Vote 2005

The ‘Post Blair’ debate begins

There are two main political processes underway on the left in the aftermath of the election and both are represented in the Guardian’s opinion pages today. One should be welcomed and participated in by the democratic left, the other should be rejected.

The first is the attempt to define the ‘post Blair’ politics that will accompany the transition from Blair to Brown in number ten – the search for themes and policies linked to the political maneuvers aimed at getting that handover to happen sooner rather than later. Neal Lawson of Compass makes a stab at that today. As always he is trapped by the vague buzzwords of a dedicated think tankie and provides more questions than answers but that debate does need to be had and enjoy the participation of those outside ‘the beltway’.

As far as the timing of the handover is concerned I have no particularly strong views other than to repeat what I wrote the morning after the election:

Blair, as an attractive electoral force is finished …. and the Labour Party must do everything in its power to ensure that Gordon Brown (or whoever else might fancy the task) is given plenty of chance to establish his own government before the next election. We will see how grown up Labour is and how much, or how little, Blair cares for the party by how the transition is handled.

There are however two obvious dangers for Labour in this and one is getting plenty of coverage whilst the other isn’t.

What is being noted is that there are plenty on the left who are expressing the fear that Blair will cling on against the will of the majority of MP’s (and probably the party as a whole) with the result that there is a constant media and political focus on the internal intrigue and the battles at the expense of making further progress in the third term. That is clearly a recipe for losing the next election.

The other danger, that is receiving less attention, is that a rushed attempt to force Blair out could also open up rifts and divisions which will be hard to heal. It is not so much a question of how Blair would react to a swift removal strategy but how those around him would respond – those who depend on the political networks that have supported the PM and are not confident or sure of their chances in a Brown administration. To put it bluntly – those Blairites who can be converted need to be allowed (and need a decent amount of time to be allowed) to become Brownites.

Most of them will make the conversion and it will be faintly amusing to watch the rhetoric and positions shift in the next few months. The serious political point is that if such people are given a chance to make the switch they will be very useful allies at the time when the PM needs to persuaded that it is in the party’s best interests for him to handover to Brown. But if they are alienated, if they fear their political careers are to end overnight, then they might instead go into the bunker with the PM and create the damaging division most ordinary party supporters fear.

In other words, the coalition of interests that has kept the Brownites and the Blairites from outright hostility needs to be maintained while the power shifts at leadership level. That requires patience.

The second process underway since May 5th is the attempt to use the loss of seats to urge Labour to alter their foreign policy and fall in line with the status quo European position. This needs to be fought vigorously. An example of this effort is Jonathan Steele in the Guardian claiming that now is the time to pull British troops out of Iraq.

Although Steele aims his argument at Blair, I suspect he is really looking to influence the ‘post Blair’ Labour Party into accepting a ‘Troops Out’ position. I can’t seriously believe he thinks Blair will produce such a U-turn.

Steele’s position is, of course, utterly mistaken. He argues that:

Tony Blair insists British troops cannot leave Iraq until Iraq’s own police and army can guarantee security. It is, of course, the same argument that George Bush uses to justify keeping close to 150,000 US soldiers in the country.
Never mind the fact that pulling foreign troops out would almost certainly improve Iraq’s security, since much of the violence is directed against the occupation. Without the occupation, the insurgency would decline dramatically.

There is zero evidence for this claim. In reality the Ba’athists and Islamist reactionaries are overwhelmingly targetting Iraqis rather than US or British troops.

You could be forgiven for not noticing but Iraq now has a new and still fragile democratically chosen government and in the current circumstances I can see no reason why it should not be the one to decide when foreign troops leave. Tony Blair and/or Gordon Brown should not listen to advice claiming “The job has been done” from people who have shown not the slightest interest in the democratic transition in Iraq and who have long been arguing a ‘Troops out’ position.

So while there certainly needs to be a debate about ‘post Blairite’ politics and what a renewed social democratic government should be doing on the domestic front, it shouldn’t result in Labour’s foreign policy moving from a firm pro-democracy position.

And those politicians who have opposed “the job” from the outset should not be let anywhere near it.