For the Blairite faction of the party, the thrashing of Ed Miliband’s Labour Party on May 7th marked the failure of leftism to lead Labour to electoral success. The diagnosis was that the party had chosen the wrong Miliband in 2010, and the cure was a return to New Labour. Blairites assumed that the Labour membership would not make the same mistake twice – quickly, new potential leaders were selected from the herd of MPs who make their home at the centre of the party. It appeared as though Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, and possibly Liz Kendall would fight their way for the Labour crown - very little thought was given to the possibility that core Labour voters were longing for something new, but not New Labour.
Today, Sadiq Khan has bested the odds on-favourite Tessa Jowell (the woman who once said she would jump in front of a bus for Tony Blair), to being Labour’s mayoral candidate in the 2016 election. Jeremy Corbyn, Blair’s antithesis, has gone from odds of 200/1 to being the clear frontrunner in the contest. Liz Kendall, the preferred candidate of the New Labourites, has sunk into last place, and has readily admitted that she is not going to win the leadership election. Far from being the cure, Blairites have been derided as a virus within the party. To be associated with our former Prime Minister is an insult, not a compliment, and Blair’s interventions in the leadership race have received nothing but scorn from the Labour membership. On the Late show with David Letterman, Boris Johnson once remarked that instead of endorsing Mike Bloomberg as the next mayor for New York, he had been asked to resoundingly endorse the other candidate. Blair’s intervention is being treated similarly; far from putting people off Corbyn, it is driving them to him.
Although Blair might see himself as the doctor holding the defibrillator to an ailing Labour Party, and although he might think that those whose hearts lie with Corbyn are the ones who need a heart transplant, he has failed in bringing any life to the ABC campaign. The more Blair or other New Labourites emerge from the shadows to resoundingly endorse anyone but Corbyn, the more popular Corbyn has become. The baggage of New Labour has done them no favours. Blair is remembered as the Labour Prime Minister who privatised the NHS rather than the Prime Minister who won three elections. Other leadership candidates are doing anything they can to scramble away from their history in New Labour governments. Andy Burnham, who was seen as the left-wing candidate at the beginning of the contest, is now, despite his best efforts to avoid it, painted as another of the Westminster establishment, and a man who was a minister at the department of health during the mid-staffs crisis. While the other candidates have failed to shake their parliamentary pasts from the campaign, Corbyn has made moves to show himself to be the anti-Blair, saying he will apologise for the Iraq war should he become Labour leader. With the Chilcot Report (supposedly) being on the horizon, New Labourites will likely be implicated in the deaths of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.
Corbyn also has another unique advantage – the stark contrast in the way he presents himself to how the other candidates (and former leaders) do. When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party, he represented something new and invigorating in British politics – he was a young, fresh-faced, and charismatic MP. John Major represented an old, conventional and dry form of politics; New Labour, as the name suggests, was new. Funnily, it is now Jeremy Corbyn who represents something new. The ‘Westminster Bubble’, as Andy Burnham so often refers to it, is populated with nothing but young, shiny, salesman-like figures. As much he tries to distance himself from it, Andy Burnham is the epitome of this – his slicked-back (and quite greasy) hair and his sharp suit can be found on hundreds of other MPs. Jeremy Corbyn’s beard and the sweaters his mother has knitted him cannot. The Blairite demeanour has stopped being anything at all new, it is the norm.
Shortly after he was elected leader of the Conservative Party, David Cameron commissioned a report into why the Tories had lost the last election so badly. The report’s findings were interesting – people liked their policies, but after they found out that they were Conservative policies, they said they wouldn’t vote for them. David Cameron and Steve Hilton set out to detoxify the Conservative Party and Cameron painted the Conservatives as the party of hugging rather than the party of hanging - whether that be hugging hoodies or hugging huskies. To an extent, Cameron was the true heir to Blair, and Blairism has drifted from Labour to the Conservative Party. The ever-popular role of the socially liberal, young, and even possibly optimistic leader has been hoovered up by the Conservatives, and the Cameroons have taken advantage of its electoral potential. Cameron himself joked that he was the ‘heir to Blair’. Blairite political pundits like Dan Hodges and John Rentoul will readily admit that they voted Conservative, perhaps through gritted teeth, because they couldn’t get behind Ed Miliband’s Labour.
When it is announced that Corbyn has won the leadership campaign, the Blairites within the party face a nasty dilemma. Do they, as Chuka Umunna has done, wave the white flag and commit themselves to Corbyn, or do they fight tooth and nail, as Tristram Hunt has done, and refuse to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet? Whatever approach they take, it is unlikely that any Labour MP with the baggage of New Labour has a chance at being leader before 2020. If a challenger to Corbyn does emerge, the New Labourites ought to learn from their mistakes and opt for a candidate who served in neither Blair nor Brown’s government – the obvious choices are Keir Starmer or Dan Jarvis. New Labour looks as though it is dead, but a centrist force within the PLP could still rise to save Labour.