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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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What does the working-class boxing community think of the Labour party?

Traditional boxing gyms are often the only refuge and means of empowerment left in communities. How do they feel in these places about each of the leadership candidates?

After Brexit sucker-punched the political establishment, many have been looking for a counter shot. For some in the Labour party (I could say in the blue corner, but I won’t throw any low blows), the idea has been to elect Owen Smith. They feel that Jeremy Corbyn, in the far left corner (sorry), is not a proposition traditional working-class Labour voters can support.

Leeds is a tricky southpaw of a city, substantial affluent patches alongside some of the most deprived areas in the country. The majority of the council is Labour, as are its MPs. The latter range from the likes of Smith supporter Rachel Reeves to Corbyn-supporting Richard Burgon. Yet it is also a city that only just voted to remain in the EU, and has three Ukip MEPs compared with its two from Labour.

I often say one of the few places you’ll find all of the city's myriad social groups in one place is in the city’s high-quality boxing gyms, be they Irish traveller, black British, Asian or white working class. I have spent a large amount of time in them as a practitioner, trainer and journalist. Boxing gyms are almost always in a city’s less glamorous location and Leeds is no different, located at various points within the "circle of deprivation" around the city centre. These gyms are often the only refuge and means of empowerment left in communities long ago stripped of communal centers, libraries or efficient transport links to the wider area.

I know a large number of people who voted leave – not because they are racists, bigots, idiots, or any other accusation levelled at them. But simply because they feel abandoned and ignored by the status quo.

People in boxing are self-made, be it due to dedication to training around working a day job, volunteering time to train the next generation or setting up there own community gym. They are the kind of individuals Corbyn or Smith need to inspire when the leadership election is over. 

In its current guise however, the party as a whole is a disorganised mess, which offers little incentive to support it. I truly don’t believe, from conversations I’ve had, that people care about Blarites, Trots or any of the numerous other examples of incessant petty name-calling. The suggestion from die-hard supporters of either leadership candidate that one could suddenly sweep the board and regain or retain votes simply isn’t realistic. Boxers, and by extension, working people, are not ignorant or stupid. But few know or care who either candidate even is – not very dissimilar to Corbyn not knowing who Ant & Dec are.

Dave Allen, a title contender heavyweight from South Yorkshire, another area with pockets of deprivation and a huge tradition of voting Labour, expressed a common opinion. A Labour supporter, his main wish is that the winner is someone who is actually honest with voters, and provides factual information from which to make opinions. “I would to think that Labour, moving forward, will do all they can to support working-class people by giving them an opportunity to voice their opinions and concerns and that these are listened to and acted upon,” he says.

My personal opinion is that Corbyn at least offers an alternative to people who have long lost interest in career politicians, and an ideology upon which campaigners can hang their hat when in the community. Smith is the kind of identikit politician who people I speak to believe is parachuted into areas, unleashes some soundbites like a quick one-two punch and then bounces out of range, unaccountable. At least Corbyn has a substantial supporter base within his own party, who can try and campaign on his behalf within these communities and try and turn that tide of apathy.

Complacency is a boxer's biggest enemy – it really can only take one shot. As a Labour supporter and voter, I hope many in the party don’t succumb to being knocked out for the count.

James Oddy is a freelance sports writer, boxer and trainer. He tweets @Oddy1J.