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Lessons in a Landslide: Tony Blair 20 Years After New Labour

Interview30th April 2017

Matt Chorley: Had you always wanted to be Prime Minister?

Tony Blair: No, I never thought I would be Prime Minister. Actually, for a large part of my youth I never had an interest in politics at all. If you told me when I was aged 18 or 19 that I was going to go into politics, never mind be Prime Minister I would have not just dismissed the idea, but treated it with horror. So I got involved in politics a bit later. Even when I got into Parliament I didn’t have a thought of being Prime Minister because I was so much on the moderate wing of the Labour Party that I thought…

MC: Which wasn’t the mood at the time?

TB: Which wasn’t the mood at the time and wasn’t the traditional route to the leadership. The traditional route to the leadership was to be on the left then maybe then you moderated. Whereas I was already in a very much centrist position.

MC: And so then when you became leader on 21 July 1994, at that point how confident were you of then becoming Prime Minister?

TB: Well I thought that we had the right message for the country, which was a reformed Labour Party then modernising the country. So I was very confident of the message. But when you’ve lost four elections in a row, including one that a lot of people thought we might have won in 1992, then you’re naturally pretty hesitant. And I spent most of the next few years in a psychotic state of anti-complacency. 

MC: This is the message that has come across from everyone I’ve spoken to who worked on the campaign, and it all seemed to come from you. Don’t be complacent, always fearing that it could be a repeat of ‘92.

TB: Yes, and that was partly to keep everyone on their toes and make they were working very hard for victory. And it was partly to reassure the public that we weren’t taking it for granted, because I always thought that if they got any sense of that, not merely would it irritate them, they might fear that a Labour Party in government would revert to a Labour Party that they rejected very clearly in those previous four elections. And so there was never – and this gets lost on the mists of time – but there was never any doubt that we were going to be different type of Labour Party. And in my view that was absolutely central to our winning, and central to our go on winning. Because I always had this idea that Labour could win an election as a protest against the government, in order to give the Tories a breather before the resumed their role of as the natural party of government, but if Labour wanted to change the country it had to govern for more than one term, and it had to govern for more than one term with a significant majority.

MC: So you described during an interview during the campaign that New Labour was very much your own creation. How important was the new in New Labour?

TB: The new was vital. Without the new there wouldn’t have been that size of majority for sure and I don’t think we would have then won successive majorities. Because times had moved on and people wanted a party that was committed to the traditional values of social justice but accepted you needed a thriving enterprise sector, that we weren’t going to turn the clock back on the Thatcher reforms that basically people more or less accepted. You weren’t going to put British Airways back into public ownership, for example. You weren’t going to scrap the legal framework for Trade Unions. You weren’t going to go back to 80/90 per cent rates of tax. So all of these things were partly, frankly, what was the new settlement of the times. What we wanted to do was take things in a different direction on investment in public services, on helping those who were most vulnerable and things like the minimum wage and the social changes, civil partnerships and so on. We had a whole set of changes we wanted to make but they didn’t depend on disturbing the previous settlement; on the contrary they depended on building on it.

MC: When you get into the actual campaign. Do you enjoy campaigning?

TB: I enjoy being out and about, but if I’m really frank about it: the trouble when you’re campaigning when you’re leader – I used to enjoy campaigning a lot because I enjoy interacting with people – but when you’re the leader and you’re in that type of extraordinarily hyper atmosphere then you’re aware you’re on the at risk register all the time. It only requires one stray remark, or someone does something, and you’re plunged into panic and chaos. So when you’re leading your party in a campaign, some people love even that part of it, I was very conscious of the responsibility of it. 

MC: It was exhausting, the process of campaigning?

TB: Yeah, the process of campaigning itself is very exhausting because you’re making speeches the whole time and you’re having to keep incredibly focused. And then you’ve got big set-piece interviews afterwards and so on, which can always go wrong. For me, because the Labour Party’s long period in opposition and because people were still sceptical about whether it was possible for Labour to really come through, I was always aware of the enormity of the responsibility and the realisation that if I failed, for any reason, then that was the Labour Party more or less finished.

MC: On the subject of interviews, what for you was the more terrifying: doing a David Dimbleby or a Des O’Connor?

