Tony Blair ignored, neglected and ultimately abused the party that gave him power. He was right to do so.
In the early 1990s Tony Blair saw that the Labour Party in its fossilised 1980s form was not only unelectable but, worse, no longer an electoral force. The Labour Party was going the way of the Liberals: a one-time party of government reduced by dogma and an instinctive resistance to change to irrelevance and to sniping from the sidelines.
The Labour Party, though, was still a quite servicable vehicle, a political machine in good enough shape to get him (and his people) to power. Once there, as we’ve seen, his apparent interest in the party faded and his interactions with it were pared back to the absolute minimum. The party was told what it was necessary to tell it and that was it (Jack Dromey being only the latest elected official to learn that his post was more honorary than managerial).
The party’s conference, once Labour’s primary engine of policy renewal, became an annual chore, left to juniors (and the doughty, indecipherable deputy), just another diary engagement for the PM, really. The problem with marginalising a deep-rooted institution like the Labour Party, though, is that it just won’t lie down and die and now, over a decade later, it’s taking its revenge.
The thing is, Blair’s rejection of his party is more radical than even his critics think. They characterise Blair’s style of Government as ‘Presidential’ but, of course, even a President still has a party, still needs its machine to produce money and grassroots support and legitimacy. Blair’s vision goes much further, I think, to a political scene without parties – where parties, in fact, are irrelevant, where the idea of a party is absurd – to a ‘policy marketplace’ of shifting personalities and issues and platforms.
In this, of course, he is not only ahead of his time, he is probably right. Parties everywhere – in all the mature, democratic states – are fading fast – both in terms of membership and, of course, of authority. They’ve had their day. The parties will probably be the first real victims of politics’ almost universal legitimacy crisis. We’re learning that political parties are not up to the 21st Century job – they’re inefficient filters of the popular will and ineffective bearers of political authenticity.
In the modern world outside politics – in marketing and business and the media – it’s all about authenticity and directness these days. The winners in the post-party environment will be individual politicians who can tell their stories to electors without the mediation of the clumsy 19th Century clubs we call parties. Tony Blair will be their prototype.