Last week, Tony Blair was interviewed on the BBC podcast “Political Thinking.” The interview was more of an exercise in archaeology than in politics, with the crumbling baetyl speaking of the world as though it has erred beyond all recovery without the benefit of his day-to-day management. Of course, we see him as a ruin whereas he can see only a world that is in ruins without him.
Once Blair had generously consented to become politically superfluous, by ensuring that enough younger copies of himself were cloned to populate the Labour leadership. Unfortunately, the Miliband brothers, Andy Burnham, Chuka Umunna, Liz Kendall, and all the rest of them were each found to be sprinkling something thinner than the familiar stardust. Indeed, the more Blairs that are in circulation, the more that his force of personality is diluted.
Blair is suddenly suffering a crisis of confidence in Labour. During his thirteen years as leader, he had demoralised the party roughly as much as he had reinvigorated it. He had won three general elections but his election-winning centre ground was left depleted through over-farming. In the “Political Thinking” podcast, he confirms that Labour has “fundamentally changed” and that “I’m not sure it’s possible to take it back.”
Tychy will never see the sunny side of anti-Semitism, but Blair’s despair is not wholly to do with the conspiracy theories about Israel that are allegedly rampant within Labour. Rather, I think that it represents a deep pessimism with the possibility of a genuinely democratic political movement. As Prime Minister, Blair had viewed himself as a rock star and the Labour party as a mere fan club. Party members were supposed to buy the merchandise, put up the posters, and traipse around singing the new material on doorsteps. A fan club is not meant to write the songs or decide who is in the band. As Peter Oborne had chronicled in his The Triumph of the Political Class (2007):
Almost all of the rising stars inside the New Labour government were special advisors – Ed Balls, Ed Miliband and others for Gordon Brown; David Miliband for Tony Blair; Kitty Ussher for Patricia Hewitt. And so on. This is not a coincidence. Singled out for preferment in their twenties, they have been trained like racehorses for the unique demands of ministerial office in the era of the Political Class. Once the special advisor makes the decision to find a constituency, the party machine is commandeered to secure him or her a safe seat. Very often a sitting MP is bribed with a peerage or some other inducement, or pressured in some way, into giving up his constituency, while strong local candidates are discouraged from standing or sometimes sabotaged by the high command.
Momentum, the powerbase behind the current leader Jeremy Corbyn, is devising reforms that aim to make the selection of MPs more open and democratic. Sitting MPs will no longer stroll through a “trigger ballot,” in which local branches are asked merely to renew their support for the MP’s candidacy, with no opportunity to put forward an alternative candidate (and with any dissent being quashed using union votes). Under Momentum’s more competitive system, MPs will be forced to defend their beliefs and voting patterns before constituency parties in order to be re-selected. This will be highly inconvenient to the political careerist – it means that they will need to network with many more people, and much lower down the hierarchy, to bag or retain a seat. The crisis for Blair and his epigones is not simply procedural but it represents a broader and potentially permanent disaster for their elitism.
With power disappearing from its normal corridors, and popping up informally within local constituencies, the wielding of power will depend upon convincing people, appealing to their better judgements, and winning arguments. Blairism, however, has been always about protecting power from the unpredictability of mass participation. In Blair’s day, decision-making was contracted out, to private companies, quangos, and that supreme supervisory force, the European Union. At the points where democracy could not be realistically outsourced, the conventional Blairite stratagem was to treat the demos as a mindless material to be manipulated by PR experts. The masses, in the Blairite analysis, should have their minds subtly shaped by soundbites rather than being engaged with as equals in any complicated debate.
So now the Blairites are absolutely seething. It is not that they are forced to reason with ordinary people but that they are forced to concede that ordinary people have reason.
That near to 400,000 people have joined the Labour party to support Jeremy Corbyn is not regarded as a fortuitous renaissance in party democracy. Instead, it is implicitly likened to the bloating of a drowned corpse. All of these new members are apparently just a noxious gas, a by-product from the process of Blair’s decomposition. As one Blairite MP has commented, “There are always going to be 500,000 people [sic] in the country who are off-the-page nuts. The problem we’ve got is that they have all joined the Labour party because of Jeremy Corbyn.” In Blair’s own analysis, four fifths of his party now somehow comprise a weird minority of Trotskyite zombies who had been previously expelled or safely put off. Happily, deciding that all of these people are zombies renders trying to reason with them a futile undertaking. Blair has thus found his conclusion in his premise.
A rump of centrists is now scheming to break away from Labour to form a new party. Without half a million members, this new party will be much easier to manage from the top down. The basic design flaw that it will be a too-many-chiefs-not-enough-injuns party, or even an all-chiefs-no-injuns party, is yet to be grappled with.
I distantly orbit the Labour movement. I usually vote Labour and I am the member of a union that gives me voting rights in their internal elections. Recently, and presumably only due to my union membership, I have been receiving the minutes of my local Labour party meetings by email. At the last one, over sixty people had debated motions on Brexit and a People’s Vote. I doubt that my own full-fat Brexiteering or my freedom-fighting libertarianism would be welcome at these meetings, but I am still exhilarated by their growing participativeness.
Maybe when Brexit is over I will approach them. I shall keep this party like a strange, dubious birthday present, such as a DVD course in Chinese brush painting, something put aside that will be one day explored fully. Or maybe another party or faction will emerge that will better suit me. I am not so much a floating voter as a floating party member.
Or perhaps Brexit could be ultimately won in such forums. For example, the Brexiteering MP Kate Hoey is currently besieged in her Vauxhall constituency, after facing a no-confidence vote from local party members. Hoey was originally imposed on her local party in 1989 by Labour’s National Executive Committee (the party had supported the black activist Martha Osamor). Nonetheless, in the latest wrangle only 42 out of the 2,300 or so eligible members had shown up to vote for the no-confidence motion. And one increasingly suspects that its passing was reliant upon an absence of debate.
Momentum activists often appear to adhere almost tribally to the European Union. Yet this obstinately unthinking stasis is not likely to prove tenable once it is placed under real democratic scrutiny. In such a diverse constituency as Vauxhall, “with 5.6 times the national percentage of people from the Afro-Caribbean ethnic group and over twice the national proportion of people from Asian ethnic groups,” how can party members endorse open borders with only the majority-white nations of the EU? Isn’t this rather embarrassing? Similarly, how can they continue to support the EU so unconditionally when it has taken such a hostile attitude to Italy’s Five Star Movement, whose policy platform is synonymous with Jeremy Corbyn’s? And isn’t their desire to make the EU solely responsible for decisions on major economic questions just a bigger version of Blair’s mission to avoid responsibility by privatising everything?
Whenever Momentum activists are challenged on these grounds, they always maintain that they are actually giving unconditional support to a different EU to the one that exists. They support an ideal EU – an EU that might eventually emerge from phantasmal reforms – and, naturally, nothing can be practicably debated until this happens.
Such a hopeless, spurious position can be only ever more weakened within a democratic debate. Reducing politics to tribal chanting and a stubborn unimaginativeness will not stop the remorseless acid of common sense eating through. Yes, maybe Brexit could be ultimately won in such forums.