TB: Des O’Connor for sure is much more difficult. Any interview when a politician is taken out of their natural habitat, which is answering questions about policy or political issues of the day, and they’re translated into a context of “what are you like as a human being?” you’re always conscious of the fact that you might come across either as someone people don’t like, or you’re just out of your routine or where you’re comfortable. Des O’Connor is far more troubling than a David Dimbleby type thing.

MC: I want to ask you about behind the scenes in the campaign, because it wasn’t touched on much at the time, but know we have you had lots of big beasts around you and sometimes they locked horns, whether it was over policy or just not being in the room for the meetings. How much time or thought did you have to give to managing these egos?

TB: I was lucky because I had a brilliant team of people; they really were and are a brilliant team of people. Jonathan Powell, Alastair Campbell, Peter Mandelson, Anji Hunter, Sally Morgan, David Miliband and Philip Gould, Margaret McDonagh. They were an extraordinary group of people. Then you had the big political figures like Gordon Brown and John Prescott and so on. But it’s in the nature of really smart, capable people, especially people able to withstand pressure, that they’re people of strong opinions and views. Managing that did take some effort, although in that first campaign, to be fair, the joint venture of success was so compelling that mostly people checked their egos out at the door. Mostly, not always. Sometimes there was strong disagreement.

MC: With your relationship with Gordon and in particular, Peter Mandelson talked about he didn’t even sign off the economic policy even as John Major was calling the election. Looking back now, do you wish you’d tried to sort out that relationship before you went into government, because those problems continued afterwards.   

TB: I don’t think it was sortable in the end, because it was borne of a, what was a very difficult passage when John Smith died and I became leader, but certainly at that stage, whatever difficulties there were, were more than compensated by the enormous contribution Gordon made. And the fact that he was there as a huge carrier of a message, with the capability also of impressing people completely independently of my positon, that was enormously important. But I think the essence of the problem never really changed.  

MC: When you stood outside Royal Festival Hall, new dawn has broken, you talked about how the result was moving and humbling, you spoke a lot about the responsibility of going into government. What was going through your head when you flew down from Sedgefield when you realised not only had you won, but you’d won by such a landslide?

TB: It was a very odd feeling that night, because first of all as the results came in, I actually at one point got worried. I was literally looking at the screen and thinking ‘I think it’s time the Tories won a few more seats because this is going to be so big it’s going to be an embarrassment and then people are going to think I’ve done something terrible to the constitution of the country.’ There was a moment early on, I think because of the way the seats came in, that the Tories just had a handful and we were sort of mounting towards a hundred and I was thinking ‘oh my God this is too much’. And the other thing is, I think I was one of a few sober people around that night, and I was very sober and conscious of the responsibility.

MC: Were you frightened?

TB: Yeah I was. Frightened is perhaps not the right word, but I was somewhat overawed, yeah.

MC: Were you ready to be Prime Minister?

TB: You’re never ready when you come straight in off the back of 18 years in opposition. In that sense, you’re never ready. We were ready in one way, which was very important. Although lots of policy was still to be decided, and that’s natural, an opposition party can’t be expected to have all its policies worked out; in fact, it’s not even a good idea that it does. But we were ready in the sense that we were heavily oriented. In other words, we knew what type of government we wanted to be. We had certain clear principles established, so we didn’t come in without a compass, but we did come in without having obviously yet done that journey, knowing what obstacles there are in the way. The one thing you realise the moment you come into government is that campaigning to be the government is completely different from governing. There is nothing really compares you quite for that, if you haven’t been in that position before.

MC: New Labour created this incredibly broad coalition of public support and some people said maybe it was actually quite shallow. You won over so many people, but it never became baked in. The new dawn broke in 1997, but perhaps the sunset in 2007.

TB: I don’t agree with that actually. The truth is David Miliband won the leadership election in 2010 [in terms of CLP], so actually within the Labour Party, at that point, there was a majority for a modernising Labour Party. I think the coalition we created in the country was completely sustainable and, in a weird way, part of this went with David Cameron. It was still very much a centre-ground coalition, but centre-right, rather than centre-left. But I’ve always believed that we did actually get to a coalition that was sustainable in a post-industrial revolution world, where some of the old structures and old coalitions had broken down. So the Labour Party we put together was a Labour party of people who were, economically, in favour of social justice but in favour of enterprise, were socially liberal, internationalist in outlook. That coalition, I still think it exists in British politics today. It’s not represented currently in British politics, but it’s still there; I’ve got no doubt about it.

