Election 2005: a one-man show?
Blair's message for the British people: it's the Third Way or no way.
At the Labour Party spring conference, prime minister Tony Blair said that there was a ‘fundamental choice facing the country’ in the upcoming general election (1). But he was actually flaunting the fact that the country doesn’t have much choice. It’s me or nothing, was the message.
Blair presented his relationship with the British people as a tumultuous love affair. The public is forever getting stroppy and running off, but would inevitably return in the morning. Reflecting on the rocky road between 1997 and now, Blair presents disagreements as trivial tiffs. ‘All of a sudden there you are, the British people, thinking: you’re not listening and I think: you’re not hearing me. And before you know it you raise your voice. I raise mine. Some of you throw a bit of crockery.’
Like the boyfriend faced only with pig ugly challengers, Blair can afford to be blasé. ‘If you decide you want Mr Howard, that is your choice. If you want to go off with Mr Kennedy, that’s your choice too.’ His gentle, cajoling tone signals that there is really nobody else for voters to go off with. But like any boyfriend, he’s also paranoid about his rivals, and he probably wonders if he is such a good catch after all.
This presentation is telling. Emotion, not reason, is posed as the key to the relationship between leader and people. It’s a partnership built on faith not on interests, on feeling rather than policy. Apparently we just have to listen to each other, and try to understand. We need to work at building a ‘partnership between politics and people, from the blend of listening and leading’.
Matters of policy aren’t seen as that important. ‘I learnt that on some issues, sometimes you just have to agree to disagree, like Iraq’, says Blair. Agree to disagree, over a war? Over who does the washing, yes, or which style of curtain you want for the front room. Yet Blair assigns taking the country to war to the pile of those ‘thousand little things that irritate and grate’, along with him leaving his socks on the bedroom floor.
The choice that we apparently have is to go ‘forward or back’ – forward with Blair or back with the Tories. ‘Forward not Back’ is New Labour’s election slogan. But given that nobody would vote to go back, that means that we’ll be going forward. With the Tories collapsing like a pack of cards, Blair can rubbish them as yesterday’s men. ‘Can you imagine anything more typical and more backward?’, he asks of one Tory policy. But Blair’s repetitive insults also indicate his insecurity, as if he is afraid that the Tory ghost might rise from the grave.
It seems that the Third Way has become the only way. New Labour dominates the political field, and everybody has to play its game if they want a slice of the action. Yet the Third Way is also proving entirely unsatisfactory. After all, how many of us could even say what it really means? Clearly the New Labour programme doesn’t offer a satisfying solution to the problems of life.
According to Blair, people should stop having unrealistic expectations about what politics can do. He reflects on the ‘euphoria’ of 1997, and his slow realisation that ‘Life is not about euphoric moments. It’s about steady change for the better’. In other formulations he says: ‘We can’t promise paradise. But we can make progress’; and ‘people don’t expect miracles, but they do demand dialogue’. In 1997 Blair promised people a New Britain; today he tells them to get real. Be happy with your steady change and dialogue – everything else is pipe dreams.
If this is the only plan for going forward, then it’s time to get new ideas on the table. Perhaps even paradise shouldn’t be ruled out.
(1) Full text: Blair’s spring conference speech, Guardian, 15 February 2005
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