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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: Getty
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Stop talking about Douglas Carswell's personal vote. He won his seat because of Ukip

Carswell's personal vote is spoken of fondly in Westminster. There's little evidence it actually exists. 

You cannot talk about Douglas Carswell for long in Westminster without hearing about his “personal vote”, the supposed popularity with which he is uniquely blessed and without which, whichever party he was currently a member of would certainly have lost.

That issue is front and centre now that Carswell has defected, this time quitting Ukip to sit as an independent. That leaves May with the question of whether to let him back into the Conservatives again.

There are lots of political reasons why that probably isn’t a great idea – it would annoy Conservative MPs who have stayed loyal, for one thing – but what if there is an electoral reason? What if Carswell’s personal vote is so large that he has to be accommodated?

Well, I’ve been looking at the numbers, and the long and the short of it is that talk of Carswell’s personal vote is mostly talk.

The idea that Carswell has a personal vote seems to rest on two, incredibly shaky foundations. The first is that he is uniquely popular in Clacton. I’ve visited Clacton, albeit some time ago, and it’s clear that, for all he doesn’t live in the seat, Carswell works it fairly hard and is respected for doing so. There were far more people who saw him as someone who put a shift in than when I did the same exercise for Zac Goldsmith.

But being respected for working hard and being a decent bloke isn’t the same as a personal vote. I found about the same level of gratitude towards Carswell on the doors as I did for Jeremy Corbyn in Islington North. Corbyn actually lives in his seat, unlike Carswell, and is widely agreed to be an exemplary constituency MP. But despite that, and despite being chair of the Stop the War coalition, he suffered the exact same Labour-to-Liberal-Democrat swing against him in 2005 as every other Labour MP in a seat of those demographics did. Being appreciated by the voters isn’t the same as the voters being beholden to you. (Just ask Winston Churchill.)  

That’s the anecdotal stuff. It is true that Carswell increased his share of the vote and had a swing towards him in 2010 after his first term as an MP. There are a couple of things to note here: the first is that when Carswell ran for the seat of Clacton (then called Harwich), the Conservatives were led by Michael Howard, when he ran for re-election, they were led by David Cameron. Cameron had quite a big effect on the Conservatives’ electoral performance. They gained more parliamentary seats in 2010 than they did at any other election since 1931. There is a politician with the initials “DC” with something to brag about, but it ain’t Douglas Carswell.

It is true to say that Carswell slightly overran the national swing and the nationwide increase in the Tory vote from 2005 to 2010.  But that was true of all but one of the 26 Conservatives who won seats from Labour in 2005 and contested the same seat in 2010. Psephologists call this the “sophomore swing”, and most politicians seeking re-election for the first time benefit from it, slightly overperforming colleagues who have served for longer.

Carswell’s performance was boosted by favourable boundary changes in which he lost Labour-leaning wards and gained Conservative-tinted ones, but he still finished middle of the pack, with the seventh-best swing. The biggest second-term swing was that secured by Peter Bone, who won his seat of Wellingborough by 687 votes in 2005 but had a majority of 11,787 in 2010, though like Carswell he benefited from favourable boundary changes. The best performers in materially unchanged seats: Justine Greening, Stephen Hammond, Philip Hollobone, and Philip Davies.)

Carswell also underperformed most of the 2005 Conservative intake on his first go-around, so his slightly larger than average 2010 performance may just have been reversion to the mean.

As for his heroics under Ukip colours, his seat had the most Ukip-friendly demographics of any constituency in the country, and he still managed a less impressive increase in his share of the vote than Mark Reckless, his fellow defector, pulled off in the Rochester and Strood by-election. In the following general election, he also suffered a bigger fall-off than Reckless did. (The Ukip vote in Clacton fell by 15 points, and by 12 in Rochester and Strood.)

So if you’re a frugal marker, you can make a persuasive case that Carswell has no personal vote at all, though I personally would shy away from that. It feels more likely to me that he has a small personal vote of about 0.5 to 1.5 per cent of the vote – which is more impressive than it sounds. Around 67,000 people vote in Clacton, so that’s still potentially a thousand people who would vote for Carswell regardless of his party. That’s not bad as it goes.

 But that highlights the slight pointlessness of the debate about “personal votes” – even a really impressive personal vote of say, four per cent would only be about 2700 votes in Clacton. That’s not something you can win a parliamentary seat with or anything like it.

All of the evidence suggests that he has kept his seat thanks to the popularity of the party leaders he has consistently undermined and worked against, be they Michael Howard, David Cameron or Nigel Farage, not from his own appeal. If he retains it now he has left Ukip, it will be because it was in the gift of Theresa May. 

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