. Nostalgia is not as good as it feels. To coin a phrase, to achieve any future success, the PLP must more forward, not back. Newness, change, difference — these are vital political concepts in politics. Few know this as well as Blair himself — hence New Labour. Now is not the time to relive the 90s any more than the 70s.
All of these arguments also stand were Blair to set up a party of his own. But there are so many other reasons why it would be a bad idea for any nascent centrist party to be led by — or have a frontline role for — Tony Blair.
The key things any party needs to work, on anything like a national scale, are money and activists. You need lots of other things too — policies, luck, a decent media operation — but without the former you can’t achieve or take advantage of any of the latter. So you need a leading team that can attract both money and activists. Now we know that Blair has a golden touch with the former, but I don’t see him being once again able to build a mass membership party. A large group of loyalists who will get behind him, and go out to spread the message on the doorsteps.
Blairite Labour pressure group Progress are currently promoting the Stay in Labour campaign to encourage centrists not to give up on the Labour Party. Labour First are focussed on internal elections and their recent unexpected success in the National Constitutional Committee election must give them a certain amount of hope for their ongoing role in Labour. They are staying in the Labour Party even as their politics are at their lowest ebb within the party (which — to be fair — left wingers like Corbyn did themselves during the Blair years). Some might choose to follow Blair to a new party but many would not. Their loyalty is to the party not to an individual within it. Blair should trample all over the legacy they are fighting to protect — not to mention his most loyal supporters from within Labour — by so publicly abandoning them and certainly shouldn’t blithely expect them to follow him.
Blair is not the popular politician he once was. That’s incredibly hard for him. I get that. But he is not going to rebuild his post-Chilcot reputation this way. No one who wants a new centrist party to succeed should allow him to be anywhere near the frontline of it. I would think enough of the small group of people who have the wherewithal to organise such a party understand and recognise this.
Essentially, there are very few routes into a frontline political role for Tony Blair. And none that are a good idea for anyone else concerned. Not least for Blair himself, who will once again find himself out of fashion, out of favour and out of power.