Why the Blairites must find a new leader

Trying to reconstruct Labour without those who last dragged it from opposition to government would b

The Blairites need a new leader. Actually, we all need the Blairites to find a new leader.

I appreciate that may not be the most popular job advertisement ever promoted by the New Statesman. Many believe the time has come to move beyond Blairism and New Labour. Others view it as a period that should be excised from history while its architect does 50 years for war crimes in Wandsworth nick.

Fair enough. The enduring love of his party was never high on Tony Blair's list of priorities for things to gain, and the Dodgy Dossier and 90-day detention bill were less than alluring billet-doux. But like it or not, Blairism, New Labourism and the whole "modernising agenda" are political strands that remain woven into the fabric of the party.

Those who thought the leadership election had consigned all this to the dustbin were wrong. The fact is that, since Ed's victory, the party hasn't really moved anywhere. That's not another Ed Miliband dig by the way, because even Miliband's most loyal supporters wouldn't argue that he's grabbed Labour by the scruff of the neck and started to drive through a bold new philosophical and political agenda.

Team Ed's pitch is that their man wants to use his time to sit back, assess the landscape, let the policy review programme develop, and within that framework start to construct a new, if not New, Labour prospectus. There are some – I'm one – who are sceptical of that strategy. But it's what we've got, so it's at least worth engaging with on its merits. And any meaningful engagement has to include the Blairites.

Pop-up Peter

The question is: who are they? Or, more precisely, who's their figurehead? Who's running the show?

Actually, let's take a step back. Who shouldn't be running it? Well, for starters, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Tessa Jowell and Blair himself.

Peter popped up at the weekend to urge everyone to vote Yes to AV. Last time he pulled a stunt like that it was to urge everyone to vote for David Miliband, and look how that turned out. Expect a similar result next month.

The Blairite old guard deserve thanks and respect for what they did for their party and their country. Sorry, it's a fact. New Labour ended in failure, but between 1994 and 2001 it had some radical progressive achievements to its name, and those people were the architects.

But their brand is now contaminated, and every time they pop up they just remind people of that final product recall. They need to move on, and they need to be urged to move on not by their critics on the left, but by the new generation on the Labour right. Indeed, the capacity of the younger Blairites to find a new voice, and quieten the noises off, represents their first defining test.

It is a test they must pass quickly, because the window for debate that is opening up in the party will not remain open for ever. Given the premium the Blairites have usually placed on presentation, its ironic that the launch of Purple Labour, their first foray into new territory, has been so poorly managed.

But that's what comes of having a leadership vacuum. And when you have NEC members like Luke Akehurst attacking Progress for being divisive, you know you have serious command-and-control issues.

All smoke and no gunfire?

The Brownite leadership mantle has settled, after a few bumps along the way, on the shoulders of Ed Balls. The liberal left has found a leader in Ed Miliband, even if there have been one or two recent signs of buyer's remorse. In the negotiation that is about to take place over the future direction of the party, the Blairites need to ensure they also have a seat at the table.

David Miliband, prematurely dismissed by many after his defeat, remains a candidate. But he can't wait beyond the water for much longer, and will need to make his case with clarity and conviction.

Jim Murphy has already been identified as one great Blairite hope, and there are worst negatives than his "Scottishness". Douglas Alexander is another candidate, having finally made the break with his Brownite past, though there are some who think his talents are better deployed behind the scenes than front of house. And some still speak wistfully of luring James Purnell back towards the sound of the guns.

There are other candidates that will emerge. And emerge they must, because trying to reconstruct Labour without those who last dragged it from opposition to government would be foolish, and deeply damaging.

Blairism without Blair. We need it. And if anyone can build it, the Blairites can.

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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.