Tony Blair, UK Prime Minister (1997-2007)

Labour’s civil war II: Does Tony Blair think Labour overspent?

With his second foray into the seemingly interminable Labour leadership debacle, Tony Blair is at once more softly-softly and more strident. Yes, you may hate me, but you have to believe me, he wheedles. Labour will be annihilated if it elects Jeremy Corbyn, he prophesies, gloomily. Blair hasn’t been this sure about anything since the Iraq invasion (sorry, cheap shot, but irresistible). Eschewing the esoteric, quasi-meaningless language of his first intervention, it now sounds like Blair is appealing to the hearts and minds of those he formerly advised to “get a [heart] transplant”.

However, the line that stood out for me as full of import was almost throwaway:

… and they realise that a party without a serious deficit-reduction plan is not in these times a serious contender to govern them.

The “they” he is referring to is the “majority of the British people” he mentions in the previous paragraph. I think Blair is really appealing to Labour supporters who do not follow politics too closely on the whole, but this line is immensely important for anyone who does follow politics and who has defended Labour and its economic record over the last few years. Blair is saying that the British public has bought wholesale into the ‘bullshit’ deficit fetishism to such a degree that politics ever after must be fought along those lines. There is no point trying to oppose the austerity of neoliberal economics, the British public aren’t for moving.

I have discussed the debate about whether to pander to or try to change public opinion elsewhere. What interests me is the fact that Blair is saying this. And not just him. Alan Johnson has been highly critical of Corbyn recently, begging leadership voters to end the madness. But the day after the election he wrote an article for the Guardian on why Labour lost, saying:

… the biggest damage was done on the economy. We seemed to have no effective riposte to Cameron’s successful distortion of our economic record in government. Thus a succession of Tory ministers were allowed to describe the global banking crisis as “Labour’s recession” and to refer (as Jeremy Hunt did) to the economy contracting. There was no rebuttal from Labour pointing out the decent levels of growth being recorded before George Osborne choked off the recovery through his vainglorious emergency budget in June 2010. Nick Clegg’s ludicrous comparison between the bankrupt Greek economy and our own also seemed to pass without question….

The public became convinced that Labour had indeed driven the car into the ditch and declined to return the keys. While Miliband was valiantly attempting to own the future, he lost the core argument about the past.

The contradiction here is that Corbyn is the one candidate who argues most effectively that Labour did not borrow too much. Liz Kendall has even agreed with the Tory myth that Labour spent too much (as did Chuka Umunna before he dropped out). Andy Burnham has said the deficit was to large under the last Labour government, although he may have recanted later. Cooper, to her credit, has made it clear that she does not think Labour was profligate.

Many Labour supporters are drawn to Corbyn exactly because he breaks with the current economics orthodoxy. But now that even Blair seems to be buying into the nonsensical deficit fetishism that most economists of repute dismiss as of, at best, limited importance, the most interesting question is: does Tony Blair think his own government was profligate?

[Image: Chatham House]

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