(Image: Tom Red/Private Media)

Depending on who you ask, former UK prime minister Tony Blair is either a ghoulish neoliberal hypocrite with blood on his hands over Iraq, or a political genius who returned British Labour from the wilderness, presiding over a period of stability, growth and optimism that now feels very foreign.

Either way, Blair is not going quietly. Last week he fired a rocket-launcher at the smouldering rubble of the party he once led in the form of a 3000-word article published by the New Statesman. Labour and centre-left parties around the Western world were in danger of dying out. Dominated by “radical” voices increasingly obsessed with identity politics, moderates were being silenced, and Labour’s traditional blue-collar base was being turned away in droves.

“The progressive problem is that in an era where people want change in a changing world … the radical progressives aren’t sensible and the sensible aren’t radical,” he said.

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Blair calls “extreme” identity politics — (he barely elaborates beyond calling out “defund the police”) — as “voter repellent”.

“People like common sense, proportion and reason,” he said. “They dislike prejudice,but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice.”

It’s all a bit of classic Blairite bluster. But it’s also being watched closely in Labor circles here. In a party that at times seems adrift, unable to cut through in the pandemic era and struggling to retain voters it once took for granted, many see Blair’s intervention as a terrifying outline of the worst-case scenario.

Should anyone listen to Blair?

In a sense, the recent history of British Labour’s dramatic decline mirrors the struggles of the ALP. A centre-left party goes to an election with a bold, progressive platform and loses swathes of voters across its traditional working-class heartland.

Chastened by the blowout, racked by toxic divisions between the left and a swathe of shell-shocked centrist MPs, the party settles on the safe option — Sir Keir Starmer — a well-spoken consensus candidate with a moderate, small-target platform.

He looks good in a suit. He makes the right noises during the pandemic, quietly picking his battles with the government while trying not to destabilise the larger war against COVID-19.

But the voters aren’t sold. Things get worse. Labour loses a byelection in Hartlepool, a northern seat it’s held since the Beatles were together. It gets demolished in council elections up and down the country. Starmer tells voters the party is “on your side” — curiously the same slogan Anthony Albanese settled on after over a year of focus groups. Nobody really knows what it means.

As a cautionary tale, the decline of Labour creates two key challenges for its Australian counterpart as election season approaches, says Marc Stears, director of the Sydney Policy Lab and a speechwriter for former Labour leader Ed Miliband.

One is the incumbency issue: despite Britain’s appalling handling of the pandemic, a successful vaccine rollout boosted the Tories. The second is the problem of cut-through, with a demoralised party unsure where to go.

“The biggest critique of Starmer is there’s a vacuum there, and nobody really knows what it’s about,” he said. “And that’s the biggest critique of Albo. Most people on the street wouldn’t have a clear ‘Albanese’ view of the country.”

But it’s in these challenges — on cutting through with voters, and fixing the progressive malaise — that Blair offers little in the way of solution. He talks in vague terms about the technological revolution.

He says the left must “seek unity” and “eschew gesture politics”. It seems he wants progressives to get a little more patriotic and put aside culture wars which are all too often foisted on them by the right. But he is not a man with a plan.

It’s “sickening Third Way stuff”, one former Labor minister tells Crikey on condition of anonymity, a “totally empty” intervention full of rage which offers little.

The worst person you know just made a great point

As UK Labour moved to the left under Jeremy Corbyn, Blair became something of a demonic figure for many in the party. At times it seems like his animus towards “woke-politics” and thinly veiled attacks on the sometimes uncompromising tone of younger progressive activists is an attempt to hit back at all the teenage Corbynistas calling him a war criminal on Twitter.

“Blair is doing a classic Blair,” Stears said. “He’s creating a caricature of woke identity politics and saying that’s where we’re headed if you don’t listen to me.”

And yet despite being a deeply “problematic” figure, many progressives still think that contained within Blair’s screed are a few crucial points, heartbreaking as it is to admit. Emma Dawson, executive director of progressive think tank Per Capita, says while much of Blair’s commentary demonstrates a real lack of self-reflection, he does offer the left some lessons on where to focus.

“The key message that resonates with me is, to quote Bill Clinton, ‘It’s the economy, stupid’,” she said. “They’ve taken their eye off the significant class impact of the neoliberal project. That’s what I find ironic in his comments, because he was such a big part of that.”

Peter Lewis, director of progressive pollster Essential Media, says there’s a message in there about keeping the focus on class. “The left wins on class. They have a much tougher time when it comes to identity politics.”

Australia is different

But Blair’s straw-manning of identity politics highlights a gulf between Australia’s progressive party and rifts happening to UK Labour and the Democrats. Nobody in the ALP is calling to defund the police. On issues central to the Instagram left — refugee rights, Palestine, climate change — Labor seems to walk an often too-cautious middle ground.

Dawson says the existence of the Greens means Labor isn’t experiencing conflicts with a progressive faction like Corbyn v Starmer, Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez v the Democratic establishment.

“The more extreme ID pol and culture war stuff plays out between the Greens and the Nats,” she said. “We’re lucky in that regard — you don’t see any of the extremes in Albo’s platform.”

But even a moderate Labor can be tainted by the perception of being too “woke” — seen as the party that thumbs its nose at working-class coal communities even when it’s the Greens leading the Stop Adani convoy.

But there are other key differences between Australia and the UK that should ward off any doomcasting about Albo’s chances. First, Brexit disfigured Britain and led to a total political realignment. Second, the Corbyn effect –the former leader revved up the party’s new leftist base but alienated centrist MPs, the media, and many in its old heartlands.

Labor doesn’t have those problems, but it does have a lot of uncertainty and hand-wringing. It still hasn’t recovered from the shock of 2019. It’s struggling to hit back against a pandemic that has put Scott Morrison in the driving seat, and a budget which seems to have stolen much of its ideas.

Blair’s most obvious lesson is a truism, but one progressives often forget: “smashing Tories” requires unity — not just internally, but between parties and the people they’re meant to be fighting for.

“I just think my clarion call is saying that the left needs to focus on what we have in common rather than what divides us in order to defeat the right shouldn’t be a controversial statement. It’s true,” Dawson said. “We have to stop letting them divide us, because nothing divides them.”

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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