Mehdi Hasan: Is Blair the best man to give advice to Labour in 2011?

Tony's back in town - but should he be speaking to Labour?

Tony Blair is back in Britain to promote the paperback edition of his 2010 memoir, A Journey. The permatanned ex-premier has been doing the rounds of the television and radio studios, offering his views on the Arab Spring as well as the Archbishop of Canterbury's guest-edit of the New Statesman.

He also offered this piece of advice to Ed Miliband, the current Labour leader. From the Times (£):

What he will say is that a progressive party will never win unless it shows that is "in favour of the business community, in favour of entrepreneurs, of enterprise".

Wise words, I guess, from a man who is making millions from his various corporate gigs. But why should Miliband or any other Labour politician heed his advice? The media, and the Cameroons, are still in awe of the former premier. But here are three points worth briefly considering before taking any political advice from Tony Blair in 2011:

1) On Blair's watch, Labour lost four million votes between 1997 and 2005. Lest we forget, in the 2005 general election, Blair was re-elected with a vote share of 35 per cent -- that's less than the majority-less Cameron achieved in 2010. Blair won in 2005 because his opponent was Michael Howard.

2) When Blair left office in the summer of 2007, his personal poll ratings were falling -- and so, too, were the Labour Party's. As the authors of the new book, Explaining Cameron's Coalition, argue, "Blair's ratings were falling from 1997 and that, even if Labour had not changed leader, it is likely that Blair's would have been as low as Brown's were by 2010."

3) Blair invaded Iraq. Regardless of whether you think it was right or wrong to topple Saddam Hussein, politically, the war was a massive misjudgement on Blair's part. It split his party and the country, cost him his political capital, wrecked his reputation and undermined any legacy he might have hoped to leave behind as a three-time election winner. As the former Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell once put it, "Mary Tudor had Calais engraved on her heart. Blair will have Iraq engraved on his heart and there is no escaping it."

Mehdi Hasan is a contributing writer for the New Statesman and the co-author of Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader. He was the New Statesman's senior editor (politics) from 2009-12.

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It's not WhatsApp that was at fault in the Westminster attacks. It's our prisons

Britain's criminal justice system neither deterred nor rehabilitated Khalid Masood, and may even have facilitated his radicalisation. 

The dust has settled, the evidence has been collected and the government has decided who is to blame for the attack on Westminster. That’s right, its WhatsApp and their end-to-end encryption of messages. Amber Rudd, the Home Secretary, wants tech companies to install a backdoor into messages like these that the government can then access.

There are a couple of problems here, not least that Adrian Russell aka Khalid Masood was known to the security services but considered to be low-risk. Even if the government had had the ability to gain entry to his WhatsApp, they wouldn’t have used it. Then there’s the fact that end-to-end encryption doesn’t just protect criminals and terrorists – it protects users from criminals and terrorists. Any backdoor will be vulnerable to attack, not only from our own government and foreign powers, but by non-state actors including fraudsters, and other terrorists.

(I’m parking, also, the question of whether these are powers that should be handed to any government in perpetuity, particularly one in a country like Britain’s, where near-unchecked power is handed to the executive as long as it has a parliamentary majority.)

But the biggest problem is that there is an obvious area where government policy failed in the case of Masood: Britain’s prisons system.

Masood acted alone though it’s not yet clear if he was merely inspired by international jihadism – that is, he read news reports, watched their videos on social media and came up with the plan himself – or he was “enabled” – that is, he sought out and received help on how to plan his attack from the self-styled Islamic State.

But what we know for certain is that he was, as is a recurring feature of the “radicalisation journey”, in possession of a string of minor convictions from 1982 to 2002 and that he served jail time. As the point of having prisons is surely to deter both would-be offenders and rehabilitate its current occupants so they don’t offend again, Masood’s act of terror is an open-and-shut case of failure in the prison system. Not only he did prison fail to prevent him committing further crimes, he went on to commit one very major crime.  That he appears to have been radicalised in prison only compounds the failure.

The sad thing is that not so very long ago a Secretary of State at the Ministry of Justice was thinking seriously about prison and re-offending. While there was room to critique some of Michael Gove’s solutions to that problem, they were all a hell of a lot better than “let’s ban WhatsApp”. 

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