Andrew Adonis has confounded a fair few expectations in his time, not least his own. He had not foreseen that he would remain a career politician after his first stint as a minister under Tony Blair. And, more recently, he had not bargained on becoming the standard-bearer for the remain cause. But over the last few months, he’s been criss-crossing the country, speaking to those who voted to leave the European Union, as well as leading the fight against Brexit in the House of Lords and in the media. It’s an unexpected transformation into a frontline campaigner for a man often perceived, rightly or wrongly, as a thinker not a doer.
But Lord Adonis still has some surprises to spring. For this ex-New Labour minister seems to have been on an unexpected political journey. “It probably is true to say that I’ve moved to the left as I’ve got older, curiously, which isn’t usual in politics,” he says. “It is partly that times are different and it is also that I’ve become much more persuaded of the need for bold state action.”
Coming as it does from a man who still calls himself a Blairite, his description in his new book of Blair – along with Nigel Farage – as one of the ‘midwives of Brexit’ feels startling. But Adonis believes it is important to be honest about the mistakes that were made when Labour was in government. “I’m proud of having worked with Tony. It doesn’t mean to say that Tony got everything right,” he says. He identifies three key reasons why Blair and New Labour must shoulder some of the blame for Brexit. First, he claims, allowing unrestricted immigration after 2004 was ‘clearly a big mistake’.
“We should have aligned our approach to migration from central and eastern Europe much more closely with our European partners,” he says. “We thought we were stealing a march on them. It looks grimly ironic in retrospect. I don’t think for a moment that if Tony could take that decision again he’d take the same decision.”
Second, New Labour pandered too much to the right-wing media, he believes. “We never made a strong pro-European case while we were in government apart from, ironically, on the issue of migration, where we did stand up for unrestricted right to work after 2004.” And then Blair himself, in coming out for the idea of a vote on the European constitution, allowed the idea of a referendum on Europe to take hold.
Adonis says: “Although the first order mistakes were made by Cameron – and the populism which drove it was clearly Farage – we did play a part, through immigration and through not making a strong enough pro-European case, and through ourselves paving the way for Euro-referendums, in what has happened. It is only by recognising that that we can get things right for the future.” While he’s in confessional mode, Adonis is repentant about his lack of involvement in the Euro-referendum campaign back, an absence which was partly due to his belief that there was ‘no chance’ that people would vote to leave the EU.
“I’ve learned the hard way and that’s partly why I’ve run at this in such a determined fashion,” he says. “I’m absolutely determined for my generation not to repeat the mistake that we made two years. I feel a really big sense of duty about that, and I feel a big sense of duty to my kids as well about it too.”
His new book Saving Britain, co-authored with journal-ist Will Hutton, sets out the economic argument for abandoning Brexit. But it also makes a powerful emotional case for remaining in the EU. Adonis says our EU membership is, for him, both a ‘head and heart’ issue.
“Two years ago there wasn’t enough heart. David Cameron was incapable of making a speech about the European ideal because he didn’t believe in it,” Adonis says. “Whereas most of us on the left do actually feel this is an idealistic issue and not just a practical economic issue.”
So how then can Brexit be stopped? In practical terms, Adonis says, the breakthrough will need to come in the House of Commons when the prime minister presents the withdrawal treaty this autumn. The ‘absolute requirement’, he stresses, is that Labour has to vote against the treaty and force a ‘people’s vote’.
“That’s why I’m campaigning so hard at the moment. It is to persuade the Labour leadership, because it is not a problem with Labour members, who are overwhelmingly in favour of staying in the European Union. If you did a poll among Young Fabians I would imagine you would get something like 95 per cent in favour. And if you did it for the Fabian membership as a whole, I would be surprised if it was less than two-thirds and I suspect it would be higher than that.”
“The issue we have got is to get the Labour leadership in that place and that involves a big ongoing discussion inside the party.”
Yet many on the left have argued that Labour’s current balancing act on Brexit is the only feasible strategy for the party given how many of its constituencies voted to leave. Adonis says that argument, if it ever held true, is no longer relevant now the withdrawal treaty is ‘hurtling down the track’.
He stresses, though, that rejecting Brexit is not in itself enough. Those who felt alienated from the establishment and voted to leave the EU need an alternative – and bold – vision for change. Beyond the tactical issues in parliament, then, Adonis sees a radical programme as key to winning the battle for hearts and minds over Brexit. So while he has little time for those on the left who think ‘that we can somehow let the Tories worry about Brexit while we worry about the big social challenges facing the country’, he is equally concerned by those in Labour who fail to grasp the need for real change. “I’m struck by some of my colleagues who constantly go on about Europe and nothing else and who don’t appreciate the importance of having a reform plan,” he says.
