Where Miliband leads, Cameron follows

Cameron echoes Miliband and links the riots to the banking crash, expenses and phone hacking.

Not everyone liked Ed Miliband's attempt to link the riots to the banking crash, the expenses scandal and the phone-hacking scandal. Boris Johnson, for instance, quipped in his Telegraph column today: "I simply cannot agree that Gerald Kaufman's expense-claim for a Bang and Olufsen television has somehow triggered or legitimated the torching of property in outer London."

But it's worth noting that both David Cameron and Iain Duncan Smith have since followed Miliband and made the connection. Appearing on the Today programme this morning, Duncan Smith remarked:

We all have to put our hands in the air, those of us in leadership positions, and recognise in the last 15 or 20 years what has happened to us is that many of us have just decided that life is about what you take out of it, not what you put in. You know, stiffing somebody on a debt in the City, or raiding someone's telephone for messages, claiming expenses that you should not have claimed - these are issues that all of us have to recognise we have to put our own house in order at the same time, and try and change that.

While Cameron used the closing passage of his speech (read the full transcript here) to make a similar point:

Moral decline and bad behaviour is not limited to a few of the poorest parts of our society. In the banking crisis, with MPs' expenses, in the phone hacking scandal, we have seen some of the worst cases of greed, irresponsibility and entitlement. The restoration of responsibility has to cut right across our society.

Both were echoing Miliband, who argued on the Today programme last Friday:

It is about irresponsibility wherever we find it in our society. We've seen in the past few years: MPs' expenses, what happened in the banks, what happened with phone hacking, what do those things share in common ... it's a lack of a sense of right and wrong, and a "me first" mentality.

As both parties fight to define the political reaction to the riots, the Labour leader can count that as a small victory. The challenge for the left is to now address the right's main explanation for the riots: family breakdown. Miliband made a good start in his speech this morning (read the full transcript here) when he argued that such a narrative was too simple. As he noted, "[T]here are single parents who do a brilliant job and two-parent families who do a terrible job." He added: "Some people say it's all about the feckless at the bottom, but there are rich families unable to control their kids and poor families who do it very well."

Cameron spoke today of a "family test" that would be applied to all domestic policy. If it hurts families and undermines commitment, he said, "then we shouldn't do it." But Cameron will struggle to make this argument while simultaneously rolling back state support for families. An unusual number of benefit cuts - the abolition of baby bonds, the three-year freeze in child benefit, the abolition of the health in maternity grant, the withdrawal of child tax credits from higher earners - hit families hardest. By contrast, benefits for the elderly - free bus passes, free TV licences, the winter fuel allowance - have been left entirely untouched. In addition, as I exclusively revealed in the NS last month, Cameron has broken his promise to protect Sure Start and 20 centres have already closed. So long as the PM's rhetoric is unsupported by his policies, this will prove fertile territory for Miliband.

Update: Cameron has now acceded to Miliband's demand for a commission of inquiry.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad