abour is back. A historic third term has been won. Despite
the size of the majority, Tony Blair’s days are numbered.
No one on the democratic left is in the slightest doubt.
May 5, 2005 heralded an unprecedented victory for the Labour
Party, despite its Leader. Yet he still insists on hanging
on, mouthing the rhetoric of New Labour that was airbrushed
out of all but a handful of Labour election literature. During
the campaign he was shown extraordinary, if not foolhardy,
loyalty by the man expected to succeed him – his chancellor
since 1997, Gordon Brown.
Members of the government handed no ‘hostages to fortune’ to
the opposition parties. Labour was united in front of the
TV cameras for its set piece campaign programme. But on the
doorsteps and the streets of Britain, other stories were
being told. Depleted bands of Labour activists argued relentlessly
with irate voters in defence of their local candidates. The
only place in Britain where voters could vote for or against
Blair was in Sedgefield, his Durham constituency but residual
Labour loyalty preserved his majority.
The opposition parties refusal to stand down denied Reg
Keys, the man whose son was one of the UK military killed
in Iraq, a clear run against Blair. This loss of a possible ‘Martin
Bell’ moment in the 2005 General Election merely served
to highlight the dismal state of British parliamentary democracy.
But this did not stop millions of former Labour supporters
registering their protest by either staying away from the
polls or casting their votes for one or other of the growing
number of opposition parties.
Nor could there be any doubt
about the reason why Labour was unable to halt the decline
in its share of the popular vote. Iraq dogged the short campaign,
just as it has since the former BBC defence correspondent,
fateful broadcast in May 2003.
Now is the time for democratic socialists to script the ‘elegant
succession’ first sought by Clare Short, the former
International Development Secretary after her resignation
from the Cabinet over Iraq and broken promises in the same
month as Gilligan. History will determine that Blair decided
to commit Britain to war against Iraq in April 2002 without
consulting Queen, Cabinet, Party or Parliament. If it wants
a 4th term, Labour has got to put its own house in order.
It cannot afford to indulge its Leader a moment longer, except
in his resignation. If we want to understand how proud men
fall, remember Shelley’s famous sonnet of 1818:
“I met a traveller from an antique land
vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near
them on the sand,
Half sunk, a shatter'd visage lies, whose
And wrinkled lip and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor
well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp'd on these
The hand that mock'd them and the heart that
And on the pedestal these words appear:
"My name is Ozymandias,
king of kings:
Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair!"
remains: round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Blair lost his own moment as dawn broke on Friday 6 May.
Then was the opportunity to write his own place in history:
to reflect on how the historic 3rd term was won, to acknowledge
the momentous contribution to reshaping the British economy
by his loyal chancellor. But to be magnanimous and truly
contrite is not in Blair’s nature. There was no surprise
as the No.10 machine swung into action to distribute patronage,
litter preferment and cling to power for the 3rd time. Repeatedly
Blair has appealed over the heads of his Party to mouth deference
to the will of the British people. They have spoken. Yet
again, Blair proved he was not listening.
The Cabinet, now wrestling with their shiny new ministerial
Red Boxes crammed with briefing papers on their new portfolios
(except Gordon Brown of course), would do well to reflect
on how Britain went to war. Will they allow themselves to
be traduced again? The Whips struggling to put names to faces
of the new cohort of Labour MPs need to do their sums. Will
they risk three-line whips on the pretext that ‘Tony
wants’? Can advisors in No.10 ever make Labour Party
policy? The Labour Party 2005 Manifesto, despite its self-serving
Preface by Blair, is a good read, littered with contradictions
between the ‘New Labour’ rhetoric and the reality
of the new policy-making process, Partnership in Power (PiP).
Whatever the shortcomings of PiP, this Manifesto needs to
be read by democratic socialists. Parts contain the clearest
evidence of a battle between the Trade Unions and No.10,
which in a careless moment Blair lost. The Warwick Agreement
is to be implemented in full. Elsewhere, there is even a
sop to Conference, which voted in favour of council housing,
to allow local authorities to restart building houses.
The Royal Mail is not to be privatised. Now is not the time
for defeatism, resignation or cynicism. Clear-headed analysis
of every step of this 3rd Labour administration is needed
to pave the way for rebuilding the Party and another Labour
victory in 2009. Repeatedly during the campaign, Blair was
forced to retreat from his excesses, which in his second
term saw Labour so far to the right that even one-nation
Tories came across as more Liberal than the Labour Party.
The turning point was in the first week when Michael Howard’s
anti-immigration stance backfired, as vividly illustrated
in the polls which saw a narrowing gap between Labour and
Tory in the opinion polls widen again. From then on the dominant
themes were the domestic agenda – a Labour plus thanks
to Brown, and trust – a Labour minus due to Blair.That
is why collective responsibility is back in vogue, and a
restoration of respect for the rule of law is a must. How
can Labour tackle anti-social behaviour on sink estates and
disruptive pupils in secondary schools, despite specialist
status and OFSTED seals of approval, if it own Leader is
such a flawed role model?
With the outcome of the French referendum on the European
Constitution at the end of May swinging back towards a ‘Yes’ vote
albeit by the narrowest of margins, the UK is facing in the
tired words of its current Prime Minister some ‘tough
The electorate has spoken about whom it wants to govern
Britain. It was and remains well disposed to Labour’s
core domestic agenda – better education, health and
the environment. But on Europe, voters are deeply suspicious.
Blair cannot win a ‘Yes’ vote on this issue,
even if he gains more time by the tide of opinion across
the Channel swinging back again to deliver a ‘Non!’
Every utterance from No.10 will need to be tested against
the template of Labour values.
The task of rebuilding the Party is underway from the grassroots.
It needs crowning with a new Leader sooner rather than later.