Frank Augstein / AP

Today’s Issue

  • As Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has struggled to deliver on its Brexit plans, the Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, argues that it is time for the United Kingdom to give his party a chance. But Labour is divided on Brexit, and Corbyn’s lieutenants are split on the way forward.
  • Today’s issue examines how Labour got to this point. In a series called The Present Past, we’re revisiting old Atlantic stories that reveal the roots of current problems. Today: “The Paradoxical Case of Tony Blair,” a 1996 profile of the former Labour leader by Geoffrey Wheatcroft.  
  • Listen to an in-depth interview with the historian Laura Beers on Labour’s evolution since the Blair years. The audio is available on SoundCloud and in your members-only podcast feed. Here’s how to access it via your podcast player of choice.

Labour Reckons With Its Faustian Bargain

By Matt Peterson

When Prime Minister Theresa May’s government stumbled this week, Jeremy Corbyn was ready to pounce. “We don’t have a functioning government,” the Labour leader said after May canceled a planned vote on the Brexit deal she has negotiated with the European Union. Corbyn wants voters to hand him the opportunity to prove he can do better. Not much time is left before March 2019, when the United Kingdom will drop out of the EU whether or not a deal is in place. Without a transitional arrangement, of the kind May wanted a vote on this week, the Bank of England has projected that the U.K. economy could shrink by as much as 10.5 percent compared with its trajectory before the referendum. But Corbyn has been vague about what, precisely, he would do differently, other than to say he would not cancel Brexit.

Corbyn's unwillingness to stake out a clear line on Brexit owes to the Faustian bargain the party struck under Tony Blair. In 1996, when The Atlantic published Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s snapshot of the party, Labour was hoping to come back from a long losing streak. Blair “took over a party all but terminally demoralized by endless defeat,” Wheatcroft wrote. But “what wasn't clear at first was that he meant to [win] by utterly transforming the party, by uprooting its traditions, by effectively destroying Labour as it had been known since its beginnings.” That bargain—political victory via ideological compromise—set the stage for the moment Labour is going through now.

Tony Blair, Party Radical

Blair’s path forward required Labour to rethink beliefs that had been central to its identity for decades. On the road toward Blair’s landslide prime-ministerial victory in 1997, the party still officially touted a socialist philosophy, with its constitution advocating for “common ownership of the means of production, distribution, and exchange.” Blair amended the party’s constitution to strip out that language, and demoted the formal relationship between the party and the country’s trade unions. “Blair is the first Labour leader who barely pretends to be a socialist,” Wheatcroft wrote. Blair and his allies believed the party couldn’t win on the grounds it had been fighting for decades. The coalition they created, known as New Labour, was much closer to the political center than its predecessors. “He is the first of the Tories' political opponents ever to concede that they have largely won the argument,” Wheatcroft wrote.

While Blair’s fellow Labour members acknowledged his political savvy, they questioned his ideological commitments. He assiduously courted the right-wing media tycoon Rupert Murdoch, whose The Sun newspaper boasted of having helped the underdog Conservatives eke out a victory against Labour in the 1992 elections. “When Blair accepted an invitation to go to Australia … and address Rupert Murdoch's corporate gathering, it was almost a calculated insult to his party,” Wheatcroft wrote. “There has scarcely been a moment in the past two years when Blair, given a choice between his party's doctrines and conciliating what he thinks is public opinion, has not chosen the latter.” Down that path lay victory, but also a reckoning that is now playing out in the politics of Brexit.

The War, the Crash, and the Fall of Tony Blair

Even before Blair’s big win as prime minister in 1997, it was evident that his leadership would leave marks on Labour. The party’s members, Wheatcroft wrote in 1996, “wanted a leader who could win, and in the process they struck a Faustian bargain. Except that Faust knew what he was doing. Labour had not truly reckoned with Blair.”

For many Labour Party members, that reckoning began with the Iraq War, said Laura Beers, a historian of British politics. Blair’s government made significant improvements to the social safety net, she said, but the disastrous military engagement in Iraq sparked a broad reassessment of his legacy. I can attest to that—as a graduate student in London during the 2005 election, I worked briefly for a Labour MP. My overriding memory is a series of uncomfortable conversations on voters’ doorsteps about Labour’s support for the war.

The 2008 financial crisis led to allegations that Blair had been too cozy with banks as well. Blair’s plan of collapsing the distance between Labour and the Tories worked all too well. “I think a large part of the explanation of Corbyn’s election is that feeling of alienation that many, particularly younger, voters had from the direction that Tony Blair had taken the party,” Beers said. “Blair was seen to have sort of taken the soul out of what had previously been a proud socialist party and turned it into a soft centrist party.”

Corbyn Goes Back to Earlier Roots

Today Labour is down but not quite as far out as it was in the mid-’90s. The party has not been in government since 2010, but under Corbyn’s leadership, it gained ground against May in snap elections she called in 2017. As the country moves closer to the March 2019 date when it will be automatically ejected from the EU, however, Corbyn’s critics argue that he has made a mistake by declining to run a full-throated campaign in favor of staying in the bloc. Those critics include Blair, now retired from politics, who has called Labour’s position a strategic mistake. Corbyn has opted to avoid directly addressing the rift within Labour on Brexit, instead criticizing May’s management of the withdrawal process.  

Meanwhile, Corbyn has taken the party back to the left. He has promised to renationalize the railroads and to roll back tuition fees that were implemented—against national protests—under Blair’s government. He has brought unions back into the fold, and is no friend of Rupert Murdoch’s. He has even mused about restoring the socialist commitments Blair struck from Labour’s constitution. While Corbyn hasn’t acted on those words, he is proud of his beliefs and hasn’t shied away from defending socialism in public.  

Corbyn is personally a Euroskeptic, and as leader, he has set the party’s positions to align with his views. But he hasn’t healed its divisions. Blair was able to offer the enticement of victory over the comfort of principle. Without Blair’s media skills and win-at-all-costs ambition, Corbyn can’t make the same promise. As a result, he’s focused his energies on reforming the party. “I think this is about a sort of purging of Labour and making Labour feel pure and good about itself again,” Beers said. “This is not about a leader who's come in thinking constructively about how to be a head of state, a leader of the House of Commons, and [how] to pass legislation and to work in coalitions and to govern the country.”

“Those Labour prime ministers who do manage to break through are those ones who managed to speak to some of the people in the political center,” Beers said. “They don't do that by saying the only way to make true Labour voters is to change their hearts and their souls.” If Corbyn becomes prime minister, it will have more to do with the Tories’ political mismanagement than with his philosophy of government. Corbyn’s administration would face an immediate political crisis in the form of a ticking Brexit clock. And he would be the head of a divided party, just like May.

Today’s Wrap-Up

  • Today’s question: For British readers who lived through the Blair years, how do you remember them? Share your reactions to this history with or on the forums.
  • What’s coming: We’ve been researching questions Kate Julian raised in her cover story, “The Sex Recession.” We’ll be back Wednesday with some answers.
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