Last year, Barack Obama told a student audience in Chicago:
“This idea of purity and that you’re never compromised and you’re always politically woke — you should get over that quickly. The world is messy. There are ambiguities. People who do really good stuff have flaws. People who you are fighting may love their kids, and share certain things with you.
“I do get a sense sometimes now among certain young people, and this is accelerated by social media — there is this sense sometimes of the way of me making change is to be as judgmental as possible about other people, and that’s enough. If I tweet or hashtag about how you didn’t do something right or used the wrong verb, then I can sit back and feel pretty good about myself. Did you see how woke I was, I called you out. Then I’m going to get on my TV and watch my show … That’s not activism. That’s not bringing about change. If all you’re doing is casting stones, you’re probably not going to get that far.”
Tony Blair gave an equivalent message when he spoke at King’s College London yesterday. There was the old showman. The voice a little more hesitant but the grin as broad as ever. All the familiar rhetorical ticks were used – that fey diffidence when he wanted to emphasise a point on which he was especially emphatic. (“Saying to the people you need to win ‘we don’t like you’ is not a great start to a political conversation to be honest….”). The event marked the 120th anniversary of the Labour Party. Blair is not one for nostalgia, his great theme is wanting everything to be “new”. Yet he did manage the following reference:
“I thought hard about taking stock on the Labour Party’s 120th anniversary. It’s not as if my advice is particularly welcome to today’s Party. But then it occurred to me that there are only two people born in the last 120 years who have actually won an election for Labour. And alas Harold Wilson is long gone.
As for the other two Labour Leaders to have won an election, Ramsay MacDonald was born in 1866 and Clement Attlee in 1883.
Out of 120 years, Labour has been in power for just over 30 of them. That is a stark statistic.”
To say his advice is not “particularly welcome” – he went on to say he wouldn’t endorse any leadership contender to avoid harming anyone’s chances – was not self-deprecatory humour. It’s an understatement. There is a deep hostility towards him among large swathes of current Labour Party members. A YouGov poll of Labour members found 62 per cent unfavourable – including 42 per cent who declared themselves “very unfavourable”. If anything, the Lib Dems are even less keen on him. So his vague pitch about some kind of merger or alliance between Labour and the Lib Dems is unlikely to be well received.
In an echo of Obama, he cautioned against “shouty denunciation of anyone who disagrees”. Then Blair told his audience:
“The Labour Party is not an NGO, and not a pressure group. Its aim is not to trend on twitter, or to have celebrities (temporarily) fawn over it, or to glory in a bubble of adulation pricked by the sharp point of the first tough decision.
“Our task is to win power and get our hands stuck into the muddy mangle of governing, where out of it can be pulled the prize of progress measured not in fine words spoken at a distance, but in real grounded changes in the wellbeing of the people, some of which they may thank us for and many of which they will never even know were down to our struggle to place self discipline over self indulgence.”
Though Labour supporters may not have much inclination to listen to Blair, I think he does have some useful message for Conservatives – both in his speech and the Q&A session afterwards with Rachel Sylvester of The Times. On Brexit he is vulnerable, of course. He is keen to tell the Lefties (or “progressives” as they like to call themselves) that to refuse to compromsie is a mistake, as you end up with no power at all. Yet did he apply this lesson to himself when it came to his refusal to accept the referendum result to leave the EU? He did not. Blair said that patriotism was “preconditional” for a party to be elected:
“You may decide you will vote on the basis on the health service but if you have got any doubts about a party’s patriotism…I’m afraid people had a lot of doubts.”
Indeed. But Labour’s resistance to Brexit did not enhance its patriotic credentials.
Still, I did think it interesting when Sylvester asked him if Labour should campaign for the UK to rejoin the EU. He said:
“No. You just can’t I’m afraid. Long term, who knows. But you have got to give it a chance….The country does not want to redebate Brexit.”
If Blair is not going to push for this then who will? It does help to settle the question.
There was then an interesting point from Blair on opinion polling:
“I learnt through the 1980s and 1990s the fallacy of polling individual policy and thinking you are learning something. Each individual policy might be popular but you put them altogether and it’s not popular…You go back to the 1980s and all Labour’s policies, except unilateral nuclear disarmament, were popular. So how come Margaret Thatcher kept winning by a landslide. I kept puzzling over it.”
Finally there was firm criticism of the Labour embracing identity politics and seeking to engage in a culture war – on such issues as transgender rights:
“We don’t need to be fighting that culture war. If you are going out and you are going to start trying to advocate things in a kind of finger-jabbing, sectarian way. You don’t sign up to what I’m saying or I’m going to disrupt your meetings and shout at you…then you are not going to win that battle. You are just going to put people off.”
I was a bit surprised by this. The Blair years seemed to include a fair bit of identity politics – gay rights, feminism, all-women shortlists. Great attention was paid to keeping ethnic minority votes in Labour’s electoral coalition. But the threat to free speech from some of the demands from special interest groups has become much more serious. Either way, Blair’s warning is welcome.
Edmond Burke said:
“Because half a dozen grasshoppers under a fern make the field ring with their importunate chink, whilst thousands of great cattle, reposed beneath the shadow of the British oak, chew the cud and are silent, pray do not imagine that those who make the noise are the only inhabitants of the field.”
So often Conservatives have been craven towards unreasonable demands that might be favoured by the media class but not by public opinion more broadly. Blair is right to warn Labour that they will lose by seeking to placate such lobby groups and hounding those who disagree. All the more reason why Conservatives should stand firm. Being true to our principles means championing individual freedom rather than engaging in a bidding competition over sectional grievances. That approach is also popular.