MC: To what extent do you think the enormous tidal wave of support and hope and optimism that you captured in 1997 is partly why you now provoke a different reaction?

TB: It’s true that the expectations were colossally out of line with anything any government could possibly do. And actually one of the really interesting things to do when you go back in time is to look at what we promised; it was extraordinarily modest.  If you take that pledge card – the famous card with the five pledges on it – we did them all. So in that sense you could say we fulfilled our promises! But when you look at them they’re incredibly modest. We ended up achieving far far more than we promised. I still think there is support for the basic political position – and this is to talk now about contemporary politics – but I think the polarisation of the media into a leftist and rightist media, you can see this in America and elsewhere in Europe today, means that the centre ground often appears to be discredited, when I feel there is still an enormous latent support for those positions amongst the public.

But a lot of people now prefer to inhabit their own ecosystem of politics, where they talk to people that just agree with each other. Obviously for the last 10 years I’ve not been in the frontline of politics. If I was, we’d be doing things very differently in order to try and change that situation, because I think the most dangerous thing in Western politics at the moment is that this polarisation is so intense that it becomes paralysing.

MC: You talked a lot in your speech at Royal Festival Hall about trust and the narrative around spin and New Labour and the erosion of trust. Do you think that’s fair? Spin sort of went from a good thing, because you had a grip on media management to a stick to beat you with?

TB: Look, obviously I don’t think it’s fair, because in today’s world I don’t know what government that came after us didn’t have a sophisticated communications machine. And nowadays by the way, it’s got to be even more sophisticated because of social media. In the end we had governing project, and I never felt in the whole 10 years I was Prime Minister, I was confronted with an idea that was better than ours. When you came to the Labour Party in the late 70s – and I think Jim Callaghan would have accepted this at the time – you felt there was a governing idea that was more powerful than the idea the Labour Party felt at that time. I never felt that. Spin became a reflex that was really born in part of a frustration that people didn’t quite know how to topple us and defeat us. Yes, of course we were a powerful media machine, but my god we had to be. And if you’d grown up in the Labour Party, as I did, in the 1980s, when your leadership was getting eviscerated on a daily basis by the media, not to have adopted a proper media strategy would have been pretty foolish. I believe if we’d carried on with a modernising project, because the key to me, is the world is changing today so fast; faster today than in 2007, much faster than in 1997 – and therefore, the spirit, the zeitgeist if you like, that brought us to where we were in 1997 – the irony is that even though New Labour is rejected by the Labour Party today, and in some sense discredited by the right wing media, in who’s interest it is to do so, actually the relevance of it as a concept, as an attitude, is greater today than it was 20 years ago because the world is changing even faster.

MC: How do you feel now when New Labour and Blairites are dirty words in the party that you led?

TB: Sad, because that Labour Party has only even won when it’s been a modernising project. It won in 1995 when – you know I always say to people about Clem Atlee, I ask them when he came into government. And they say 1945. I say, no: he had been deputy Prime Minister throughout the war years. The fact is the Labour Party in 1945 was the outcome of a whole set of thoughts and ideas and it was a modernising project. 1964 is exactly the same: it’s a modernising project under Harold Wilson. White heat of technology, social liberalism being added as a dimension to Labour thinking. Likewise in 1997.  So I feel sad when people think that their answer is to go back, because it never is. Progressive parties only win when they’re at the cutting edge of the future. If they become another form of small ‘c’ conservativism they lose.

MC: So how do you feel now having led the Labour Party into three election wins. Do you worry that Labour might never win again?

TB: There’s no way Labour will win again, unless it changes radically in my view. There’s no point in kind of hiding that. And I think the evidence points to that: when you’re losing safe Labour seats to a second term Tory government. If you’re not worried, you’ve got to ask yourself some pretty serious questions. It’s perfectly possible for Labour – and I hope it does recover itself – but it’s going to have to recover itself radically, and this isn’t a matter of personality of the leader. We’ve got to understand where the world is. We live in a world of accelerating change; the next generation of technology is going to make an even greater difference on the way people live and work and think. If the Labour Party is not able to comprehend that and engage from a public policy point view with the world as it actually is, it’s never going to appeal to sufficient numbers of people. That old industrial base just isn’t the same as it was 40/50 years ago. I always say to people: when Sam Watson was the leader of the Durham miners back in the 50s, the National Union of Mineworkers was a huge organisation just in County Durham. All that’s gone. So you’ve got to replace that coalition with a new coalition today. If you don’t do that you’re out of sync with the way the world is changing. What that means it, yes, you can appeal to a group of people, and they will give you very vociferous and vocal support, but you’ve got no chance of reaching into the broad mass of people and forming a governing majority.

