David Blunkett interview: Politics at the moment is surreal
The Labour heavyweight chews over the Chilcot Inquiry, Brexit and the 'catastrophic' prospect of a Labour split.
David Blunkett wants to leave the last fortnight behind. "A line should be drawn," the former Labour cabinet minister insists. He's referring specifically to the Chilcot Inquiry in the 2003 Iraq War, published the previous day, but he could just easily be wishing to move on from the referendum result or the ongoing crisis at the heart of his Labour Party.
This politician turned part-time academic - Blunkett is now a professor of politics at the University of Sheffield - is clearly feeling bruised.
First there was the referendum. Blunkett, a keen pro-European, admits he is still “deeply fearful” of what Britain’s decision to leave the European Union may mean, and finds himself “deeply disappointed” that his home city of Sheffield voted for Brexit. “It made me think that even though I always kept in touch every weekend with the constituency, never ever let them down, I hadn't realised that it wasn't just the disillusioned and dispossessed that were ready to vote for Brexit, it was quite a substantial chunk of the middle class and we need to take that on board.”
Then, following the referendum, Blunkett watched on from his seat in the House of Lords as a spectacular rebellion against Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn stuttered and then, seemingly, stalled.
And as that coup - despite more than 50 frontbencher resignations - showed no obvious ending, on Wednesday, Sir John Chilcot finally published the results of his long-waited inquiry into decision to invade Iraq in 2003.
It was an opus which laid damning criticism at Tony Blair, and the following morning’s newspapers had savaged the former prime minister.
For Blunkett, the coverage which followed “was very sad indeed”, and he hopes that a day will come “when feelings are less edgy and divisive… it is important to recognise the role Tony Blair played in a much wider sphere than the Iraq War.”
Blunkett says “a line should be drawn once the fuller debate in the two houses of Parliament and the reactions in the more considered journals have taken place… a line under the bitter and sometimes personal vitriol that has bedevilled holding a sensible debate.” But with Blair still refusing to say he had been wrong and insisting he would make the same decisions again, can he ever escape the shadow of Iraq?
“Well, there’s one thing not being able to escape the shadow of Iraq immediately, though I think historians will be kinder to him, but there’s another to continue the sheer personalisation and the venom, which was displayed again in the lead up to and the aftermath of publication,” Blunkett replies, noting that Chilcot “could not identify that people had lied nor that they had sort to mislead.”
With Chilcot’s findings still raw, is it time, perhaps, for Tony Blair to step away from making political interventions? Blunkett is careful not to suggest that his former leader should adopt a Trappist vow of silence, and instead suggests that in the current climate a whole generation of senior Labour politicians should speak with care.
“For the time being any past leader and even those who held office at the highest level have to be circumspect - including me - about our pronouncements and interventions which might have the exact opposite effect as was intended,” he accepts, before adding: “It doesn't mean that any of us simply should be told to get back in the box and go away, and fail to express a lifetime’s experience or commitment to the party, but it does mean we need to be very careful.”
Blunkett’s own lifetime of political experience is remarkable. At 22 he became the youngest ever leader of Sheffield City Council. In the 1980s he fought gruelling battles against Militant. Following New Labour's landslide general election victory in 1997 he became the first blind person to take a seat around the Cabinet table, later resigning - twice - from Tony Blair’s frontbench. Having ridden the very crest of the New Labour wave when Blair’s new dawn broke, it must have been baffling for Blunkett to witness Jeremy Corbyn, a man who scowled his way through 13 years of Labour government in perpetual rebellion, responding to Chilcot as the current Labour leader.
“Politics at the moment, in every single element of what is in the public sphere, is surreal…” he declares. “You know… the result of the referendum, the immediate aftermath of the referendum, the confusion and bewilderment inside the Labour Party, the vote for no confidence [in Jeremy Corbyn] the emergence of Andrea Leadsom as a possible prime minister, the demise of Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in equal measure… and the England team being knocked out of the European Championships by Iceland.”
While that sporting surreality was probably predictable, the political developments of the last few months have been anything but, and Blunkett believes “they all feed into a feeling that nothing will quite be the same again”.
He’s confident that politics as we knew it will return “because things right themselves and the pendulum turns”, but when it comes to the Labour Party, Blunkett agrees there is not an obvious route to return to politics as before.
“It’s very difficult to see how the current leadership could possibly unite the elements of the party, the Parliamentary Labour Party being a key part of the that,” he argues, before singling out the role of Momentum, the grass roots movement whose aim is “to build on the energy and enthusiasm from the Jeremy Corbyn for Labour Leader campaign”, for its part in creating the current civil strife.
