Tony Blair Says Centrism Trumps Corbynism (Just Don't Call Him A Centrist Dad)
Upon the launch of a technology paper by his new policy institute, the former prime minister tells BuzzFeed News there's no appetite for a new centrist party, and that he finds it totally understandable that Jeremy Corbyn is Labour leader.
Tony Blair has been called many things in his political career, not all of them printable. But he’d like to make it very clear that he doesn’t want to be called a "Centrist Dad".
"I think that’s a term invented by people who regard centrism as the status quo place," says the former prime minister, sitting in his central London office, very much aware of the label popularised by some Jeremy Corbyn supporters on Twitter in reference to their internal Labour opponents.
"If you define centrism as splitting the difference between right and left then I'm not a centrist. I’m not interested in that," adds Blair, who has just finished recording a podcast with former Barack Obama adviser David Axelrod. "I define centrism as the place where you want solutions that are radical but still realistic and non-ideological because they’re practical."
Blair has invited BuzzFeed News to his office for the launch of a new policy paper setting out ideas on how government and politicians need to improve their approach to technology. It’s one of a series of publications being produced by a new organisation called the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, the former Labour leader’s new vehicle for all of his political interests. The organisation – which aims to renew the world of centrist politics as Blair sees them – acts as a sort-of safe haven for New Labour-era advisers and those who prefer their political underdogs to be more like Emmanuel Macron than Bernie Sanders.
"People forget that when we were in power when I was prime minister we had 10 years of uninterrupted growth,” Blair say proudly. "We had big reductions in pension and child poverty, when I left office the health service had the highest satisfaction rating since it began, we did big school reforms, minimum wage, civil partnerships, all from a centrist position.
“What we’re trying to do with the Institute is to create a policy platform that provides answers to the problems the world has that are both radical but still sensible and realistic.”
All of this is taking place in a newly refurbished building in central London where dozens of staffers work in an open-plan office decorated in the manner of a tech startup – albeit a tech startup where the walls are decorated with a mixture of inspirational slogans and pictures of Blair meeting world leaders. An award for GQ Man of the Year 2014 sits in a glass box by the lift. Bold slogans urging action are printed on the walls, alongside Nelson Mandela quotes and a drawing of Blair as he appeared in The Simpsons, signed by Matt Groening. The Institute’s manifesto, which strays close to Labour’s 2017 general election slogan, is to “make globalisation work for the many, not the few”.
All of this is about Blair starting the next stage of his career: Out goes the often controversial for-profit consultancy work that both funded and occasionally tarnished his post-premiership era. In come campaigns in support of centrist policies at a time when centrism has never seemed less politically fashionable.
The technology paper Blair is launching, written by policy adviser Chris Yiu with a foreword by the man himself, sets out the challenges facing modern governments: automation and self-driving cars putting individuals out of jobs, a topsy-turvy media environment dominated by Facebook, and government inefficiency. Its recommendations include lifelong education for those put out of work by technological progress, a new government department for digital matters, and a public duty responsibility for social media companies.
Ultimately though, this is about Blair trying to carve out a corner in a fast-changing political world and be a pro-globalisation standard bearer. To take one example, he’s concerned about the power of major tech companies but also thinks it’s worth defending the right of Uber to innovate, and for the right of its drivers to work flexibly.
“There are a lot of people employed as Uber drivers who want to be Uber drivers,” he insists at a time when bashing the taxi app, which has just lost a legal challenge over workers’ rights, is a favoured pastime of many politicians. “The question is, how do you make sure that they’re treated properly? The answer is not to ban Uber. The answer is to regulate it sensibly. You can see this with all the major companies, when they’re changing society in very profound ways, the question is how do you keep the advantages people want – in the case of Uber there are people who feel this is important employment for them and gives them flexibility – but how do you make sure they’re not exploited?”
Instead, he predicts some sort of pledge to ensure the major tech companies are working in the public interest without interrupting their services.
“The starting point is that people are using Google and Facebook and Uber because they want to. They are more powerful than some governments and inevitably there’s going to be some focus on how they operate with public interest obligations because their power is so enormous.”
While Donald Trump promises economic nationalism to protect traditional jobs, Blair says he still believes in the benefits of international open markets. “I think globalisation is a good thing but you need to mitigate its downsides and its risks,” he insists. “I was brought up in County Durham, my constituency was a coal-mining constituency – when the world changed and those mines shut there’s no point pretending you’re going to bring all that back.
