Opinion

Labour are still looking for Blair's heir 25 years on

The party still face a tough battle to find the sweet spot of centreground opinion, writes Mark Devenport.

Tony and Cherie Blair

Tony and Cherie Blair on the doorstep of Number 10 after Labour stormed to victory in the UK General Election of May 1997. Image: SION TOUHIG/SYGMA/SYGMA VIA GETTY IMAGES

When Tony and Cherie Blair made their way up Downing Street on May 2 1997, glad-handing their jubilant Union flag-waving supporters, you could be forgiven for assuming the new prime minister’s only tenuous connection to Northern Ireland was his theme tune.

Things Can Only Get Better pumped out of every loudspeaker at New Labour rallies after Blair’s spin doctors decided the D:Ream track, written by Derry’s Peter Cunnah, captured the mood for change across the UK.

If you were a Blair admirer living in Northern Ireland, you weren’t allowed to join the party until 2006 (even then Labour made the move so grudgingly it banned me from filming would-be members handing in application forms at the party conference, and still doesn’t fight elections in Northern Ireland).

Yet, surprisingly, I found my job there as the BBC’s Ireland Correspondent an excellent vantage point to get a close-up view of the new PM in action. Blair made his first visit to Belfast within a fortnight of taking power and, with the IRA yet to restore its broken ceasefire, he instantly grasped the risks and opportunities presented by the fragile peace process.

With an extraordinary 93 per cent approval rating and a 179-seat parliamentary majority, Blair proved willing to spend his time and political capital in Northern Ireland. He won the trust of key players from sceptical Unionists to grizzled Republicans, from old paramilitaries to the smooth US President Bill Clinton.

Blair’s self-belief enabled him to close the Good Friday Agreement deal within a year of coming to power. He later transferred that same messianic zeal, coupled with his undoubted diplomatic skills, to foreign policy, pioneering a new doctrine of “humanitarian intervention” which paid dividends in Sierra Leone and Kosovo, before irrevocably tarnishing his “pretty straight sort of guy” image as he partnered George W Bush in his blood-soaked misadventure in Iraq.

Twenty-five years on, the cleavages in UK politics have evolved, with Ukraine replacing Iraq in the forefront of people’s concerns, and the cost of living cataclysm triggered by the Covid pandemic dwarfing the headaches posed by the 1990s credit crunch.

In 1997, as Labour took the seats of Tory ministers like Michael Portillo and Edwina Currie, it would have been impossible to conceive a future universe in which Brexit was a thing and the Conservatives could capture Blair’s own seat in the north-eastern former mining community of Sedgefield, as happened in 2019.

Blair deliberately cast off old Labour’s baggage of the big state, nationalisation and trade union power to appeal to Thatcher’s blue-collar Conservatives. To those who accused him of not really being a Labour traditionalist, he responded that the only party tradition he didn’t love was losing. His choice of metaphor immediately after his 1997 victory – “a new dawn has broken, has it not?” – was picked precisely to chime with his party’s “New Labour, new Britain” slogan: a promise of a political and economic rebirth.

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After his December 2019 victory over Jeremy Corbyn, Boris Johnson reached for exactly the same metaphor as Blair, hailing his 80-seat majority as “a new dawn” for the country, and thanking traditional Labour voters for the “sacred trust” they had placed in him to get Brexit done.

Is Johnson still the man to appeal to the ‘red wall’ parts of northern England other Conservatives can’t reach? Can Keir Starmer repeat Blair’s trick by disowning the Corbynite left and finding the sweet spot of centreground opinion, which New Labour so skilfully discerned?

He may eschew the label, but Starmer has struck off on a Blairite path by removing the whip from Corbyn and emphasising his party’s backing for nuclear deterrence and Nato membership. Moreover, Johnson’s self-inflicted Partygate wounds have handed the opposition an obvious opportunity. However, in contrast to Blair’s easy charisma, Starmer faces criticism for being too flat and lawyerly in his style, while the current shadow cabinet appears to lack the calibre of Blair’s winning team.

To turn the tide on the Conservatives, Starmer needs a swing of 1997 proportions. But he – or any other future Labour leader – will remain haunted by another part of the legacy of Blair’s first term.

While I spent my time focusing on devolution at Stormont, New Labour was also delivering devolution in Cardiff and Edinburgh. As Blair has subsequently admitted, his hopes that a devolved government in Edinburgh would end the arguments over Scottish independence proved ill founded, with Holyrood instead providing a base for growing SNP support. In 1997, Labour won 56 Westminster seats north of the border. By 2019, that had shrunk to a solitary seat.

Voters always become disillusioned at some point with a party in power, and 12 years after David Cameron became PM the Tories may be overstaying their welcome. Yet however successful any revived New Labour project is, the loss of Scotland has changed the Westminster arithmetic, making it virtually impossible for Labour to again achieve a majority of Blairite proportions.

Things may only get better for Starmer, but his route to Number 10 seems far more likely to involve a coalition, which would be hard to sustain for anything like the three terms during which the Blair/Brown New Labour double act dominated the UK political sphere.

Mark Devenport is the former BBC Northern Ireland political editor
@markdevenport 

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