Saturday 15 July 2017

Tony Blair is Wrong about Everything

Taking time out from hanging with Bono and advising Central Asian dictators on how best to spin repression and executions, His Blairness has condescended to return to British politics to tell us things. And there are two things on his mind: Brexit and the election result. To save you the trouble, I've read his essay so you don't have to.

Boiling his argument down to its constituent parts, the first is the usual Brexit is bad and is a massive distraction from more pressing problems. Well, there's no disagreement here. Brexit is bad, and one cannot deny that third country status outside of the single market and the customs union is going to cause major problems. That said, we shouldn't just accept this situation. It's the job of political leaders to act as educators and set forth a number of Brexit options, which could include an invitation for the EU to reform as a price of keeping our membership. According to some unspecified chats he's had with the movers and the shakers, they want us to stay and are even willing to compromise on free movement.

Oh really? Colour me sceptical. Some of us can remember the debacle of Dave's negotiations with the EU early in 2016. He was then told repeatedly the "four freedoms" of the EU - the frictionless movement of goods, services, capital and people - are indivisible, and there is no budging on this. Over a year on and the answer is still the same. Managerially it might make sense for the EU27 to fudge it, but politically it's an absolute no. Nothing would stir up far right populism more than Britain opting out of free movement of labour but retaining the benefits of everything else. So excuse my French when I say Blair is talking out his backside.

The other problem is intractable nature of Brexit. Staying in the EU is not and cannot be on the table, regardless of whether it reforms or not unless there is a democratic vote to undo the referendum. Do we need reminding that setting aside a decision whose legitimacy is accepted by the vast majority is a really stupid and dangerous thing to do? As Blair notes, there is no political groundswell for revisiting the decision, and so we're stuck. Blair can rail against this along with the other nostalgics who refuse to accept the result, but that's what we've got to deal with. Again, while it makes economic sense to remain party to as many EU institutions and agreements as possible, in the end both the Tories and Labour have eyes on the politics. For the Tories, it's about protecting the interests they've always protected and trying not to plunge themselves further into ruination. That also means not leaving openings to their right again. Labour, as outside the negotiating process, also has a very difficult line to tread. According to YouGov contra Blair, reacting against Brexit was not a self-reported reason for voting Labour (while guarding it was the main reason respondents gave for voting Tory), so the claims remainers are going to dump the party when they find out it is committed to seeing Brexit through is bunk. But it must be careful - being honest that Brexit is going to hurt and that only Labour can fix the messes and divisions the Tories have left is a start, but it much stretch every sinew to ensure the costs of Brexit are not borne by our people. An extremely difficult task in the best of times (you try managing a capitalist economy in the interests of the many), but one that is existential for Labour as it adjusts to the new class relationships of the 21st century. Get it wrong then Labour will get consigned to the history books.

Hopeless on the politics of Brexit, I wasn't holding out much for his analysis of the election result. Naturally, there was no reflection on why he called it wrong, but that's par the course - two years on his remaining friends in the Labour Party still haven't asked the key questions about Corbynism, let alone arrived at any answers about why it brushed them aside and won millions of new votes. That in mind, Blair is forced to suppress the Corbyn factor and talk up the rubbish Tory campaign. Undeniably it played its part, but if negativity toward Theresa May was the driving factor that would not explain the dramatic uplift in Jeremy Corbyn's personal ratings. Indeed, according to the YouGov data above anti-Tory/anti-May sentiment combined fell well short of the main driver of Labour support, which was the manifesto. Jeremy as a positive reason to vote Labour wasn't far behind either. Compare this to Tory voters, in which anti-Labour and anti-Jez motivations (combined) are way out in front. This isn't surprising considering how the Tories are dependent on fear and loathing to cohere their vote. For Blair's project however, it must simply ignore the evidence, and in this case it means passing over the appeal of Corbynism and pretending it's nothing more than "unreconstructed hard left economics" that cannot "answer the call of the future". Au contraire, the chord it struck for millions of people across the occupational range just goes to show they were the most modern politics on offer.

Those for whom Blair is "the master", he does offer some hope. "People will default to populism when a radical centre is not on offer; where it is, they will vote it in, as Macron has shown", he argues. Ah yes, Emmanuel Macron, the absurd "Jupiterian" (neo)liberal hero of France and his "complex thoughts". Like Blair's analysis of the British election, this observation requires overlooking a lot of things. Like the collapse of the Socialist Party for adopting the sort of politics Blair pursued in office (and Macron has promised more of), the collapse of the centre right that allowed him to get through by default to run off against Marine Le Pen, and the historically low turn out at last month's parliamentary elections (48% and 43% in rounds one and two, respectively). Blair might think Macron represents a return to the centre, but it's the last gasp of a knackered politics. One hopes a turn to the left might come as per Britain, but politics is unlikely to be straitjacketed by cosy liberalism for long.

All that said, why bother paying attention to what Blair has to say? Believe me, I'd rather not have to but there are two very good reasons why we should. The first is because he gets wall-to-wall coverage in the media. It behoves us to take him seriously as an object of criticism just as so many of them take him seriously as an object of emulation. I recall his unhelpful intervention on Brexit during the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election campaign and how much trouble it caused on the doorstep. The second point is he condenses the views of decaying liberalism. He acknowledges politics have changed, but he clings on to the same old same old. He offers up the centre ground as the source of solutions and, bizarrely, as the agent for change ("The space for the centre may seem smaller; but the need for it is ever bigger"). Such dogmatic insistence on a force that never existed is flatly delusional. Blair also talks of problems, but seems to think a bit of managerialism here and there's going to sort things out. From his point of view and according to his own words, it appears the more things change the more they stay the same. Imperious in his arrogance yet ignorant of his obsolescence, Blair's intervention epitomises the global establishment he represents. He may have been the future once, but increasingly socialism is the future now.


