The anniversary of Tony Blair’s election as Labour leader prompted several re-appraisals of the man and his time in power. Even though he has been vilified since leaving office, many on the centre left, and quite a few others too, look back on the Blair era with fondness.
I’ll leave others to talk about his political legacy and whether what he did was right or wrong. Whatever else you might say about Tony Blair, though, he had, and still has, the sort of confidence people look for in a leader. People are drawn to those who appear confident and Tony Blair always did. Blair would have known how to handle Nigel Farage, said Michael White after Nick Clegg’s disastrous attempt to take on the UKIP leader in televised debates.
No-one has any doubt that Nick Clegg believes passionately in the EU but, when faced by a bombastic opponent with a simple message, he just couldn’t win the argument. Something was lacking. Blair, on the other hand, famously tore Farage apart.
Tony Blair had that knack of sounding confident even after he or his side had made a cock-up. He would come on TV and say, “Hey, look….”, after which he would go on to explain that, yes, things hadn’t gone well but, y’know, in the grand scheme of things, we are still on the right track. He pulled it off many times and, on the whole, even after the most vicious tabloid attacks, the polls swung back his way again.
As Bob Sutton says, great leaders are confident even when they are not really sure. Blair had that self-belief that meant, whatever happened, he always reckoned he’d sort it all out in the end. That came across and people bought it. Even after the Iraq invasion. His popularity only collapsed when he started wavering. He wouldn’t say whether or not he would go, then he said he would but he wouldn’t say when. The certainty that had been the hallmark of his leadership was no more. The magic had gone and, with it, the voters.
Chart via The Economist
One of the stories that got lost during the 2010 elections was how well Labour did in the council polls. As Tony Travers said, if you start from 2006 instead of 2005, there was a swing back to Labour in 2010. This is because, in 2006, Labour’s popularity had crashed spectacularly. The will-he, won’t-he uncertainty at the tail end of the Blair era destroyed the support built up over the previous decade. Blair’s selling point was confidence and, once he stopped exuding it, people deserted him.
That ability to sound confident and turn things round even when you are on shaky ground is something few of today’s politicians seem able to do. David Cameron tries to do the “Hey, look…” thing but never quite pulls it off. Ed Miliband, while perhaps firmer in many of his beliefs than Tony Blair, manages, nonetheless, to come across as very uncertain. No-one looks a match for the likes of Nigel Farage and Alex Salmond, with their easily understandable ‘it’s all crap and it’s all your fault’ messages.
Tony Blair had another swipe at UKIP yesterday, in a speech which got three standing ovations from the many who are still faithful. Some of this is because a lot of people think that, on the whole, most of what he did was right. But there is also a yearning for a style of leadership; a man who said that, even if things go off track sometimes, this is the right way to go, follow me! It may be irrational, people may even know it’s irrational, but they are still drawn to those who appear confident. Tony Blair had that confidence in spades. That, as much as anything else he did, is what won him three elections.