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The return of the Blair

What Ed M should and shouldn't learn from TB.

He's back. From yesterday's Sun:

Ed Miliband has been holding secret talks with former PM Tony Blair to discuss Labour's strategy.

The pair have met four times to review the party's direction under Mr Miliband's leadership.

That is despite his attempts to distance the party from the New Labour years. He has also criticised Mr Blair's decision to take Britain to war in Iraq.

But a party source said despite their differences, the pair have held fruitful discussions since Mr Miliband became leader.

And from Jonathan Freedland's Guardian column last Saturday:

The former PM, clearly keen to re-engage with British politics after nearly five years away, has been meeting small groups of young, class-of-2010 Labour MPs. What he says privately is that the Lib Dem position is hopeless. . .

Blair's proposed method starts with a repeated insistence that this is nothing but a "Tory government".

I have no problems with Blair advising Ed Miliband or the "class-of-2010" MPs - and not just because our former premier agrees with my line on the coalition. As a "friend" of Blair's told the Sun:

Tony is the greatest political strategist of his generation -- why wouldn't Ed want to meet him?

Indeed. And Miliband shouldn't be embarrassed about taking Blair's advice on strategy and tactics and spin and communications and the rest. The truth is that Blair was, and still is, a master of presentation and persuasion. As I wrote in a column in the Times in December:

Above all else, [Ed Miliband] struggles as a rhetorician in set-piece speeches and primetime interviews. Mr Miliband is the exact reverse of Tony Blair: for this Labour leader, politics is an intellectual, not a theatrical, pursuit. He needs to be much more Blair-like in front of the cameras.

But Miliband and the new intake of Labour MPs should be wary of listening to Blair on matters of substance. According to the Sun, the pair "talked about the need for Labour to be in the centre ground of British politics". But Blair's definition of the "centre ground" is very different to Miliband's - it is premised on the arguments and rows of the 1990s and the fallout from Labour's back-to-back election defeats, at the hands of Margaret Thatcher, in the 1980s. Yet, from public attitudes to high pay and bankers' bonuses to political and media attitudes to the Murdoch empire, the world has moved on. We don't know what TB's response would have been to the 2008/09 financial crisis - we do know, however, that he offered a seeming endorsement of the Tory-led coalition's cuts-obsessed economic strategy in his memoir, A Journey (though Freedland says Blair now "backs Ed Balls in the great macro-economic question of the age, agreeing that excessive austerity will choke off recovery and that what's needed is Keynesian action for growth. . . accompanied by a clear deficit reduction plan and enough business allies to convince voters that if Labour's advocating spending it is doing so not out of congenital habit, but hard-headed economic necessity").

The standard and lazy riposte from the ultra-Blairites to even the mildest criticism of their hero is to remind us that he "won three elections in a row". Yes, he did - an impressive, remarkable and historic achievement. But, in the cold light of history, his record as a vote-winner isn't as impeccable or infallible as some might assume. Some points to consider:

1) In July 1994, Blair inherited a 13 per cent poll lead over the Tories from the late John Smith; it was handed to him on a plate. Despite extending it to a massive 29 points in June 1995, on election day in May 1997, Labour beat the tired, divided, lacklustre, scandal-ridden Tories by - wait for it - just under 13 percentage points.

2) Labour lost four million votes on Blair's watch, between 1997 and 2005 (and another million on Brown's watch, in 2010). From the moment Blair walked through the black door of Number 10, the Labour vote share started to decline and the "master" himself could do little to halt or reverse it in the subsequent general elections.

3) Blair won his three election victories, in an age of affluence, against John Major, William Hague and Michael Howard (who picked up the baton from Iain Duncan Smith). He never had to face a tough opponent - be it Ken Clarke, who the Tories crazily rejected again and again, or Blair's own "heir", David Cameron.

4) Blair benefited from a voting system that is biased in favour of the Labour Party: in 2005, for example, TB secured a third term, with a healthy 66-seat majority, on just 35.2 per cent of the vote (that is, one in five eligible British voters). Five years later, however, Cameron's Conservatives couldn't get a majority in the Commons despite winning 36.1 per cent of the vote.

