Haunted by Blair

Tony Blair, at the World Economic Forum. Davos, January 2008.

If you’re tuned into the BBC, you may think the recent elections were a complete disaster for Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party. The truth is Labour held its own in England, while it lost out in Wales and Scotland. Naturally, the SNP and Plaid Cymru made gains where Blairism was strong. Yet the press has it on record that Labour’s losses confirm the failures of the new leadership. The commentariat desperately wants to dispel Corbynmania as a spasm of confusion among the masses, or as a left-wing entryist project.

For now, Corbyn is defying his critics at every turn. The scandal over Naz Shah’s Facebook posts (from August 2014, I might add) has not taken a serious toll on the party’s standing. Why is this a safe analysis to make? Most English lack a social, historical and cultural understanding of the Jewish community, except for the knowledge that pork isn’t kosher, so a term like ‘Zionism’ is truly exotic in the extreme. Not coincidentally, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict is viewed as a perpetual, irrational war in a far away desert, not a consequence of British imperalism.

Indeed, in the United Kingdom, few can account for the cause of the conflict. One could put this down to the parochial nature of Western societies. It would be better to bear in mind that working people have bigger priorities beyond researching such issues. This is also the reason why turnout tends to be lower in local elections than in the general election. Once again, the good news is really that the elections are over; and the bad news is London has elected the most boring mayor it ever could.

Free Londonistan

In many ways, the London mayoral race confirmed the worst aspects of British politics. The denudement of meaning left behind a two-horse race – Sadiq Khan or Zac Goldsmith – with few substantive differences between them. Alexander Cockburn once described the Bush-Clinton race of 1992 as a “battle of pygmies”. To say this applies to London’s 2016 mayoral election would be a gross understatement.

Prior to the race, Zac Goldsmith had cultivated a reputation as a ‘maverick’. He pitched himself as a Tory with time for the environment. The Goldsmith family are an interesting mix, the father (James Goldsmith) pioneered the art of the hostile takeover, while the uncle (Teddy Goldsmith) helped to birth the Green Party. This progressive persona allowed Zac Goldsmith to bring together socially liberal, green-minded voters and the Tory faithful. But this was only possible in the New Labour era of triangulation.

Faced with a resurgence in the Left, the Goldsmith campaign opted for smear tactics to try and take down Sadiq Khan by appealing to the fears of the London suburbs. Boris Johnson played this game in 2008. The moneyed voter wanted to put a stop to the shenanigans at city hall. Ken Livingstone had engaged with radical union leaders, supported anti-racist campaigns, established the Oyster card, apologised for slavery and cut an oil deal with Hugo Chavez. Enough was enough. Something had to be done.

The demographics of the city haven’t changed that much in 8 years. However, the Conservative campaign was particularly acrimonious – accusing Khan of being a ‘radical’ and an ‘extremist’ – and went as far as to racially profile voters and produce a series of leaflets trying to split the South Asian community on sectarian lines. This was far more vulgar and offensive than anything Boris ever pulled out of his hat. In the minds of many, Zac Goldsmith began to embody the worst forces lurking beneath the surface of ‘compassionate’ Toryism.

By contrast, Sadiq Khan ran a ‘soft left’ campaign. It was notable for its inoffensive rhetoric and vague commitments. He talked up his father’s life as a bus driver. If the Goldsmith campaign represented the changing landscape of British politics, the Khan campaign took us back to the ‘Third Way’ era. He talks left as he walks right. Although Khan was picked as the ‘lesser evil’ by Corbynistas last summer, he jumps at every opportunity to distance himself from the leader. He represents the ‘extreme centre’.

In the end, progressive Londoners held their nose and voted for Khan. It was made easier given the repulsive, anti-Muslim campaign waged against him. Even loyal Tories felt Goldsmith had crossed red-lines with some drawing comparisons to the notorious Smedgewick election. For example, Peter Oborne was so disgusted he called upon his fellow conservatives to back Khan. This was just as some Blairites were fantasising about Khan’s defeat. The reason: the Labour victory helps Jeremy Corbyn in the short-run.

Rising Expectations

At the local level, the Labour Party lost 18 seats and one council in total. Right-wing commentators predicted losses of 200 seats. Once again, they mistook their desires for reality. At the end of the day, Corbyn’s Labour Party held onto its lead with 31% versus the Conservatives’ 30%. The Tories also lost 47 seats. So the idea this was a ‘disaster’ for Corbyn does not stand up to scrutiny. But it was not a great victory either.


Jeremy Corbyn is left appearing weak. As part of the pattern of long-term decline, Labour lost badly in Scotland and Wales. The SNP consolidated its gains, for the most part, losing some ground to Conservative Ruth Davison. Plaid Cymru displaced the Blairites, while UKIP made its first gains in Welsh politics. The rise of progressive nationalism continues to challenge New Labour even after the decapitation of the body party. It seems Corbyn’s rise might not be enough to arrest and reverse this trend. But it would be odd to suppose one man could do so in 8 months.

However, the tide of left-wing nationalism is not omnipresent. In the case of Northern Ireland, the traditional nationalist parties, including Sinn Fein, are being challenged by the People Before Profit Alliance, which bases itself on a non-sectarian appeal to the working-class. Building on Gerry Carroll’s work in West Belfast, leftist Eamonn McCann seized Foyle from the clutches of the SDLP. Two known Marxists are now present in the Northern Irish Assembly.

The political battleground is still fertile for outsiders, demagogues and populists. All the rhetoric of the ‘centre-ground’ appears increasingly impotent. The really tough battles are still ahead. Once the Blairites find someone to run against Corbyn, there could be a truly ugly push to oust him. So far all efforts to bring down the Labour leader have failed. Hopefully, the balance of forces can be tipped over as the cracks spread and widen.

Photograph courtesy of The Lakelander. Published under a Creative Commons license.