Kriss said...

Really like this analysis. Spot on without being personal against Blair, which is really tedious to read.

>it much stretch every sinew to ensure the costs of Brexit are not borne by our people

I just don't see how this is even possible. Tories are busy putting out the doublethink that Corbyn can't afford his costed manifesto promises because after Brexit we can't afford it while at the same time saying everything will all be fine.

I want some actual leadership, someone sharing ideas and a vision of what we can do that is positive and collaborative. I'm not seeing that from any party.

Makhno said...

Excellent stuff Phil, as usual.

On a less analytical note, reading some of the passive-aggressive creeping Jesus's of the "radical centre" on the social medias, some of them are a gnat's chuff away from stating "WELL, at least he made the trains run on time".

Jonathan said...

Yes Phil Brexit is a bad idea, so why do you think we should continue to go down that path? Hard Brexit will be bad for this country you know and I know it. Yet because Blair says it bad and we should try and get a deal that doesn't fuck us up up then your against it.

If Blair said don't stick fingers in plug sockets then you'd do a piece saying stick your fingers in plug sockets ignore what Tony said.

Phil said...

It's almost as if you haven't read the post, Jon. Not the only time I've had that impression.

Shai Masot said...

Is Blair still a member of the party? He shouldn't be. And Johnson was on RT the day before yesterday admitting that he wanted Labour to lose the election badly, so his Tory-lite pals could step in and "save" it. He shouldn't be in the party either.

The Blairites have such an incredible sense of entitlement, and it's astonishing that members continue to put up with their behaviour.

Anonymous said...

Rebecca Long-Bailey on tv earlier talking about Brexit actually saying we want our cake and to eat it. Yep, thats our position. We keep saying idiotic things like wanting tariff free access to the SM and CU as if that is a real option.
Sooner or later we are going to have to turn one way or the other on Brexit.
If we genuinely believe it to be damaging - now the overwhelming consensus - then I dont see how we can protect working people by going along with a position that we know will do enormous harm.


Makhno said...

"I dont see how we can protect working people by going along with a position that we know will do enormous harm"

Because if Labour came straight out and said it would ignore the referendum and reverse A50 it would be political suicide.

We're currently in the fog of war, politically. I'm not sure a clear message on Brexit is advisable or even possible, given the circumstances. The party needs to both monitor the negotiations and gauge the public mood, as the situation is too fluid at present for categorical positions. Personally, I am a fervent Remainer and my ideal would be a federal Europe, but we are where we are. I just don't think it's a hill the party needs to die on at this moment. I also think that Blair is entirely the wrong person to lead or represent any debate, as he is fervently disliked by as many Remainers as Brexiters, for very good reason.

Anonymous said...

This is the benefit of being out of power, waiting for a fumble from the Tories. In that situation, you do not give away your tactics. All is indeed possible, and any failure by the current government to have it all makes that fumble more inevitable.

andrew adams said...

Given that another election in the coming months can't be ruled out I can see the logic of Labour maintaining its somewhat unclear position for the time being.
But having said that, making silly vacuous statements which don't seriously address the reality of the situation is just bad. The biggest Brexit card Labour has to play is that the government is not serious or competent on the issue, we can't play that card if we aren't serious about it ourselves.
And given that if there is another election there will be an actual possibility of Labour winning I would expect the party's position on Brexit to come under much closer scrutiny, we will have to be honest about how we will handle the trade-offs between what is politically desirable and the economic realities.
What's more, if we actually do get into power and have to handle this thing ourselves then we will be judged harshly if we then have to explain that we can't in fact have our cake and eat it.

Anonymous said...

Macron looks like the Brain from Pinky & The Brain.

Like His Royal Blairness and other centrist technocrats, Macron also seems to have delusions of absolutism. Only in that circle would a low turnout run-off against a near outright fascist be considered such an overwhelming victory.

Makhno said...

@andrew adams

Your point is somewhat unclear. You seem to be saying that the current Labour position is understandable, and then go on to complain about a position at some point in the future that they probably won't even hold.

I think you want to have your cake and eat it yourself, to be honest.

Lepista said...

One error in your analysis: You say about brexit "a decision whose legitimacy is accepted by the vast majority". This simply isn't true. The vote was marginal, at best, winning by 52:48, without even going down the path that the electorate were lied to by the brexit team.

Makhno said...

I don't really think that that's an error. The % that voted for Remain is different from the % that consider that the result is legitimate or otherwise.

Similarly, I voted Labour, I would much rather the Tories had lost, but I don't particularly question the legitimacy of the election on its own terms.

Lepista said...

I disagree. The referendum was won on the thinnest of margins. It was won on a bed of lies, and a poor, hasty "debate" from both sides, with no deeper analysis other than shouting (unless you looked really, really, hard). Not one person who voted for exit can put together a coherent vision for how we will transition, let alone "thrive" when we are out of the EU.

This referendum isn't comparable to a general election: We can't change our mind once we are out, this will affect the UK for generations. If the terms of reference have changed (i.e. what we now know about brexit, rather than the utopia that was promised, then of course the legitimacy of the referendum should be questioned. Those who peddled the brexit dream should be held to account, hounded until they either stand by their word and produce a credible plan, or capitulate and retract their support of brexit as they had promised.

What was voted for in the referendum (a brexit utopia) is not what will be delivered.

With regards to "democratic process" I refer you to this series of excellent tweets by @EmporersNewC's