Saturday, 9 July 2011

Blair on Labour’s debate: and the Darwinism of ideas

Sitting listening to yesterday’s Blair speech at Church House, what was notable was not the robust defence of his government, which has already given rise to a few headlines (although, frankly, it contained very little that has not already been said in A Journey)

No, it was, as is sometimes the case with the polished performer, the little nuggets that come out in the Q&A. It’s there that you get to see how someone’s mind really works, and the answers are often both more revealing and more useful.

(For the record, I did try quite hard to get in a question myself on Islamist extremism, but in the end dear old Steven Twigg, in the chair, was having none of it and I ended up sitting there impotently with my hand up, feeling all a bit “please, sir, please, sir”.)

It was also easy to forget, in what was obviously a very sympathetic audience, that the party as a whole does not always share the good opinion of much of the country – and, for that matter, quite a bit of the rest of the world, too – of the former PM. Or, at least, that there are vocal elements of the party in which Blair is rather vilified.

But back to the Q&A: one question raised the importance of a proper debate, both on policy and on why Labour lost. The first words of his response comprised this perfectly-formed nugget:
“Debates don’t harm you with the public”.
A small, but vital truth: the public then see you as big enough to recognise that change is needed, rather than in denial about change.

There are many who cry disloyalty at those of us who want a debate, or where we diverge, honestly, from the leadership. When in office, Blair went on, “I welcomed that debate”. He did. We, on the other hand, are in danger of trying to muffle that debate, in that we’re-feeling-a-bit-defensive-and-any-criticism-is-betrayal way, somewhat characteristic of the left in opposition.

But to do so is clearly a position of weakness, not a position of strength.

For those who respond, “what about control-freakery?” there is also an important distinction between two types of dissent. The first is the kind of “noises off” which can happen in a Cabinet or Shadow Cabinet (and usually does). That is is the bad kind, which should not be tolerated. Collective Cabinet, or Shadow, responsibility is an important concept, which must be accepted by those who, as adults, seek high office. No-one should go round briefing against colleagues behind their backs, and if they can’t be trusted not to do it, frankly, sack ‘em.

But the second, healthy type of dissent is the debate to be had throughout the party and the PLP about policy and direction, which should and must be had, and is the opposite of damaging: it is empowering. And you can’t stop it, anyway.

Politics is the battle of ideas. You cannot pretend that you all agree – that’s infantile. Ideas, in the end, have their own inherent Darwinism. Sooner or later, the bad ones die. It was ever thus: the only change of the internet age is that the blogosphere makes it impossible to hide that this debate is taking place (the Tories are just the same: check out ConservativeHome) – it is the same, just more out in the open.

So, let’s not get twitchy about dissent. Let’s embrace it and come up with solutions. Or even crowd-source solutions from that very dissent. But less of the cries of betrayal at those we disagree with, please.

And one final thing: you don’t need to agree with Blair on policy. Why should you? You didn’t like Iraq, or foundation hospitals, or academies? Fair enough - a respectable position. The ongoing debate will sort the wheat from the chaff in those ideas anyway, irrespective of what some old ex-prime minister says. But at least admit that he was a prime minister who was effective in achieving what he wanted: in making things happen. Because the contrary is difficult to defend.

So, for heaven’s sake, when he comments on things which are nothing to do with policy itself – like how to take decisions or how, mechanically, to get a party structured and presenting itself well, creating a platform on which we can fight an election – let’s take good advice where we can get it. Especially from a three-times election-winner.


  1. Not too sure that Iraq had much to do with Labour losing. Look at your opening remarks about (what you term) Islamic fundamentalism and what I see as the best chance for the oppressed. Now then, who does the oppressing? It is the de facto police state that the Parson's boy instigated. Finally, if you are looking for reasons why you lost take a shufti at 2 million Poles arriving overnight. No provision made for housing, schools or medicine. In 100 years time it will be seen as breath takingly myopic.

  2. I agree with you that Iraq didn't have much to do with Labour losing - it's an internal obsession of the Labour Party's not shared by a lot of the country. Immigration has certainly been an issue which we were blindsided on and where we ignored the impacts. We ain't ever going to agree on Islamist fundamentalism...;)


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