Blair does Miliband no favours

Former prime minister backs the coalition's NHS and education reforms.

Tony Blair used to joke: "This has been my worst week until the next one." But after Ed Miliband's worst week since he became Labour leader, Blair does Miliband few favours in his interview in today's Sun.

The former prime minister offers his clearest endorsement yet of the coalition's public service reforms and implies that Labour under Miliband is "pinned in its ideological past". Blair says: "I think some of the technical aspects of reform - competition in the NHS, putting the patient first, breaking up the traditional state school system in favour of academies and trust schools - these were things we started."

As Andy Burnham recently noted in the Times (£), Michael Gove's successful attempt to portray himself as the "torchbearer for new Labour's education reforms" is one of the reasons why his agenda has proceeded at breakneck pace. The endorsement of "The Master" himself (as several Tory cabinet ministers refer to Blair) will only further embolden the Education Secretary. When Blair declares, "I wanted to give to you full-on New Labour", some in the coalition will reply: we have.

Unlike Miliband, who memorably declared that the "The era of New Labour has passed", Blair insists, with messianic fervour, "the concept can't possibly be over because the concept isn't time related". Like Kim Il-sung, one senses, Blair intends to govern from beyond the (political) grave.

As before, Blair gives Miliband his "full support" but adds the rider that Labour will only win "if it fights from the centre", the implication being that Miliband has vacated that hallowed ground. All the same, it would be understandable if the former PM were frustrated at a man who declared that New Labour was dead but who conveniently borrows from the Blair playbook.

In a speech to business leaders in October, Miliband flooded his text with references to New Labour's support for wealth creation. In his speech on responsibility this week, he even quoted the man himself:

Tony Blair once said he wanted a country "where your child in distress is my child, your parent ill and in pain is my parent, your friend unemployed or homeless is my friend; your neighbour my neighbour. That is the true patriotism of a nation." This patriotism is all around us. We see it every day.

But if ever proof were needed that Blair sees Cameron, not Miliband, as his "heir", today's interview supplies it.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Why isn't Labour putting forward Corbynite candidates?

Despite his successes as a candidate, the organisational victories have gone the way of Corbyn's opponents. 

The contest changes, but the result remains the same: Jeremy Corbyn’s preferred candidate defeated in a parliamentary selection. Afzhal Khan is Labour’s candidate in the Manchester Gorton by-election and the overwhelming favourite to be the seat’s next MP.

Although Khan, an MEP, was one of  the minority of Labour’s European MPs to dissent from a letter from the European parliamentary Labour party calling for Jeremy Corbyn to go in the summer of 2016, he backed Andy Burnham and Tom Watson in 2015, and it is widely believed, fairly or unfairly, that Khan had, as one local activist put it, “the brains to know which way the wind was blowing” rather than being a pukka Corbynite.

For the leader’s office, it was a double defeat;  their preferred candidate, Sam Wheeler, was kept off the longlist, when the party’s Corbynsceptics allied with the party’s BAME leadership to draw up an all ethnic minority shortlist, and Yasmine Dar, their back-up option, was narrowly defeated by Khan among members in Manchester Gorton.

But even when the leadership has got its preferred candidate to the contest, they have been defeated. That even happened in Copeland, where the shortlist was drawn up by Corbynites and designed to advantage Rachel Holliday, the leader’s office preferred candidate.

Why does the Labour left keep losing? Supporters combination of bad luck and bad decisions for the defeat.

In Oldham West, where Michael Meacher, a committed supporter of Jeremy Corbyn’s, was succeeded by Jim McMahon, who voted for Liz Kendall, McMahon was seen to be so far ahead that they had no credible chance of stopping him. Rosena Allin-Khan was a near-perfect candidate to hold the seat of Tooting: a doctor at the local hospital, the seat’s largest employer, with links to both the Polish and Pakistani communities that make up the seat’s biggest minority blocs.  Gillian Troughton, who won the Copeland selection, is a respected local councillor.

But the leadership has also made bad decisions, some claim.  The failure to get a candidate in Manchester Gorton was particularly egregious, as one trade unionist puts it: “We all knew that Gerald was not going to make it [until 2020], they had a local boy with good connections to the trade unions, that contest should have been theirs for the taking”. Instead, they lost control of the selection panel because Jeremy Corbyn missed an NEC meeting – the NEC is hung at present as the Corbynsceptics sacrificed their majority of one to retain the chair – and with it their best chance of taking the seat.

Others close to the leadership point out that for the first year of Corbyn’s leadership, the leader’s office was more preoccupied with the struggle for survival than it was with getting more of its people in. Decisions in by-elections were taken on the hop and often in a way that led to problems later down the line. It made sense to keep Mo Azam, from the party’s left, off the shortlist in Oldham West when Labour MPs were worried for their own seats and about the Ukip effect if Labour selected a minority candidate. But that enraged the party’s minority politicians and led directly to the all-ethnic-minority shortlist in Manchester Gorton.

They also point out that the party's councillor base, from where many candidates are drawn, is still largely Corbynsceptic, though they hope that this will change in the next round of local government selections. (Councillors must go through a reselection process at every election.)

But the biggest shift has very little to do with the Labour leadership. The big victories for the Labour left in internal battles under Ed Miliband were the result of Unite and the GMB working together. Now they are, for various reasons, at odds and the GMB has proven significantly better at working shortlists and campaigning for its members to become MPs.  That helps Corbynsceptics. “The reason why so many of the unions supported Jeremy the first time,” one senior Corbynite argues, “Is they wanted to move the Labour party a little bit to the left. They didn’t want a socialist transformation of the Labour party. And actually if you look at the people getting selected they are not Corbynites, but they are not Blairites either, and that’s what the unions wanted.”

Regardless of why, it means that, two years into Corbyn’s leadership, the Labour left finds itself smaller in parliament than it was at the beginning.  

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