Why Miliband and Blair can now share a platform

As Blair has moderated his stance on the deficit, Miliband has opened his door.

Those understandably alarmed by the announcement that Tony Blair will return as an "adviser" to Labour will presumably be relieved to learn that his remit is limited to how Britain can maximise its "Olympic legacy". As Labour List's Mark Ferguson writes, "If the party is going to fall out over what Tony Blair thinks we should do with a velodrome, we’re in real trouble…". 

Yet the political symbolism of Ed Miliband's decision to share a platform with the former prime minister at last night's Labour fundraising dinner should not be underestimated. In the early months of Miliband's leadership, when he distanced the party from Blair's stances on Iraq, the economy, tuition fees and civil liberties, the two would never have appeared in such close proximity. Blair's memoir, A Journey, in which he echoed the coalition's stance on deficit reduction, was seen as confirmation of his toxic status.

But Blair has since privately indicated that he agrees with Ed Balls's critique of the government's austerity programme as self-defeating. In his view, the coalition is going "too far, too fast". As a result, Miliband is far more comfortable about appearing in public with Blair. Having already put clear red water between himself and the former prime minister, he is confident that Blair's return will not be seen as evidence of a shift to the right. 

Where Blair and Miliband continue to differ is on the future of capitalism. While Miliband believes the neoliberal model has fundamentally failed, Blair believes it can be revived. As the latter recently told the Evening Standard, "I understand that some people think the financial crisis has altered everything. And the mood is against this. Personally I don't think that's correct." But Blair is not alone in such thinking. While Miliband and Balls are at one on the need to limit austerity, the shadow chancellor is more sceptical of his leader's call for a new economic model.

Beyond this, one other thing is clear: Blair, like the rest of Westminster, has been forced to recognise Miliband as a potential future prime minister. As he said last night:

There is a rulebook in politics that goes something like this: Labour governs. Labour loses. Tories take over. Labour goes crazy. Tories carry on governing.

Time to re-write that script.

Actually it is being re-written by them and by us. They’re on their way down. We’re on our way up.

That Blair can now state with conviction that Labour, not the Tories, will win the next election is evidence of the transformation in Miliband's political fortunes.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a service to mark the Diamond Jubilee. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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The Tories are the zombie party: with an ageing, falling membership, still they stagger on to victory

One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.”

All football clubs have “ultras” – and, increasingly, political parties do, too: although, in the case of political parties, their loudest and angriest supporters are mostly found on the internet. The SNP got there first: in the early days of email, journalists at the Scotsman used to receive bilious missives complaining about its coverage – or, on occasion, lack of coverage – of what the Scottish National Party was up to. The rest soon followed, with Ukip, the Labour Party and even the crushed Liberal Democrats now boasting a furious electronic horde.

The exception is the Conservative Party. Britain’s table-topping team might have its first majority in 18 years and is widely expected in Westminster to remain in power for another decade. But it doesn’t have any fans. The party’s conference in Manchester, like Labour’s in Brighton, will be full to bursting. But where the Labour shindig is chock-full of members, trade unionists and hangers-on from the charitable sector, the Conservative gathering is a more corporate affair: at the fringes I attended last year, lobbyists outnumbered members by four to one. At one, the journalist Peter Oborne demanded to know how many people in the room were party members. It was standing room only – but just four people put their hands up.

During Grant Shapps’s stint at Conservative headquarters, serious attempts were made to revive membership. Shapps, a figure who is underrated because of his online blunders, and his co-chair Andrew Feldman were able to reverse some of the decline, but they were running just to stand still. Some of the biggest increases in membership came in urban centres where the Tories are not in contention to win a seat.

All this made the 2015 election win the triumph of a husk. A party with a membership in long-term and perhaps irreversible decline, which in many seats had no activists at all, delivered crushing defeats to its opponents across England and Wales.

Like José Mourinho’s sides, which, he once boasted, won “without the ball”, the Conservatives won without members. In Cumbria the party had no ground campaign and two paper candidates. But letters written by the Defence Secretary, Michael Fallon, were posted to every household where someone was employed making Trident submarines, warning that their jobs would be under threat under a Labour government. This helped the Tories come close to taking out both Labour MPs, John Woodcock in Barrow and Furness and Jamie Reed in Copeland. It was no small feat: Labour has held Barrow since 1992 and has won Copeland at every election it has fought.

The Tories have become the zombies of British politics: still moving though dead from the neck down. And not only moving, but thriving. One Labour MP in Brighton spotted a baby in a red Babygro and said to me: “There’s our next [Labour] prime minister.” His Conservative counterparts also believe that their rivals are out of power for at least a decade.

Yet there are more threats to the zombie Tories than commonly believed. The European referendum will cause endless trouble for their whips over the coming years. And for all there’s a spring in the Conservative step at the moment, the party has a majority of only 12 in the Commons. Parliamentary defeats could easily become commonplace. But now that Labour has elected Jeremy Corbyn – either a more consensual or a more chaotic leader than his predecessors, depending on your perspective – division within parties will become a feature, rather than a quirk, at Westminster. There will be “splits” aplenty on both sides of the House.

The bigger threat to Tory hegemony is the spending cuts to come, and the still vulnerable state of the British economy. In the last parliament, George Osborne’s cuts fell predominantly on the poorest and those working in the public sector. They were accompanied by an extravagant outlay to affluent retirees. As my colleague Helen Lewis wrote last week, over the next five years, cuts will fall on the sharp-elbowed middle classes, not just the vulnerable. Reductions in tax credits, so popular among voters in the abstract, may prove just as toxic as the poll tax and the abolition of the 10p bottom income-tax rate – both of which were popular until they were actually implemented.

Added to that, the British economy has what the economist Stephen King calls “the Titanic problem”: a surplus of icebergs, a deficit of lifeboats. Many of the levers used by Gordon Brown and Mervyn King in the last recession are not available to David Cameron and the chief of the Bank of England, Mark Carney: debt-funded fiscal stimulus is off the table because the public finances are already in the red. Interest rates are already at rock bottom.

Yet against that grim backdrop, the Conservatives retain the two trump cards that allowed them to win in May: questions about Labour’s economic competence, and the personal allure of David Cameron. The public is still convinced that the cuts are the result of “the mess” left by Labour, however unfair that charge may be. If a second crisis strikes, it could still be the Tories who feel the benefit, if they can convince voters that the poor state of the finances is still the result of New Labour excess rather than Cameroon failure.

As for Cameron, in 2015 it was his lead over Ed Miliband as Britons’ preferred prime minister that helped the Conservatives over the line. This time, it is his withdrawal from politics which could hand the Tories a victory even if the economy tanks or cuts become widely unpopular. He could absorb the hatred for the failures and the U-turns, and then hand over to a fresher face. Nicky Morgan or a Sajid Javid, say, could yet repeat John Major’s trick in 1992, breathing life into a seemingly doomed Conservative project. For Labour, the Tory zombie remains frustratingly lively. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.

This article first appeared in the 01 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The Tory tide