Labour will be “finished” and replaced by a new political party if it chooses a new leader who sticks with Jeremy Corbyn’s politics, Tony Blair has warned.
In a withering post-mortem of the party’s shattering election defeat, the former prime minister said Corbyn had turned it into “a glorified protest movement with cult trimmings”.
Labour was “marooned on Fantasy Island” and its leadership contenders should realise that the only way back to the “mainland” of mainstream politics was to stop accommodating the far left, Blair said.
The ex-PM, who led the party to three general election victories, stressed that the 2019 defeat was much worse than Michael Foot’s rout in 1983 because extremists had now taken over every level of the party.
And he warned that Labour doesn’t “have the luxury of the slow march back” to power with “crablike” reforms similar to those seen under Neil Kinnock.
If it fails to reestablish a coalition of working-class and middle-class voters, north and south, then “it will be replaced” by a new anti-Conservative grouping that could see former Labour and Lib Dems and others unite, Blair said.
His words came after a heated meeting of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) at which MPs lined up to lambast Corbyn to his face for his failures of leadership and a much-criticised campaign strategy and messaging.
Shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer made clear he was set to run for the leadership, and Yvette Cooper also said she would mull over Christmas a possible fresh tilt at the job.
But in a clear smackdown for Starmer, who said the party should not “oversteer” back to the centre-ground, Blair said talking “the lingo” of the left would mean Labour never won power again.
Speaking for the first time since the election, he told a central London conference that, now that Brexit would happen, Labour should try to “make the best of it” and bring the country together.
But he said the 80-seat majority for Boris Johnson had “brought shame on us” and should jolt party members into realising they needed a winner.
He compared Corbyn’s Labour with a football team “where the striker was directionally oblivious, its midfield comatose, the defence absent in the stands chatting to a small portion of the fans, and its goalkeeper behind the net retweeting a clip of his one save in a 9-0 thrashing”.
The former PM told HuffPost UK that he hoped members of the public would join Labour as “registered supporters” to help a moderate candidate in the leadership election expected in the New Year.
“Labour can keep with the programme and positions of Corbyn with a new leader, in which case it is finished,” he said. “Or it can understand that it must recapture the party from the far left, make radical changes and begin the march back.”
Front-runner Rebecca Long-Bailey is seen as close to Corbyn but faces a challenge from Lisa Nandy, Starmer and Jess Phillips.
Blair said that the exit poll on election night was “like a flash of lightning that clarifies the landscape for you. […] The problem is the lightning goes, and if we are not careful we will just go back to the darkness again.”
“The public will switch on and look at what these people say, and if there’s any sense that we are ignoring the message they have given us, it doesn’t matter who leads the Labour party, we just won’t win again,” he said.
“2019 is much worse than in 1983. Then was our second defeat [in a row]; now is our fourth. The country is different. Politics is different. The country is less fixed in political affiliation. Politics moves at speed accelerated by social media. We don’t have the luxury of the slow march back.”
Blair said it was time for a debate with the Liberal Democrats about how to reunite the anti-Tory forces in the UK in a new “big tent”, hinting there would be a new party if Labour refused to change.
“The country won’t tolerate this. There are people disenfranchised in our politics today, angry at the way the country has been let down by its non-Conservative opposition, and feeling hopeless.
“And for the country, there is a generation of smart, capable, politically conscious people who will never be Tories but have no place in Parliament because of the state of the Labour Party and whose talent is, therefore, shut out.”
Asked whether it was time for a female leader and someone from the north of England to lead Labour, he replied that both would be a bonus but the priority was the best person for the job with the right vision.
“It really, really doesn’t matter whether somebody is from London or they are not from London,” Blair said. “If their politics is the right politics to capture the country, believe me: the country’s not going to care.”