“What Momentum and the leadership around Jeremy have done is to invent a new doctrine - it’s not new politics, it’s very old politics for those who have any grasps of Marxist-Leninism. It’s called democratic centralism. All sovereignty lies in the hands of the leader once you've gone through the process of putting the leader in place. The mantra that now exists is ‘Jeremy was elected leader, you must now shut up and go away and let Jeremy have his way whatever that might be’. It is an extraordinarily dangerous reversion to a kind go politics which most of the youngsters that joined last year have never read about, never mind experienced.”
Blunkett doesn't name an alternative candidate - “I don’t know at this stage, but it has to be for a new generation, it can’t be for those of us who have been through this before…” - but it’s clear he hopes that the stand-off can be resolved before the growing clamour for a Labour split leads to some sort of repeat of the formation of the SDP in the early 1980s. The idea alarms Blunkett deeply.
“It would be catastrophic because under the present circumstances the Momentum campaign would keep control of the party machine, its funding, its communications, its outreach … and the rump coalescing around the parliamentary party would have to start a new party and they would therefore be portrayed as the ones who once again betrayed the wider Labour movement and that’s the way it would be painted.”
And a united Labour, he adds, is the only way to win power from the Conservatives, because “if we learned lessons in 1981 to 1983, it’s if social democracy is in real trouble and you split it still further you merely reinforce the majority of your opponents and that would happen - there is no question about it.”
Despite the warning, he also accepts in its current state of health the Labour Party would struggle if faced with fighting a general election. “The Labour Party would not be in a position to fight it, financially, structurally or politically, but we need to presume there will be an election and we need to start thinking in those terms whether it’s sooner or whether it’s in 2020.”
So Labour, he says, must decide whether it wants to offer the British people a “perpetual campaign of opposition to Conservative policy or an alternative set of policies on which you hope to get elected and have the leadership skills to carry through.” He then adds, sharply: “It’s very difficult to oppose yourself when you're the government…. those who have spent their whole lives opposing their own party as well as their formal opponents have to answer the question: ‘are you really interested in governing or are you interested in continuing to be an external campaign?”
Despite his clear criticisms of Corbyn, and despite all the shadow cabinet resignations, Blunkett recognises that the Labour leader’s backing amongst party members - not to mention the influence of Momentum - means there is no way that Corbyn can simply be dumped back on the fringes of the party.
“I accept fully we cant simply say ‘would you mind all going away, we’re not comfortable with you and we don't think you can win’. I think we’ve got to say ‘what is it you think you're about? Let’s have a sensible discussion about what role you might play…. but in a Labour Party that is a vehicle of winning power not for combatting the Conservative Party in perpetual power.”
And, says Blunkett, if those discussions are constructive then there might be a way out for Jeremy Corbyn which allows him to hold a senior position in the Labour hierarchy.
Blunkett’s peace process would see Momentum “provide olive branches by indicating what it is they really do want, what is it they stand for, what is it they want from the Labour Party as a vehicle for progressive change… and it might, in those circumstances, be possible for Jeremy to play a continuing role, perhaps as an active and engaged chairman of the Labour Party in circumstances where we have come to a new accord.”
His suggestion that Momentum be included, even informally, in the future direction of travel for Labour perhaps hints at the desperate need for a peace - and a plan - to be struck, because Blunkett’s attitude towards them is otherwise deeply critical.
Recalling his battles with Militant - which took places 30 years ago this summer - Blunkett describes “being spat on as we walked into meetings….the venom, the bile, the intimidation, the thuggery of those years rests with me today.” And it is those experiences, he says, which makes him “so concerned about the state of the Labour Party now and so worried for Labour MPs and what’s being said and done to them, including online in new ways unthought of 30 years ago, in their constituencies. It’s not acceptable.”
Should the leadership do more to stop the intimidation? “Oh yes. The leadership, in my view, could confine Momentum to not being part of the party process in any shape or form. They could happily accept them as an outside social movement… though they are made up of many people who I consider to be Trotskyists and Marxists.”
He adds: "There is a disconnect with what is going on in the Labour Party and in the minds of many Labour Party members and in the heads of the electorate who are not engaged in this at all and who are onlookers, often bewildered sometimes bemused and sometimes contemptuous…. and that’s not a good place to be.”
After Chilcot, after the referendum, after, or perhaps during, a Labour leadership coup with no end, David Blunket probably doesn’t feel in a particularly good place either. No wonder he wants to set about drawing lines under the last few weeks. Settling on a line of travel that takes the Labour Party into a happier place may prove to be a rather more complicated challenge.
Picture credit: Press Association