Tony Blair, the great actor manager of modern British politics returned to centre stage this week by giving a speech to Labour Party members in his former constituency of Sedgefield.
In the speech he expressed optimism for Britain’s future saying ‘We are not out of the woods yet, but we are on the path out. This did not happen by chance; but by choice.’
The choices in question, he implied, were those made by his successor and one time rival Gordon Brown.
Unsurprisingly the opposition parties were critical of Blair’s return to something like centre stage, Tory Chairman Eric Pickles said the speech told people ‘nothing about what Labour has to offer this country.’ On a more cutting note usually absent from his party’s attack Liberal Democrat spokesman Danny Alexander said the speech would only serve to ‘remind people of the failures of Labour over the last thirteen years.’
Quite so would be a reasonable answer to both points, but of course the intended audience for Blair’s one night only comeback tour wasn’t the wider British public, it was the membership of the Labour Party. As such it, along with the fact that Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell are to play prominent roles in the forthcoming election campaign sends an unhappy message about the health of the party.
Tony Blair’s performance at Trimdon Labour Club on Tuesday exhibited all the old familiar tricks, the catch in his voice to show strong emotion only just being held in check and the odd chopping motions with his hands, added to these were a orange tan straight from a bottle and an accent that sank somewhere in the mid Atlantic. It was rather like watching a pop star who used to be big a decade or so ago doing his act in Vegas, fascinating in the sense that he can still hold a crowd but also rather sad because it highlighted how completely the dark arts of PR can overwhelm an individual’s personality.
The reason Tony Blair, who has been busy making himself very rich over the past three years, has been brought back is as simple as it is misguided, the Labour Party high command think that he and the fellow architects of the New Labour project will be able to scatter a little of their ‘magic dust’ over what looks likely to be a lacklustre campaign. It won’t work of course because one person’s magic dust is another’s toxic fall-out.
The media treated Blair’s speech as what it was, a minor distraction unlikely to sway floating voters one way or the other. Where the real harm will be done is through the reaction of Labour’s fast diminishing army of active members and that, I fear, fear will not be at all positive.
To all but a tiny majority of these people Tony Blair is an unwelcome reminder of how completely the heritage of their party has been sold off in order to win three elections. They find it hard to feel the optimism he expressed about the future of a country they see as being increasingly divided, over taxed and spied on to the point of paranoia by a largely ineffective bureaucracy. Staged events of the sort at which New Labour excelled won’t reconnect these people with a party that seems to take their support for granted, only an honest and at times unavoidably hurtful discussion of what the Labour Party stands for in a world that has changed out of all recognition since it was founded will do that, but, sadly, a party hierarchy obsessed with clinging on to power at all costs has little enthusiasm for such an exercise.
Gordon Brown deserves a small amount of respect for eating the large portion of humble pie involved in bringing a man for whom he has little love back on side to fight his corner, not least because for all his faults Tony Blair possesses many of the social skills he so clearly lacks. Doing so won’t though do anything to alter the course of the election that will in all likelihood provide a sad coda to his political career.