Blair, Elvis and the Labour Leadership Contest

When I was on holiday a few weeks ago, the evening’s entertainment at our hotel was an Elvis impersonator. Big, fat, in a spangle-covered white suit with flared trousers and a short cape, hairy chest and paunch, singing old, old songs in a deep voice. The audience, mostly aged in their 60s and more, lapped it up. I listened for a couple of songs, and found myself asking a question: why do Elvis impersonators always seem to do the old, fat, bloated version of Elvis, the one who it’s easy to imagine dying on the toilet, overdosing on Twinkies? Why not the young, sexy, hip-swaying Elvis who shocked people in the 50s with his provocative dancing and (for the time) radical rock and roll?

A look at the audience seemed to suggest why. These weren’t people looking for excitement, for something new and radical. They were looking for nostalgia, for comfort, for safety. In fact, they were precisely the kind of people who would have been scandalised by the young Elvis, and want him banned for his radical ideas.

I get the same sense from the current batch of ‘Blair impersonators’ standing for the Labour leadership. They seem to have chosen to impersonate the late, sell-out, war-mongering, safe version of Tony Blair, the Blair who was best-buddies with George W Bush, who clamped down on civil liberties and preferred to cavort with Murdoch than spend time with more normal people. The Blair who started a hideous war and who should, in the view of many (including me) be investigated for War Crimes. They seem to think that this Blair, the fat-Elvis-Blair, is the only Blair, and the only way to get success.

More importantly, they seem to have forgotten that there was a different kind of Blair at the start. A radical Blair. A Blair who did bring in the people of ‘Middle England’ but who also brought to the table radical ideas. Who brought in the minimum wage (and not as a con-trick like Osborne’s fake ‘living wage’). Who brought in the Human Rights Act and the Freedom of Information Act. Who made devolution a reality. Who made national museums free to enter. These were bold ideas, radical ideas – and socialist ideas.

The current Blair impersonators don’t seem to have grasped that this was the key to Blair’s success, not just the sell-out and the supposedly Tory policies. Blair at the start wasn’t just a Tory-imitator, no matter what it might seem. Kendall, Cooper and Burnham are only looking at the fat, dying Elvis, not the young, sexy, hip-swinging Elvis. If they are to capture the success he had, they need to find more of the latter, and far, far less of the former.

7 thoughts on “Blair, Elvis and the Labour Leadership Contest

  1. Also there’s the Tony Blair that no-one complained about when troops were sent to Serbia, Sierra Leone and, of course, Northern Ireland. Most people at the time thought all these were correct uses of the military but it’s easy for critics to forget these successes and only remember a bowdlerised version of the man. Iraq was different, but these other ‘excursions’ deserve mention and, even more, deserve remembering and, perhaps, ‘honouring’?

  2. People in Freetown marched round the streets in their thousands carrying photos and posters of “Mr. Tony Blair – Our saviour”
    A bit strong, I give you, but ….

  3. Well, part of it is just due to the passage of time. Young people don’t necessarily care much about Elvis, whereas older musicians are no longer young enough to pull off the “sexy, hip-swaying” version.

  4. I think you are too kind to the young Tony Blair. He didn’t initiate the minimum wage policy. He inherited a long-standing policy which he watered down. He scrapped Labour’s policy on media ownership – shortly afte becoming leader he jetted off round the world to address a private conference held by Rupert Murdoch. I take your point though that he was wildly popular amongst many people but a lot of us saw were not keen on him from the start. I’d say he was more Cliff than Elvis.

  5. I’m with Matty. The 97 Blair was no radical – he was just more gifted in wrapping up his neo-liberal agenda in the language of the zeitgeist. I would argue that, while admirable, there is nothing socialist about the HRA or FoIA, nor indeed free entry to museums – just high-minded liberalism of the Gladstonian variety.

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