Blair urges Labour not to wrap itself in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket

Former party leader and prime minister says there is no logic in party moving back to tax-and-spend policies of 1980s

Tony Blair has issued his most impassioned appeal for Labour not to repeat the mistakes of the 1980s by adopting a traditional leftist platform, saying the party could suffer four successive election defeats if it does so.

In his first intervention in the Labour leadership election, the former prime minister said a shift to the left after the party’s crushing general election defeat would be to treat voters as if they were stupid.

Blair urged Labour members not to wrap themselves in a Jeremy Corbyn comfort blanket, saying that people whose heart was with the leftwing candidate should “get a transplant”.

He added: “We lost in 2010 because we stepped somewhat from that modernising platform. We lost in 2015 with an election out of the playback from the 1980s, from the period of Star Trek, when we stepped even further away from it and lost even worse. I don’t understand the logic of stepping entirely away from it.”

His comments, to the centre-left Progress thinktank, came as the first public opinion poll in the Labour leadership contest suggested Corbyn was on course for a shock victory. Polls of political party electorates are known to be hard to gather a reliable sample size.

Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn.
Labour leadership candidate Jeremy Corbyn. Photograph: Joe Giddens/PA

Blair described the veteran backbencher as the “Tory preference” and said the party could not regain power if it was simply a “platform for protest” against cuts.

Corbyn dismissed claims that he would split the party and hit back at Blair’s suggestion that he was the Tory preference.

“I would have thought he could manage something more serious than those very silly remarks,” he said. “Surely we should be talking about the situation facing Britain today, the situation facing many of the poorest people in this country today, and maybe think if our policies are relevant.”

He added Blair had a problem until the Chilcot inquiry into the Iraq war is published. Corbyn believes the war was illegal.

In a keynote speech setting out his economic policy, Corbyn said austerity was a “political choice not an economic necessity”. He said he wanted to see quantitive easing – a form of printing money to create bonds to fund infrastructure projects. He also called or a return to progressive taxation and a clampdown on business tax evasion.

Blair warned the party could not win on an “old- fashioned leftist platform”. He compared the situation Labour found itself in following its 7 May election defeat with the position it faced in the 1980s, when the party swung to the left under Michael Foot, paving the way for 18 years of Conservative rule.

“After the 1979 election the Labour party persuaded itself of something absolutely extraordinary,” Blair said. “Jim Callaghan had been prime minister and the Labour party was put out of power by Margaret Thatcher and the Labour party persuaded itself that the reason why the country had voted for Margaret Thatcher was because they wanted a really leftwing Labour party.

“This is what I call the theory that the electorate is stupid, that somehow they haven’t noticed that Margaret Thatcher was somewhat to the right of Jim Callaghan.”

Blair said he would not be endorsing any candidate in the race as he had not done so in 2010. He also said he doubted if his endorsement would help.

Tony Blair leaves the Institute of Chartered Accountants  in the City of London, where he spoke at a Progress event about the Labour leadership contest.
Tony Blair leaves the Institute of Chartered Accountants in the City of London, where he spoke at a Progress event about the Labour leadership contest. Photograph: Stefan Rousseau/PA

A poll by YouGov for The Times found Corbyn was the first preference for 43% of party supporters – way ahead of bookies’ favourite Andy Burnham on 26%. The shadow home secretary, Yvette Cooper, was on 20% and Liz Kendall on 11%.

The poll said that when Kendall and Cooper were eliminated and their second preferences redistributed under the preferential vote system, Corbyn would beat Burnham by 53% to 47% in the final round.

Corbyn’s success led Margaret Beckett, one of the senior MPs that put Corbyn on the ballot paper, to admit she had made a mistake.

“I was concerned that people would feel that they had been deprived of the opportunity for that point of view to be aired,” she said. “I am beginning to wish that I hadn’t.”

The shadow education secretary, Tristram Hunt, warned that Labour could be reduced to a “pressure group” that would not have “broad reach into all parts of the United Kingdom”.

Lord Hattersley, the former Labour deputy leader, dismissed the poll as a 24-hour sensation and said Corbyn had no chance of winning the leadership.

John McTernan, a former special adviser to Blair in Downing Street, said those Labour MPs who had “lent” their nominations to Corbyn to broaden the debate, had behaved like “morons”.

Blair also called for the party to take up a tougher stance combating Scottish nationalism. “You have to take the ideology of nationalism head on,” he said. “Nationalism is not a phenomenon when they talk about a new politics, it is the oldest politics in the world. It is the politics of the first caveman council where the caveman came out from the council where there had been difficult decisions and pointed with his club across the forest and said: ‘There, over there. they are the problem.’ It’s blame someone else. However you dress it up it is a reactionary political philosophy.”

He added: “I personally don’t think we will win by saying we are more Scottish or by engaging in this ridiculous thing where a lot of power in Brussels is fine but power in London is absolutely terrible.”

He continued: “The SNP have achieved this remarkable feat, they are a government that is allowed to behave like an opposition.”


Patrick Wintour and Frances Perraudin

The GuardianTramp

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