Thursday, May 10, 2007

Blair Resigns

So the day has come at last and I feel a mixture of sadness and relief. Labour would not have been elected in 1997 without Blair, and without being elected the subsequent stability and prosperity would never have happened (the Tories would have had another recession in 2001, it's what Tories do, and the story would have been about distress and hardship for ordinary people). At the same time, it's right that Blair is going, with his judgement on foreign policy increasingly at odds with the voters (see Lebanon last year).

I think that Labour has handled the transition remarkably well.

Blair announced that he would step down this parliament in Sept 2004, a good eight months before the general election. Voters went to the polls in 2005 knowing exactly what would happen (in contrast to voters in 1987, who voted thinking Thatcher would go "on and on"). In addition, during the election campaign of 2005, Alasdair Campbell over-ruled the Blairite factionalists and not only involved Gordon Brown in the campaign, but sent him round the country with Blair, to send out the clear message of "vote Blair, get Brown" (to Campbell's credit, he always puts Labour party interests over those of factions). Some Tories claim that their own voters were so dim that they didn't understand that Blair would step down and Brown succeed him. But it's fair to say that the vast majority of voters are not dim and understood the message clearly. It's precisely because these events were flagged well in advance that there has been no shock in the country at Blair's resignation, nor any turmoil in the markets (unlike when Thatcher stepped down).

The next stage was to get Blair to set a date. The long goodbye has been frustrating and debilitating (the fall in the polls over the last year is down to drift and lack of strategy at the top), but in the long run it may prove to have been the correct thing to do it this way.

People forget that Prime Ministers are human beings too. It must be awful to have to let go of a job you love to bits, before you are ready. To be actually sacked, like Thatcher, Charlie Kennedy and Charles Clarke, in full glare of the public, with all the humiliation that entails, must be devastating. I imagine they must go through the grieving process; denial, anger, depression and finally acceptance. It was in the Labour party's interests that Blair underwent this in the controlled conditions of government and made the final resignation speech only when he'd reached acceptance. To be tossed out suddenly means ricocheting uncontrollably in the world at large - people who get sacked in this manner stay in the anger phase too long, only look at Charles Clarke (though he seems to have come out of it at last and is now somewhere between depression and acceptance).

Mrs Thatcher stayed in the anger phase for years on end. In 1995 she gave an influential interview praising Blair and New Labour to the skies - of course she didn't care about New Labour in the slightest, it was all about sticking it to the Major government and those who'd knifed her. But it had an effect, she persuaded lots of staunch Tory voters that it was safe to abstain, and the huge majority of 1997 was in part due to these abstentions.

Cameron had this in mind when he styled himself the "heir to Blair". He must have been hoping that Labour would knife Blair and that Blair, angry and hurt, would turn on Labour and endorse Cameron, repeating what Thatcher did. But it hasn't worked out that way. Blair does not rate Cameron, and he likes to contrast his self-made father with the lazy aristocracy that Cameron hails from. The Labour party has proved to be at once shrewder and more humane than the Tories. As a result Blair leaves with some dignity and with acceptance of the situation, and he continues to wish the party well ("wherever I am, whatever I do, I'll be with you"). The Labour party retains it's reputation for patience and loyalty to the leadership. Labour are the only party left with these virtues (the Lib Dems appear to be turning into the Tories mark two as knives sharpen to stab Ming barely a year after they stabbed Kennedy). The public likes the idea of unity, patience and loyalty, and the manner of Blair's exit should do Labour credit.


Anonymous said...

I fundamentally disagree with what you seem to put across; that the Blair succession is something to be admired, something that will "do labour credit".

It is not in the slightest.

It has left the leadership of this country pretty much in paralysis since he first promised he would serve a full third term (Ha!) but would not seek re-election for a fourth. That announcement resulted in endless speculation that has wasted any meaningful debate on policy, replacing it with wasteful speculation and questions asking him to name a date. June 27th is hardly the date he had in mind, he of course would have wanted to outlast Lady Thatcher but back in september Labour got their knives out (shock horror!) and he was forced to say he'd be gone in a year, if he hadn't made them electable and won them three elections in a row then doubtless those knives would have been much sharper. Thankfully this leadership pralysis may finally be over. If you want to draw comparisons with the Thatcher-Major transition at least it was all done and dusted quickly (in the best interests of the country), at least there was a well fought leadership contest filled with talent from the party and meaningful debate, at least their only option wasn't more of the same, or worse. No coronation due to lack of talent was required here. Let it not be forgotten that this revitalised (well for a few years at least) a government that was getting tired and gave them a hard won fourth election victory from the British people.

Something for New Labour to aspire to.

Un(fortunately) the Tories won this on a share of the vote that opinion polls currently show the new PM may only ever achieve by "modifying" his fiscal rules and redefining the percentage.

The Jury is out

Danivon said...

I don't agree with your first paragraph. Labour would probably have won in 1997, but perhaps with a lower majority.

Other than that, one of the better analyses among the millions produced in the last day or two.

snowflake5 said...

Anonymous - it's true that the transition from Thatcher to Major was done and dusted quickly. But then Thatcher continued to interfere and brood and cast a shadow for years, undermining Major at every turn, and partially responsible for the Tories rejecting Ken Clarke in favour of Hague and IDS in opposition. Therefore the Thatcher downfall caused the Tories a good 15 years of grief. An inordinately long transition period.

Hopefully Labour has lost only one year over the Blair-Brown transition, and will now march forward without a backward glance.

Anonymous said...

I do agree with you Snowflake that to some extent thatcher did cast a shadow over the Tories for a good while and it really didnt help us to move on but it wasn't all down to the Tories themselves. I seem to remember Labour billboards during the 2001 election campaign combining the heads of Thatcher and Hague and "pledge" cards during the 2005 campaign with fun little holograms of Howard turning into Thatcher.

It is looking certain Labour have lost, at the very least from when TB announced he would not fight a fourth election to when he hands over the seals to the Queen on 27th June.

2 Years 8 Months and 27 days

How long it goes on for after then and whether or not Labour "march forward without a backward glance" is anyone's guess and as I said the Jury is out.

Moving to today what I think is deeply unfair to the British people is this bizzareness we have been subjected to for the next 6 weeks. I respect that Labour have chosen GB within their rules(albeit through a lack of other talent in the party and his teams probable bullying of the PLP) but now its been decided why doesn't TB travel to the palace in the next few days and we could have it over with? Instead he's off galavanting round the world trying to cement some sort of legacy and GB is dominating the media, subjecting us to insomnia curing speeches on how he will be different.

snowflake5 said...

newtory, of course Labour exploited the differences between Thatcher and Hague - just as the Tories exploited the Labour split with the SDP in the early 80's. This is politics - if you hand the other party a weapon, they will use it.

Re the Blair transition, Blair announced he would go in 2004, and we then won the 2005 general election (in part because some of our supporters were mollified about Blair going).

Will we move on without a backward glance - yes, I think so. Blair doesn't capture the Labour imagination the way Thatcher captured the Tory one. In addition there is no guilt factor as with Thatcher. On the contrary we have been so generous to him (including as you point out letting him make his world farewell tour till June 27), that there is a certain weariness, and people feel he's had all the attention he's due and are keen to move on ASAP.