I find myself surprised that I am about to write about Ed Miliband’s speech to the Labour Party conference yesterday. While the media hype the significance of each of the three party leaders speeches to their members it has never really caught my imagination. My instinct is that the speech is often more about presentation and soundbites than substantial policy.
Though, what caught my attention yesterday was not what Ed Miliband had to say, but rather the heckling and booing from the audience when he briefly mentioned the name of former leader Tony Blair.
My first thought was shock and disbelief that the Labour faithful could show such disrespect for a leader that took them to three successive election victories for the first time in their history.
Let’s be clear, I have absolutely no doubt that it was only a very small minority of delegates that were responsible for this public outburst of anger against Tony Blair. Though, it amazes me how anyone who supports the Labour Party could criticise such an iconic figure within the party in such a public arena.
The first thing to categorically state is that Tony Blair had many faults and made any mistakes. The most obvious of these being the invasion of Iraq in 2003. I have never been prouder as a Liberal Democrat than when Charles Kennedy and the rest of his team showed their conviction in being the only party in the Parliament to oppose the invasion.
While Blair has always maintained that moving into Iraq was the right thing to do, in order to remove Saddam Hussain there can be no doubt that he handled it terribly. The recent events in Libya show that change in any country has to come from the people who live inside that country with outside assistance from the West only coming if there is a threat of a humanitarian crisis.
However, in defence of Tony Blair if that time period is analysed more closely it is clear that he was desperately pushing the United States to seek a further UN resolution. In addition, while the responsibility for the invasion lies with Blair as our elected leader at the time I feel it would be naïve to dismiss other outside factors that the general public would not know about as being influential in his decision.
There will have been pressure on him from within to protect the special relationship with the United States and I am sure he will have been receiving advice from his intelligence services about future terrorists threats. Further input will have also come from the military and senior civil servants before he made his decision. This is all information that the public would not have access to. As a consequence, I am unconvinced that it was a decision that he made alone and received no support for.
While the Iraq saga was undoubtedly a disaster there has to be a recognition of the good things that Blair did. An issue that is often forgotten since Iraq was Blair’s positive influence in Sierra Leone. With Bill Clinton, unconvinced about the need to commit fully to intervening, it was Blair who highlighted the humanitarian crisis in the region and built consensus around action.
Domestically, in his ten years in power there is no doubt that the country progressed. There was the introduction of the minimum wage, peace in Northern Ireland and the creation of devolved parliaments in Scotland and Wales. Though, most importantly there was investment in schools and hospitals that had sadly been lacking in the previous 18 years under the Conservatives.
These are all achievements that those Labour delegates in the hall should have thought about before they decided to boo him yesterday.
Though, perhaps the single most important reason why that booing was uncalled for is that Tony Blair’s greatest achievement was taking a bruised and battered Labour Party, rejuvenating it and making it electable again.
No Labour leader has ever won three successive elections. During the 1980s, when the party lacked leadership and direction many Labour supporters will have been delighted to have seen just one election victory. Though, Tony Blair took that further by actively engaging with people and creating a set of policies that encouraged social mobility, but was underpinned by a sense of social justice.
As a member of a political party there are times when you will disagree with the policies and opinions of your leader. Leaders may also make unforgivable mistakes like Tony Blair did in his handling of Iraq. Though, the reason that the hecklers were wrong to boo him yesterday is that while you may disagree with him, he deserves respect for taking the party to three successive election victories, serving the country as Prime Minister for 10 years and being a Labour MP for 24 years.