Why Labour should regret Blair’s shafting of Ashdown in 1997

December 28, 2010 § 6 Comments

Tony Blair-to blame for Labour's 2010 election defeat?

It’s etched across their faces.

Labour Members of Parliament-and, especially, former Ministers-have still not recovered from the party losing office.

They’d begun to believe that their’s was the ‘natural party of government.’

Perhaps, despite their protestations, they had become so used to ministerial cars and red boxes that they thought they would be in their ownership forever.

Whatever the truth of it, you can tell from many of their public pronouncements that Labour MP’s are still in a kind of shock.

They seem to be opposing many Government policies not because they genuinely are against them but just for the sake of opportunistic party political point scoring.

And Labour’s lacklustre leader, ‘Red’ Ed Miliband has been making overtures to Lib Dem members to join his party;as if we’ve suddenly forgotten about the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, the gap between the richest and poorest in this country growing wider during their time in office, and their demolishing of many of our treasured and long fought for civil liberties, etc.

This all seems a bit desperate on Labour’s behalf.

They rather resemble headless chickens; clinging onto the last vestiges of life, pecking and clucking around without any great purpose or sense of being.

The tragic thing-at least for Labour members-is that this could have all potentially been avoided.

One of my favourite reads has been the memoirs of our former leader-and one of my political heroes-Paddy Ashdown, especially the volume covering the run-up to the 1997 General Election and its aftermath.

In the book Ashdown documents the secret talks between leading Lib Dems, including former party President, Robert Maclennan, and leading Labour members including the late Robin Cook, the former Labour Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons.

At the time it seemed the Labour negotiators-with the support of the party’s then Leader Tony Blair-were genuine and really ‘up-for’ a potential realignment of the Left of British politics…the re-uniting of the Labour/Liberal movements whose split in the early part of the 20th Century largely enabled the Tories to come through the middle and govern for the majority of its years.

Of course there were very loud internal voices against a Left realignment, including from that party heavyweight John Prescott, but the party’s modernisers could see that this could be a great thing…it could have potentially seen the Tories unable to govern again, if everything had panned out.

But then came the election, Labour won a landslide and the talks between the Lib Dems and Labour resulted in nothing, other than a Lib Dem presence for a couple of years on a Cabinet Committee on constitutional reform.

Even despite Labour’s massive majority, if Blair had had the courage of his alleged convictions, he could have still worked with Paddy Ashdown and other Lib Dems to form a Coalition Government.

Just imagine Ashdown as Deputy Prime Minister, Ming Campbell as Foreign Secretary and Charles Kennedy as the Scottish Secretary.

With Lib Dems in government at the time I’m sure some of Labour’s worst ‘crimes’ could and would have been avoided: the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq, the various attacks on our hard-won civil liberties, and, yes, the decision to introduce university tuition fees.

But the fact is Blair, despite his modernising rhetoric, did not have the will to take on the party die-hards in his parliamentary ranks (which David Cameron-to his credit-did, with the Tories, thirteen years on) and he dropped like a stone the idea of a historic realignment of the Left of British politics.

Ultimately Blair wasn’t a Kinnock; Neil Kinnock drove the Militant tendency from his party in the 1980’s, making it far more electable. Blair, in a far easier task, wasn’t prepared to take on the likes of Prescott and demand that they fall in line behind a Lib/Lab Coalition.

This might not have seemed like a problem at the time, but-thirteen years on-Labour could still be in office had there been better relations between Labour and the Lib Dems and had more modernisers been sent into the dramatic negotiations in the five days after the General Election in May this year…instead of the likes of that arch-Brownite Ed Balls.

They cannot, with any justification at least, now cry wolf because David Cameron and the Tories did what Labour and Blair failed to do back in 1997.

I believe Coalition Government could become a regular feature of our politics-indeed, I’d welcome it; so, if Labour are to stand any chance of getting back into power they need to stop trying to mock Lib Dem Ministers and coup Lib Dem members and, instead, start enabling better relations ahead of potential negotiations after the next General Election in 2015.

Ed Miliband should set up a working group to this effect-perhaps led by that arch moderniser Lord Mandelson.

Labour has no one to blame for them being out of office but themselves.

Facing up to that may just be the wake-up call they need to kick-start a long journey back to power.

§ 6 Responses to Why Labour should regret Blair’s shafting of Ashdown in 1997

  • It is an interesting hypothesis but I find it hard to believe that it would ever have happened, even if Labour had not won such a landslide victory.

    We see now from Labour the tribalism which poisons the political atmosphere.

    There is a massive reservoir of distrust built up by traditional Labour activists to Lib Dems which just can’t be wished away. My experience is that they hate us, unless at a local level we are able to defeat Tories.

    There was a great anti-Tory head of steam built up pre 97 which saw tactical voting on a grand scale. We were seen as a junior partner in that process, delivering many seats for Labour and a few for us.

    Blair was a political opportunist. He foresaw a possible hung parliament or small majority which might have been the 97 outcome and he was sensible enough to at least explore coalition possibilities. He also knew full well that a Labour landslide would rule it out.