“There’s no point pretending you’re going to compete with countries who have got far lower wage structures. You’ve got to put a focus on the things you really can do to help… That’s better than telling someone you’re going to protect their job in an era of globalisation when actually you probably can’t.”
The exact policies are less clear. When it comes to universal basic income, a potential replacement for the benefits system that would give everyone the security of guaranteed earnings, he’s not convinced: "I’m a sceptic about it but I’m not close-minded to it. You’re never going to be able to say to people that some people will work and some people won’t work. You wouldn’t want to give up working; I wouldn’t want to give up work – people want a sense of life purpose.”
In the light of revelations about potential Russian involvement in the US election, Blair says he’s concerned about foreign powers using cyberwarfare to intervene in domestic affairs: “You’re going to have to think at some point in relation to that you’ll get some form of international agreement to make governments understand that if they’re using those tools to influence another country’s politics that’s a red line. Leaders are discussing it the whole time at the moment.”
His own social media presence is limited and he doesn’t check what people are saying about him on Twitter. “I avoid for reasons of blood pressure. Occasionally I do but I don’t obsess about that. The one thing you’ve got to realise about social media is a lot of what careers around is not completely thought-out. If you stick your head out of the door today you’re going to get a lot of abuse.”
Instead he gets news from his iPhone, at one point brandishing his Apple News homescreen. He insists he has no direct knowledge of the Westminster sexual harassment stories that have hit the headlines in recent weeks (“I recognise some of the descriptions, let’s say, but it wasn’t something I got involved in") but says there's going to be “a necessary change in culture that’s going to come about” as a result of the coverage.
For months earlier this year there was speculation surrounding Blair being involved in some sort of new centrist political party, all of which came to nothing when Corbyn massively outperformed expectations in the general election. Some former critics have since softened their tone – Gordon Brown spent Friday morning praising Corbyn for offering solutions where centrist governments had failed – but Blair remains convinced that Corbyn's manifesto is not the correct route forward: “I think the problem with [his policies] is they’re not progressive because they’re believing that, for instance, the big challenge in transport is to nationalise the railways. It isn’t. Or that the big challenge in education is to get rid of tuition fees. It isn’t.
“You can abolish tuition fees, and that means you need to put taxes up for half the population that doesn’t go to university and is on the whole lower-paid.
“I don’t think there’s any appetite for a new party. But I do think there are a lot of people that a hard Brexit Tory party or a hard left Labour party doesn’t answer their political needs.
“I want to build a policy platform which is comprehensive, so you’ll be dealing with all the different aspects and show people there’s a way through to the future that deals with their anxieties about globalisation, but doesn’t end up condemning globalisation and try to stop it, which is a) futile and b) not what people really want.”
He’s also concerned about the left's growing focus on identity politics, a change potentially driven by social media: "I think that the issues behind identity politics are important in themselves but I would always want progressive politics to have a unifying vision around social justice, the economy, and so on. The danger with identity politics is I don’t think it’s an election-winning formula. If you do it in a way that’s obsessive then you alienate a lot of people whose support you need in order to make social change."
Instead, Blair fears a different vision for the UK, which involves Britain leaving the EU (“an epoch-making decision that will take this country backward and marginalise it in the world”) followed by a Corbyn government: “There is a realistic possibility that Labour wins but if we did Brexit and then followed it up with an unreconstructed hard-left economic programme we’d be in trouble.”
He seems at least partially aware of the response his utterances have on the public. What would he say to a left-leaning twentysomething Labour voter who associates him with Iraq, the current housing crisis, and PFI deals, and thinks he’s the devil incarnate?
“I’m probably not going to convince them if they think that," he says. "They should look back on the changes we made that were actually positive and good for the country. If I was back in power today I wouldn’t be in the same position I was back in 2007, let alone 1997. On housing, again we need radical solutions on that, but I’ve not been in power for 10 years.”
Then there’s the Iraq war, an issue he knows will dog him: “It’s perfectly reasonable for people to ask me about it but they should also listen to the other point of view. In time the way that people look at the Middle East will settle down. History will make a judgment on that. On the programme we’re putting forward people should look at it with an open mind.”
Does he still find it baffling that Corbyn, one of the more obscure backbench Labour MPs during his leadership, is now the party leader?
"Yeah," he says, reflecting on the changing political world. "But I also find it completely explicable."