MC: Is part of the problem that there isn’t, after you and Gordon, there wasn’t another generation of big beasts in the Labour Party, either brought on or developed? Part of the reason Jeremy Corbyn won was because the alternatives were pretty uninspiring and we look around now and there are people in the Labour Party who are desperate for an alternative and no one seems to be leading that?

TB: I’m always a sceptic about the ‘our generation was great, but the next one’s not so good.’ There are lots of people there, and no disrespect to Ed Miliband, but if David Miliband had won the leadership election in 2010 then the history of the party and the country might have been different.

MC: Would you like to see him come back?

TB: I always think there should be a place for David in British politics, because he’s such an intelligent and decent man. But obviously that’s for him. But there’s plenty of great people out there – and when I met the younger generation, the people in their late 20s, early 30s, sadly some of whom are not really involved in the Labour Party, but they’re really interested in politics, that’s a fantastic generation. There’s some real talent out there, but it’s going to require us now to, from where we are, build an entirely new coalition. You’ve got to be reaching out to people in a completely different way. And you do have to show people that there is a policy agenda for the future. This is what I’m working on now with my new Institute. The centre-ground has got to renew itself in terms of policy and ideas before it can renew itself in terms of political organisation.

MC: Do you think there could come a point when the Corbyn project of running the Labour Party damages the party to such an extent that it’s no longer the vehicle for the centre-ground and a new party is needed?

TB: I’m not advocating, or in favour of a new party. I think the Labour Party can recover; it’s shown before in its history it’s able to do that. I do, however, think the situation is serious and urgent.   

MC: You’ve got more in common with the Lib Dems now than the Labour Party?

TB: There’s always been times in my political life where people have said you’ve got more in common with these people, or these people, rather than the Labour Party. But I’ve always found it curious: I was leader of the Labour Party for 13 years and people always tell me that I didn’t understand it and that I don’t understand it, but I do. I understand the Labour Party and I studied its history and I study its history. But its history should show you that the one thing that is always fatal for a progressive party is self-indulgence and falling for the absolute false dichotomy between principle and power. If we weren’t about to introduce things like a minimum wage, civil partnerships – just take something like the overseas aid programme of the British government today that was founded by us, the Department for International Development. There are millions of lives that have been touched by that around the world. These progressive things aren’t done unless you are in power. On things like Brexit I would probably do have more in common with the Lib Dems – and, by the way, I’m not tribal about politics and never have been. I think it’s perfectly possible for people to cooperate across party lines and that British politics would be healthier if people did that. Same with American politics. Same with the politics on the continent of Europe today. That’s where I stand. It’s not that I feel a greater affinity with people outside my own political party, but at the moment I have to accept that the strain of Labour politics that I represent is obviously being marginalised within Labour, but I think the result of that marginalisation has not been to the Labour Party’s advantage.

MC: What goes through your mind when you hear Things Can Only Get Better? Did you become sick of the song, or does it take you right back?

TB: Of course it has a ring of nostalgia to it. I’m by nature forward looking, not backward looking and it reminds me of what was a great time. We did change the tenor and tone of what went on in the country. And one of the tragedies to my mind of Brexit is that it really is in the end, a profound throwback to the past. So when I hear Things Can Only Get Better I’m more, sort of, amused and think of the superficial memories. But when I think back to 1997 and the advent of the Labour Government, I think about it more in the context of today rather than I do of back then because that attitude of forward looking open-mindedness is still what is necessary in British politics today.

MC: When you mark the 20th anniversary are you going to get the old gang back together?

TB: The old band?! Well when you see all the old bands who are touring today, from the 60s and 70s, I think, well there’s always a place for us! But we all stay in touch, so we don’t really need to raise a glass as it were, but, in any event, metaphorically we will.

Listen to the original podcast.

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