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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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Benn vs McDonnell: how Brexit has exposed the fight over Labour's party machine

In the wake of Brexit, should Labour MPs listen more closely to voters, or their own party members?

Two Labour MPs on primetime TV. Two prominent politicians ruling themselves out of a Labour leadership contest. But that was as far as the similarity went.

Hilary Benn was speaking hours after he resigned - or was sacked - from the Shadow Cabinet. He described Jeremy Corbyn as a "good and decent man" but not a leader.

Framing his overnight removal as a matter of conscience, Benn told the BBC's Andrew Marr: "I no longer have confidence in him [Corbyn] and I think the right thing to do would be for him to take that decision."

In Benn's view, diehard leftie pin ups do not go down well in the real world, or on the ballot papers of middle England. 

But while Benn may be drawing on a New Labour truism, this in turn rests on the assumption that voters matter more than the party members when it comes to winning elections.

That assumption was contested moments later by Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell.

Dismissive of the personal appeal of Shadow Cabinet ministers - "we can replace them" - McDonnell's message was that Labour under Corbyn had rejuvenated its electoral machine.

Pointing to success in by-elections and the London mayoral election, McDonnell warned would-be rebels: "Who is sovereign in our party? The people who are soverign are the party members. 

"I'm saying respect the party members. And in that way we can hold together and win the next election."

Indeed, nearly a year on from Corbyn's surprise election to the Labour leadership, it is worth remembering he captured nearly 60% of the 400,000 votes cast. Momentum, the grassroots organisation formed in the wake of his success, now has more than 50 branches around the country.

Come the next election, it will be these grassroots members who will knock on doors, hand out leaflets and perhaps even threaten to deselect MPs.

The question for wavering Labour MPs will be whether what they trust more - their own connection with voters, or this potentially unbiddable party machine.