His plan to transform Britain is, he explains, a three-pronged one, based around the kind of priorities adopted by Labour’s great post-war government. “What I want is ‘Attlee mark 2’ on the welfare state, plus radical decentralisation, minus a fetishisation of public ownership,” he says. “It is as much about changing Britain as stopping Brexit – and it is essentially a Fabian agenda.”
But will a reform plan that sets out a ‘great charter’ for a new constitutional settlement really appeal to the people who were, as Adonis concedes, so turned off by the Westminster establishment? He believes so – and says his experiences on his anti-Brexit tour bear that view out.
“If the question in Mansfield and Gateshead and Knowsley had been: ‘Do you want a radical new settlement with Westminster?’ they would definitely have voted yes to that with a big majority. There is a massive discontent with the status quo, but most of that isn’t about Europe, it’s about what’s going on in terms of the government of England. That’s the big issue for them.”
Here again he comes back to the New Labour record, where devolution was just one of the problems left unresolved.
“The problem with New Labour is that there were big agendas that it simply didn’t address at all,” he says. “For example housing and what’s happening with living conditions, we didn’t do enough with that. We didn’t do enough on stakeholder capitalism. We barely addressed issues to do with the structure and responsibilities of companies. We didn’t do nearly enough on devolution. We didn’t address this issue of the government of England at all beyond London. And we didn’t do enough about inequality. Part of the reason is that we had a strongly growing economy at time. So a rising-tide-lifts-all-boats philosophy made a lot more sense then. But since growth has stopped we have to be much more robust about redistribution.”
Aside from Brexit, Adonis’ highest profile interventions in recent times have been on universities, where he has attacked higher tuition fees and the ‘obscene’ salaries of vice-chancellors. As the man behind the university fund-ing reforms of 2004 under Blair, he believes tuition fees are a classic case of how the Conservatives ‘elaborated’ New Labour ideas and made them unacceptable. “A perfectly good idea, which was essentially having public private partnership funding with students making a contribution but the state making the major contribution, was bastard-ised and turned into a radical free-market project to slash virtually all state funding of teaching in universities.”
But although he defends New Labour’s record in government, Adonis accepts that the Blair years were partly responsible for the party’s shift leftwards. “It was partly because of that. I think it was also because of Iraq. And it was also because of the failure to renew,” he says. “Always in politics you have got to renew and after Tony Blair, to be blunt, Labour didn’t do that. There was no attempt to do that until you got to Jeremy [Corbyn]. Jeremy is the only new agenda that there’s been in Labour since Blairism.”
Under Corbyn, Europe has become an increasingly fraught issue. But Adonis says the issue is still not as toxic for the party as it has been for decades for the Conservatives – although he warns that the party must unite around opposing Brexit if divisions are not to become more bitter.
“It is not an issue of principle – it is essentially an issue of tactics for Labour,” he says. “The only issue of principle is that some people think that it is not possible to revisit the referendum of two years ago, but there are not many who think that. We have very few anti-Europeans. It is literally Kate Hoey and Frank Field and Graham Stringer and I think that’s it. So we don’t face the issue that the Conservatives face, which is not just pragmatic but a principled debate about hating Europe. It is difficult for Labour but it isn’t animated by deep anti-Europeanism, which is the problem the Conservatives have got.”
The rumblings about Labour splitting, with pro-remain members heading off to form a new centrist party, hold no appeal for Adonis. His time in the SDP, which he joined on his 18th birthday, and then the Liberal Democrats, made sure of that. “If you are going to effect a big change you have got to be part of a big coalition not a small coalition. And Labour is a big coalition. It also has behind it the Labour movement. It is not just a group of likeminded party members,” he says.
“The SDP and Liberal Democrats were essentially a talking shop. Labour even at its lowest for-tune has been an aspirant for government.”
Adonis is optimistic that if Labour unites, it can stop Brexit – but there is a warning of problems ahead if the party does not pick the right path.
If [Jeremy] leads us to a referendum, to supporting a people’s vote on the Brexit treaty, then there will only be a tiny number who would be opposed to that, literally a handful of MPs would be opposed to it,” he says. “The real danger is if the leadership tries to lead us towards supporting Brexit, because it looks to me as if there are about two-thirds of MPs and peers and an even larger proportion of party members who simply won’t put up with that.”. Problematic it may be, but stopping Brexit is a fight he believes the party can’t duck: “There is no get of jail free option in respect of Brexit. If the Tories get us out of Europe next March we are going to be the ones who will inherit that mess in due course. So it is very much in our interests as a party and a movement to avoid getting deeper into this crisis.
“If we do have another referendum, which I hope we will in the next year, to give us an opportunity to reject the Brexit treaty, then we have got to campaign heart and soul and mind for Europe.”