5) By the time Blair reluctantly left office, in the wake of a series of embarrassing scandals and unpopular wars, his sheen had worn off - the Tories' had a near-uninterrupted poll lead over Blair's Labour Party between December 2005 and Blair's resignation in May 2007. Unlike Blair, Ed Miliband inherited a Labour Party trailing the Tories in the polls in September 2010.

In our recent biography of Miliband, James Macintyre and I explore how the current Labour leader succeeded in beating his elder brother - and hot-favourite - David by understanding the need for a message that stressed "change" over "continuity". As the younger Miliband stated, provocatively, in an essay for the Fabian Society in August 2010:

It is my rejection of. . . New Labour nostalgia that makes me the modernising candidate at this election.

It is, therefore, irrelevant how many times Miliband meets with Blair - I just hope the Labour leader doesn't forget these all-important words of his. To modernise is to change and move on from the past. In substance and message, Tony Blair is very much the past.

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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BHS is Theresa May’s big chance to reform capitalism – she’d better take it

Almost everyone is disgusted by the tale of BHS. 

Back in 2013, Theresa May gave a speech that might yet prove significant. In it, she declared: “Believing in free markets doesn’t mean we believe that anything goes.”

Capitalism wasn’t perfect, she continued: 

“Where it’s manifestly failing, where it’s losing public support, where it’s not helping to provide opportunity for all, we have to reform it.”

Three years on and just days into her premiership, May has the chance to be a reformist, thanks to one hell of an example of failing capitalism – BHS. 

The report from the Work and Pensions select committee was damning. Philip Green, the business tycoon, bought BHS and took more out than he put in. In a difficult environment, and without new investment, it began to bleed money. Green’s prize became a liability, and by 2014 he was desperate to get rid of it. He found a willing buyer, Paul Sutton, but the buyer had previously been convicted of fraud. So he sold it to Sutton’s former driver instead, for a quid. Yes, you read that right. He sold it to a crook’s driver for a quid.

This might all sound like a ludicrous but entertaining deal, if it wasn’t for the thousands of hapless BHS workers involved. One year later, the business collapsed, along with their job prospects. Not only that, but Green’s lack of attention to the pension fund meant their dreams of a comfortable retirement were now in jeopardy. 

The report called BHS “the unacceptable face of capitalism”. It concluded: 

"The truth is that a large proportion of those who have got rich or richer off the back of BHS are to blame. Sir Philip Green, Dominic Chappell and their respective directors, advisers and hangers-on are all culpable. 

“The tragedy is that those who have lost out are the ordinary employees and pensioners.”

May appears to agree. Her spokeswoman told journalists the PM would “look carefully” at policies to tackle “corporate irresponsibility”. 

She should take the opportunity.

Attempts to reshape capitalism are almost always blunted in practice. Corporations can make threats of their own. Think of Google’s sweetheart tax deals, banks’ excessive pay. Each time politicians tried to clamp down, there were threats of moving overseas. If the economy weakens in response to Brexit, the power to call the shots should tip more towards these companies. 

But this time, there will be few defenders of the BHS approach.

Firstly, the report's revelations about corporate governance damage many well-known brands, which are tarnished by association. Financial services firms will be just as keen as the public to avoid another BHS. Simon Walker, director general of the Institute of Directors, said that the circumstances of the collapse of BHS were “a blight on the reputation of British business”.

Secondly, the pensions issue will not go away. Neglected by Green until it was too late, the £571m hole in the BHS pension finances is extreme. But Tom McPhail from pensions firm Hargreaves Lansdown has warned there are thousands of other defined benefit schemes struggling with deficits. In the light of BHS, May has an opportunity to take an otherwise dusty issue – protections for workplace pensions - and place it top of the agenda. 

Thirdly, the BHS scandal is wreathed in the kind of opaque company structures loathed by voters on the left and right alike. The report found the Green family used private, offshore companies to direct the flow of money away from BHS, which made it in turn hard to investigate. The report stated: “These arrangements were designed to reduce tax bills. They have also had the effect of reducing levels of corporate transparency.”

BHS may have failed as a company, but its demise has succeeded in uniting the left and right. Trade unionists want more protection for workers; City boys are worried about their reputation; patriots mourn the death of a proud British company. May has a mandate to clean up capitalism - she should seize it.