I am still trying to process the Tony Blair Brexit intervention. As he took to the stage, I was reminded of the phrase “this is no time for soundbites…”
Weirdly, the night before, I had appeared on BBC’s Newsnight talking about how Theresa May was adopting a ‘going dark’ media strategy – i.e. going into hiding – and had discussed how it was New Labour under Blair and Alistair Campbell who had created the modern political rule book of a professional, energetic media strategy which had at its heart a heavily-populated press grid.
Then, before you can say “I feel the hand of history on my…” up he pops in all his tanned glory, instructing us to rise up against Brexit.
Blair’s intervention was unapologetic. Bold. Slick. Intelligent. Glossy. Expensive-looking. Muscular. Defiant. It was Blair at his best, showed that he’s “still got it” and drew praise from the usual fan base but some interesting and unpredictable quarters. Even Nicola Sturgeon loved it. The First Minister a Blairite! Who knew? Politics gets weirder and weirder.
But for all the bullish bravery of the speech, something didn’t quite feel right. Blair had every right to make that speech. With Labour trailing 18 per cent behind the Tories, the man who won three elections has earned the right to speak when he likes and about what he likes but the timing was odd.
To make such a big intervention just ahead of two by-elections seemed just a wee bit too spiky or perhaps displayed a loss of touch. I get that he was trying to embolden Peers in the House of Lords on the Article 50 vote but they seem pretty fired up for a fight. I get how useless he thinks Corbyn is (get in the queue), but the timing seemed a bit uncharitable. If it was designed to have a go at the leadership, fine, but be explicit about it.
Blair’s speech, and watching Mandelson on Marr, of course made me think about the Remain campaign. It had a perfectly sensible message. It had lots of clever chaps heading it up. It just didn’t persuade the public. The EU referendum was not the usual type of political fight. And the message carrier mattered.
The Remain campaign launched with the figurehead of Sir Stuart Rose – a fine captain of industry but not exactly someone who most men and women really connect with.
Remain fought a campaign which played by the old political rule book – lots of statistics and dossiers about how much worse off people were going to be. That’s a tried and tested formula for general elections but the referendum was about culture and an explosion of emotion about how angry, upset and depressed people felt about their lives.
Their right to self-determination and leaving the EU even if it would make them worse off became a precious thing and a rare opportunity to disrupt things and “send a message” to the “establishment and the elite”. And I get that. Even though I was a Remainer.
My worry is that as we all try and move forward, neither side is listening to the message that people sent and that they will ultimately feel failed by politics once again, which will lead us to even darker places.
We are not learning the lessons of the Brexit vote in the same way that we didn’t learn the lessons of the financial crash. Around 2008, politicians of all hues were boldly proclaiming “we must rebuild a society and economy that works for everyone – not just a privileged few at the top”. Sounds familiar? But that didn’t happen and we’re in danger of repeating that.
People are frustrated by things. Immigration is a concern – whether you agree with it or not, that is how a lot of people feel. But there are so many other issues which drive people’s anxiety about immigration. Pressures on local services, not being about to get to see a GP, patients waiting on trolleys because they can’t get a bed, a lack of infrastructure, the death of the high street, stagnant wages, not enough opportunity and wealth outside London. This list is nothing new. And immigration doesn’t really cause these problems and drastically cutting immigration won’t really help improve any of these things. Only political action, determination and actual solutions will.
If the political poster boys for Brexit were smart, they could have the chance to own all of this. But they don’t really care. They’re too busy revelling in their win; hubristic; drunk on their success from 24 June; taking selfies in golden lifts and joining in with the general coarseness and unpleasantness that is the unwelcome side effect of Brexit. Any legitimate question is met with a “**** you – we won. SNOWFLAKE LOSERS”. They don’t have any practical solutions to any of the big challenges. I listened to the Radio 5 Live hustings from Stoke. Twice Paul Nuttall was asked what he would actually do to make Stoke better. Twice he replied that everything would be magically transformed just by electing him so he could “send a message” to Westminster.
How many messages can Ukip send? They’re like the DHL of politics – but fail to deliver every time.
Whatever side you were on, we need to look to the future and stop rerunning that 2016 toxic EU referendum. I hope politicians on all sides learn the lessons of the financial crash and use their energy to fight for a better economy and society. The disruption of leaving the EU could be an opportunity to reshape our politics, if we choose to take it.