    As for the long-term benefits which may have accrued in the event of a Lib-Lab Coalition, the most important for me would have been PR. I don’t believe it would have delivered less than AV plus, if not STV. Achieved early enough may have had a dramatic effect on the future political landscape. If we failed to achieve that, then stopping the War would, in my view, have been unlikely as there was a commons majority for the War in the final analysis. I am afraid that I do not subscribe to the Lib Dems united front on opposition to the War on any other basis of political opportunism from a party of opposition who’s votes ultimately didn’t count.

    Its good to speculate but it was unlikely ever to have been a reality especially given the landslide victory.

  • Neil Baker says:

    Would be interesting to know what Blair meant by realignment. Could easily have ended with a merger of the two parties (or, should I say, a merger of the larger parts of both, with two rumps remaining) but would that have been worthwhile?

    Could also have led to giving substance to claims such as “either vote Conservative or get Lab/Lib” with “Lab/Lib” being seen as the same even if they didn’t formally merge.

    Paddy Ashdown once bumped into me while carrying a cake on a balcony overlooking the Thames off the Lords, too. Just thought I’d share that!

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  • I too am interested in this period, Matthew, and in the “talks” between Blair and Ashdown. These quiet discussions were kept even from Alastair Campbell for the four long years they were ongoing. If you have read Ashdown’s Diaries, you will know that he STILL believes that Blair was serious in this endeavour. In fact, if truth were told, it is probably what Blair considers his biggest failure – the lack of re-alignment of the Left.

    What is always enlightening to read are analyses which paint Blair as a “dictatorial” leader, yet seem to protest that he was not dictatorial enough when it comes to certain ‘dictats’. The sort of dictat that some would have been more in favour of. Thus, to such as these analysts (if the shoe fits) the Iraq war was wrong, even when it was the FIRST time a PM had asked Parliament for its agreement (and got it)! And yet Blair was ‘wrong’ not to bludgeon his party with a HUGE majority – no, TWO huge majorities, and a third majority to boot – into a re-alignment with a third, losing party!

    All crazy thinking, I’m sorry, Matthew.

    Still, there is no doubt things would have been different today had Ashdown and Blair gathered round the cabinet table habitually rather than just the once or twice they did, at Blair’s insistence, much to Prescott and Brown’s disgust.

    As for today’s Labour/ leader – ship. It can sink for all it matters to me, since they so carelessly lost the only REAL visionary leader they had in decades. No not Brown. Nor Miliband D.


    Of course the present Liberal Democrats fail to understand this little fact: when it came to Iraq there may well have been one or two at the top of that party who would not have so superciliously (and wrongly) jumped aboard the ‘Iraq war wrong’ bandwagon, if they were in a decision-making and fact-knowing position.

    Ashdown? Carlile? Power and knowledge bring responsibility. As your party is now discovering.


  • Cat says:

    Interesting, but disappointingly partisan, “what if” but I don’t believe it would ever have worked out. Firstly, unlike Cameron now, Blair and Labour didn’t need your MP’s votes in 97, would Cameron have offered a coalition if he’d have got a majority…nope. But the biggest reason it wouldn’t have lasted is Iraq, Blair was prepared to lie, misinform his cabinet and wave goodbye to a lot of members and voters to go to war in Iraq – would he really have been troubled by a libdem walk out? I doubt it, Blair is/was mental and he was going into Iraq with Bush despite everything – even me cutting up my membership card.

    “as if we’ve suddenly forgotten about the illegal and immoral invasion of Iraq,”

    That was Blair, he’s gone, a new generation is in charge.

    “the gap between the richest and poorest in this country growing wider during their time in office”

    Labour held inequality in check, they didn’t reduce it which is disappointing but they didn’t let it run rampant like Thatcher did. But the issue of income inequality is far more complex than just introducing a 50p tax band, income at the very top has risen dramatically over the past 30 years yet low and median earners incomes have remained flat. And Clegg has come out against any attempt to reduce income inequality, calling himself a “new progressive” for believing solely in social darwinism – http://bit.ly/hlvcqA

    Are you an old or new progressive?

    “their demolishing of many of our treasured and long fought for civil liberties, etc.”

    Well, yeh, Labour went too far.

    “stop trying to mock Lib Dem Ministers and coup Lib Dem members and, instead, start enabling better relations ahead of potential negotiations after the next General Election in 2015.”

    Well, the mocking of ministers isn’t going to stop, it is a normal if not particularly nice part of our system. Didn’t Vince Cable call Brown, Mr Bean? But on the better relations front, Ed is trying to do exactly that by working with Richard Grayson during Labour’s “policy review”.

    “Ed Miliband should set up a working group to this effect-perhaps led by that arch moderniser Lord Mandelson.”

    Are you joking? You want Mandy back? We’ve only just got rid of him…for the third time.

    • Neil Baker says:

      Agree re: Labour/Lib Dem coalition in 1997. Even a walk-out by the Lib Dems wouldn’t have ended the Government, so Labour would have been free to force through anything they wanted, whether the Lib Dems would quit over it or not. On that note, perhaps it (from Blair’s viewpoint, but who knows with him?) was an attempt at a swallow-up, rather than a realignment? Many questions remain unanswered and perhaps always will be!

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