Blair Says U.K. Labour Party Needs Total Change After Defeat
(Bloomberg) -- The U.K. Labour Party’s recriminations over its catastrophic election defeat continued Wednesday as former leader Tony Blair urged it to undertake a wholesale change of approach.
At a private meeting of its surviving Members of Parliament on Tuesday evening, leader Jeremy Corbyn was heavily criticized for leading the party to its worst result since 1935. According to his office, he told them he was “very sorry” but that the election was “ultimately about Brexit.”
Blair, now the only person to lead Labour to an election victory in 45 years, told an audience in central London that the party cannot simply carry on with Corbyn’s policies under a new leader. He described Corbyn as personifying “quasi-revolutionary socialism” with voters seeing him as “fundamentally opposing what Britain and Western countries stand for.”
“The choice for Labour is to renew itself as the serious, progressive, non-Conservative competitor for power in British politics, or retreat from such an ambition, in which case over time it will be replaced,” he said. “So, at one level, sure let’s have a period of ‘reflection,’ but any attempt to whitewash this defeat, pretend it is something other than it is, or the consequence of something other than the obvious, will cause irreparable damage to our relationship with the electorate.”
Labour leadership hopefuls were reluctant to side with Blair following his intervention, which was pre-released overnight. Yvette Cooper, who said she will decide over Christmas whether she will run for the leadership, tried to distance herself from the performance of Jeremy Corbyn but also the governments of Tony Blair, in which she served as a minister.
“We cannot become a party that is concentrated in cities, with our support increasingly concentrated in diverse, young fast-moving areas while older voters in towns think we aren’t listening to them,” she told BBC Radio on Wednesday. “Both the left and right of this party are seen as internationalist, not patriotic at the moment. That might not be fair but it is how they are seen.”
Labour’s Brexit spokesman Keir Starmer, who said he is “seriously considering” running for the leadership, argued he was neither a Corbynite or a Blairite. “I don’t need someone else’s name, some past leader, tattooed to my head to make decisions,” he told BBC Radio on Wednesday.
Starmer also warned the party not to “oversteer” as a result of the election defeat, arguing that Labour should “build on” Corbyn’s anti-austerity message and radical agenda.
Tuesday night’s meeting lasted more than two hours. One of the MPs present, Margaret Hodge, described the mood. “It was fury, despair, miserable,” she told reporters. She described Corbyn’s position as “denial and corporate amnesia.”
Wes Streeting, another of those present, said afterward that it was essential the party changed direction: “If we try to go for Corbynism without Corbyn, we’re just setting ourselves up for generations out of power.”
Corbyn was criticized not just for the election, but for his response to the defeat. Jess Phillips, one possible candidate to replace the leader, said she read out a message from Melanie Onn, a colleague who lost her seat, and who had heard nothing from the party since then. “She’d been let down by the leadership,” Phillips said. “There’s loads and loads of complaints about how nobody has been called.”
Last week’s election saw Labour finish the night with 59 fewer seats, while Prime Minister Boris Johnson won the biggest Conservative majority since 1987.
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