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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.

Photo: Martin Whitfield
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Labour MP for East Lothian Martin Whitfield: "I started an argument and ended up winning an election"

The former primary school teacher still misses home. 

Two months ago, Martin Whitfield was a primary school teacher in Prestonpans, a small town along the coast from Edinburgh. Then he got into an argument. It was a Saturday morning shortly after the snap election had been called, and he and other members of the local Labour party began discussing a rumour that the candidate would be an outsider.

“I started an argument that this was ridiculous, we couldn’t have a candidate helicoptered in,” he recalls. He pointed out that one of the main issues with the Scottish National Party incumbent, the economist and journalist George Kerevan, was that he was seen as an outsider.

“I kept arguing for an hour and a half and people started gently moving away,” he jokes. “About two days later I was still going on, and I thought enough’s enough.” 

He called Iain Gray, the Scottish Labour veteran, who interrupted him. “He said, 'Right Martin, are you going to put up or shut up?’ So I filled in the forms.

"Then I had to have a very interesting conversation with my wife.”

One successful election campaign later, he is sitting in the airy, glass-roofed atrium of Westminster’s Portcullis House. Whitfield has silver hair, glasses, and wears a Labour-red tie with his shirt. He looks every bit the approachable primary school teacher, and sometimes he forgets he isn’t anymore. 

I ask how the school reacted to his election bid, and he begins “I have”, and then corrects himself: “There is a primary four class I had the pleasure to teach.” The children wanted to know everything from where parliament was, to his views on education and independence. He took unpaid leave to campaign. 

“Actually not teaching the children was the hardest thing,” he recalls. “During the campaign I kept bumping into them when I was door-knocking.”

Whitfield was born in Newcastle, in 1965, to Labour-supporting parents. “My entire youth was spent with people who were socialists.”

His father was involved in the Theatre Workshop, founded by the left-wing director Joan Littlewood. “We were part of a community which supported each other and found value in that support in art and in theatre,” he says. “That is hugely important to me.” 

He trained as a lawyer, but grew disillusioned with the profession and retrained as a teacher instead. He and his wife eventually settled in Prestonpans, where they started a family and he “fought like mad” to work at the local school. She works as the marketing manager for the local theatre.

He believes he won his seat – one of the first to be touted as a possible Labour win – thanks to a combination of his local profile, the party’s position on independence and its manifesto, which “played brilliantly everywhere we discussed it”. 

It offered hope, he says: “As far as my doorstep discussion in East Lothian went, some people were for and against Jeremy Corbyn, some people were for and against Kezia Dugdale, but I didn’t find anyone who was against the manifesto.”

Whitfield’s new job will mean long commutes on the East Coast line, but he considers representing the constituency a “massive, massive honour”. When I ask him about East Lothian, he can’t stop talking.

“MPs do tend to say ‘my constituency’s a microcosm’, but it really is Scotland in miniature. We have a fishing industry, crabs and lobsters, the agricultural areas – the agricultural soil is second to none.” The area was also historically home to heavy industry. 

After his first week in Westminster, Whitfield caught the train back to Scotland. “That bit when I got back into East Lothian was lovely moment,” he says. “I was home.”

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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