Does Labour need Tony Blair back on board? Thanks, Tony – but no thanks | Neal Lawson

After all the abstract chat and whispers from the sidelines, a tangible proposal: Tony Blair wants to return to advise the next Labour government. As the notion gains currency, much of the country cheers; the rest of it jeers. What is it about this man that engenders such love and loathing, and would it be good for Labour or the country if he returned?

The first point to make after the New Statesman’s scoop – the fruit of a conversation between Blair and the actor/guest editor Michael Sheen – is that he almost certainly is advising already, either directly or through intermediaries such as Peter Mandelson, who is known to be close to Keir Starmer’s key fixer Morgan McSweeney.

Other older New Labour hands are back at the centre of things, not least Deborah Mattinson, who is Starmer’s head of strategy, and Matthew Doyle, who serves as executive director of communications for Starmer, having previously fulfilled a PR role for Blair. But you don’t need to be told that: you just have to see how Starmer’s operation is mimicking the Blair playbook on issues such as crime and public spending. Perhaps most telling is that last November, Blair in effect anointed Starmer at a private north London gathering. Now the question is how close Blair gets to the levers of power.

Why Blair, and why now? The man still fascinates, repels and attracts because he is such a class act. After everything, and whatever we think, he is compelling. He thinks big and he has an argument that he prosecutes with sublime skill. A narrative twinned with easy charm and supreme confidence is a winning hand. We know the mantra of Blair’s electoral wins sandwiched between loss after loss. Blair is a winner, so let’s have him back, right?

But first, let’s stop and think. It’s true that, in their time and in their different ways, Blair and Gordon Brown bestrode the land. A small handful of politicians have done so in the last few decades: Thatcher, Johnson, Sturgeon and, yes, Nigel Farage. Politics abhors a vacuum, and in a moment of multiple crises there is a temptation to grab nostalgically from the past.

But it would be as if, in 1994 – when Blair became Labour leader – the party had turned to Harold Wilson to light the way forward. Blair, like every politician, is a product of his moment. His moment was an era defined by the country meeting the limits of raw Thatcherism, a benign economy that by 2007 had grown for 60 consecutive quarters, a kingdom still largely united, Britain’s place in Europe secure, the west triumphant over the Soviet Union, and the climate crisis as yet barely registering. What’s more, Labour could still claim to be the left’s one big tent.

Of course, Blair achieved many good things in terms of child poverty reduction and public service investment. But he seems to have no self-awareness – even now – that letting the City of London do whatever it wanted helped crash the economy in 2008, or that allowing productive migrants into the country might cause tensions without enough good jobs, houses or schools to ease the transition. And all that’s before you get to the Iraq war and the way that toxified the public realm – not least in the context of another illegal invasion now. All this and more paved the way to Tory rule, austerity, Brexit, the desire for Scottish independence and the loss of the red wall.

Blair thrived in an era that has gone. The long-term consensus, buy-in and active participation we will need to solve many issues, including the climate transition, demand very different skills – not so much to persuade people, but to help them collectively to help themselves.

It’s not that Blair isn’t brilliant at politics, in the sense that he is a master at playing the game – he is. It’s that he has had his go, and it largely failed and helped leave us in the mess we are now in. It’s a different system we need: Blair was the last shining star of an old politics whose time is up.

We should learn from his professionalism, his verve and his ability to connect to people but use such skills to take people on a journey of change in which they create that better future. Because in our complex and interdependent world, as we are learning from Covid, climate and Ukraine, it’s the only way it will happen.

A party in cultural crisis that looks back, not forward, is doomed to fail. Someone knew that in 1994. Thanks, Tony – and no thanks.

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