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.