New Labour’s New Leader: Tony Blair

New Labour’s New Leader: Tony Blair

Why you should care

Twenty years ago today, Britain’s languishing Labour Party elected a 41-year-old former lawyer and rock musician to lead a revolution.

In recent years, former British Prime Minister Tony Blair has been called a lot of names, including “lapdog,” “war criminal,” “lying zealot” and “narcissist with a messiah complex.” But in the summer of 1994, the label that best described the man the Labour Party had just elected as its new leader was “revolutionary.”

After 15 years of Tory rule over Britain and four-straight general election losses, the Labour Party wasn’t just in the political wilderness; it was in one of those remote New Guinea enclaves whose inhabitants don’t speak the same language as their closest neighbors. Anthony Charles Lynton “Tony” Blair, with assistance from Gordon Brown and other “modernisers” within the party, changed all that — in remarkably short order. In under three years, the party would reinvent itself under Blair, and a revolution that started with a single three-letter word would spawn 13 years of Labour government.

The word was “new,” and in his first address as Labour leader at the October 1994 party conference in Blackpool, the red-cheeked Blair used it no fewer than 30 times. And in case you missed the party’s slogan on the large banner behind him, Blair spelled it out to cap off his rousing speech.

“Our Party. New Labour. Our mission. New Britain. New Labour. New Britain.”

Blair’s address, co-penned by former Daily Mirror journo and future Blairite spin doctor Alastair Campbell, was a tour de force, deftly endorsing the party’s sacred cows while simultaneously leading them to slaughter. Blair, a master orator who played in a rock band while studying law at Oxford, was perfect as New Labour’s youthful high priest, sweet-talking the faithful with lines like “We haven’t changed to forget our principles, but to fulfill them.”

Tony Blair and others sitting at table

Tony Blair and members of the British Shadow Cabinet

Source Getty

As Simon Hoggart, the late Guardian political sketch writer, wrote the next day:

“Tony Blair scooped the Labour Party in his strong arms yesterday, gazed long into [its] eyes … and told it how deeply he cared. Then almost before the party knew what was happening, he led it, softly yet insistently, towards the bedroom door.”

If the political winds weren’t already shifting in Britain, the energetic Blair, the son of a small-time actor and a dancer, seemed determined to blow until they did. It was a pivotal moment, and perhaps the best thing to happen to British socialism since unsliced bread.

Blair may have left his wanton party, as Hoggart suggested, “helpless in the face of his throbbing desire for office,” but just a few months before, Labour’s political lothario had confronted a rather large cockblock to party power in the form of his senior colleague from Scotland, Labour’s shadow chancellor Gordon Brown.

If the political winds weren’t already shifting in Britain, the energetic Blair seemed determined to blow until they did.

Labour’s “two bright boys” had been, as the Telegraph once described them, “inseparable friends and allies” for over a decade when Labour leader John Smith’s sudden death on May 12, 1994, created a power vacuum that both party upstarts longed to fill. Nineteen days later, Brown and Blair met at the Granita restaurant in Islington to hammer out a power-sharing arrangement.

Under the so-called “Granita pact” — which, if you ask Gordon Brown, didn’t take place at the restaurant and wasn’t much of a pact — the shadow chancellor agreed to step aside in return for Blair doing the same at some point in the near, but critically unspecified, future.

Once Blair took over as opposition leader, though, both he and Brown went to work on a modernizing scheme they called “The Project.” Blair knew that “new” was not enough, and that while slogans were important, he needed a bolder change to convince the British public that Labour was ready to rule.

Tony Blair campaign poster

Campaign poster from 1997 election

Source Getty

In a daring move, the new leader scrapped Clause IV of Labour’s socialist constitution, calling for the “common ownership of the means of production,” and replaced it with what one commentator called a “list … that might have been the mission statement of a large corporation keen to display its social awareness.”

The man with the enormous Cheshire grin also burnished his reform credentials by making sure that the party’s modernization agenda, including bringing market principles to public services, cut across all policy domains, and he was particularly hard on the party’s long-standing trade union backers, whom he offered a “fairness not favours” relationship.

With the next general election in 1997, the conservative Tory party, ensnared in a recession and a bribery scandal, was overmatched, and Blair’s New Labour won a 179-seat parliamentary majority, the largest in its history.

Blair’s subsequent legacy as prime minister is mixed, to say the least, from peace in Northern Ireland and House of Lords reform to the Iraq War and increase in university fees. And, as with many hastily consummated relationships, it was some of those beneath the party covers who adored him most, who felt the most betrayed the morning after. But, oh, what a night it was.

Britain’s current prime minister, David Cameron, may have put the most memorable epitaph on Blair’s political tombstone in a 2005 questions session in the House of Commons. Cameron didn’t call Blair any names, but he mocked the then-prime minister with perhaps the cruelest thing you can say to a politician and former revolutionary:

“He was the future once.”

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