Why Labour should learn from Biden, not Blair – Varsity Online


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After Labour’s defeat in the local elections, and in response to Tony Blair’s recent article in The New Statesman, Alex Haydn-Williams argues that it is Biden’s radicalism, not Blair’s, that Labour must adopt

Act boldly against discrimination, using your own terms, and the right will look old-fashioned and outmodedWIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Labour is in crisis. The local election results were dire. So dire, in fact, that a long-forgotten politician has emerged from hiding, to lecture the gosh-darned wokes about their electorally dangerous something-or-other. But fear not — it’s not actually Michael Heseltine. Tony Blair has risen, and he doesn’t just look like a nineties Tory — he’s come to perform a full-blown tribute act.
In the politician’s version of a Wembley Arena reunion gig — an op-ed in the New Statesman — Blair argues that voters are put off Labour by the ‘woke left.’ ‘They dislike prejudice; but they dislike extremism in combating prejudice,’ he says, which reads beautifully. Blair’s command of language makes us feel nostalgic for a Labour leader who didn’t say things like, ’I’m bitterly disappointed in the result and, um, y’know, I take full responsibility for the result.’
But Blair’s rhetoric is as dangerous as it is eloquent. For him, ‘extremism’ means any protest movement, even if it isn’t party-political. If Labour doesn’t offer a strong cultural vision, then Blair thinks progressivism will be represented by ‘the woke left’ — a group made up of the shouty fringes of ‘modern causes … from Extinction Rebellion to trans rights to Reclaim the Streets’. It reads like a bingo of Boris’s buzzwords.
Of course, we can all laugh at (a stereotype of) XR. Look at the hippies and Emma Thompson and their big pink boat, everyone! Who let them out of Glastonbury? But it’s wrong to blame protest groups for the malaise of a political party. Blair probably knows that, given he doesn’t address those groups in honest terms. When he writes about ‘a new-fashioned social/cultural message around extreme identity and anti-police politics,’ Blair is not identifying a real message, but concatenating different causes into a homogenous, politically-charged ideology.

“If the right can turn movements for social justice into political hot potatoes for Labour ... they can win the debate before it’s even begun”

In doing so, he plays the game that Telegraph opinion writers want progressives to play. They want Black Lives Matter to be a dogma, not a statement; they want trans rights to be an ideology, not a right, because then they can be debated. If you fashion the public’s imagination of a large, heterogenous mass of causes into Militant Identity Marxists here to piss on Churchill, you don’t have to engage with demands for social justice. If the right can turn movements for social justice into political hot potatoes for Labour, they can neutralise all opposition to hardline social conservatism. They can win the debate before it’s even begun.
But Blair seems to think Labour should allow that to happen. Drawing a dichotomy between ‘social’ and ‘economic’ issues that makes Britain’s second-longest-serving Prime Minister since 1898 sound like a teenager browsing politicalcompass.org, he argues that Labour should take inspiration from Joe Biden’s campaign. The party should ‘disentangle this cultural question and get on to ground it can hold with public support’, so it can focus on the real, technocrat-futurism issues of ‘quantum computing’ and ‘bio-science.’
Centrist outriders like Robert Shrimsley have seen the New Statesman article as a defence of New Labour values against ‘JCR types.’ But JCR types — like Blair’s ‘culture warriors’ and ‘normal’ (straight, white) voters — are types, not people. Blair claims to be saving us from the culture war, but his article uses the right’s framework-of-choice: opinion pieces about imaginary characters.
Creating stereotypes of protestors dehumanises them, invalidating lived experiences of discrimination. That’s what right-wing commentators do, and Blair is accidentally echoing their strategies. He writes that Starmer should stop pontificating, and make his stances clear, so as to win the culture war and the North. What he doesn’t see is that this means abandoning Labour’s other heartlands: queer people, racialised communities, and the urban working classes. In the interests of electability, Blair advocates a moderate acceptance of a moderate amount of hatred, and characterises its victims as intolerant, extreme bullies.
The sad thing about this is that, in many ways, Blair’s analysis is strong. He is completely right that most voters respect Churchill, but ‘will support strongly campaigns against racism.’ He realises that most people are empathetic. He knows that ‘without leaders who can frame and present [progressive] ideas successfully, they gather dust on shelves, not votes in ballot boxes.’ But his conclusion falls into right-wing tropes.

“Refuse to play the right’s game, and we can proudly stand for pride and equality”

Blair is correct that strong, effective leadership can reframe debates. But we shouldn’t use that analysis to argue that Labour must disavow safer streets, racial justice and trans rights. Instead, we can draw on it to present radical change confidently and competently. We don’t need the Red Wall to read Gender Trouble — we just need a leader who can show that trans people deserve protection.
As a fan of a ‘radical and sensible’ approach, you’d think that Blair might look across the Atlantic and realise tackling injustice is not ‘voter-repellent’ unless you accept the right’s arguments. Joe Biden didn’t say ‘defund the police,’ Blair points out. But Biden did say ’structural racism,’ and he spent 2020 bringing his policy platform and public persona in line with movements against racism, poverty and transphobia. Why? Because he recognises injustice as a concrete horror, not a detached point of debate.

His administration’s protection of trans people has been uncontroversial because he refused to stop for fear it would be controversial. Act boldly against discrimination, using your own terms, and the right will look old-fashioned and outmoded. Labour should stop imagining that all it needs to do to win power is appease a patronising Beano caricature of a working-class voter, who likes pints, flags and bigotry.
It should realise that unifying leadership doesn’t have to mean well-knotted ties and compromise. As the current President shows, it can mean a serious appearance — and a refusal to play your opponents’ games. Radicalism needs to appear sensible to get elected, yes. But Labour shouldn’t echo Blair’s vision of radical sensibility. They should follow Biden’s.

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