Exclusive: Blair warns Miliband: offer answers, not outrage

The former prime minister says Labour must be more than "fellow travellers in sympathy" and warns it not to "tack left on tax and spending".

In his statement on Margaret Thatcher's death earlier this week, Ed Miliband pointedly noted that "she moved the centre ground". The Labour leader is aiming to achieve a similar feat. Indeed, he belives the centre has already moved to the left since the financial crisis, creating the space for a more unambiguously social democratic approach. It is a notion that Tony Blair fundamentally rejects. In his most significant intervention in domestic politics since leaving office, the former prime minister writes in the centenary edition of the New Statesman: "The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly." 

Following last week's fractious debate on welfare, Blair says that Labour must be "the seekers after answers, not the repository for people's anger". He writes: "In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion. In the second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all people want leadership".

Rather than retreating to its ideological "comfort zone", Blair argues that Labour must remain on "a centre ground that is ultimately both more satisfying and more productive for party and country". In a signal of his disapproval at some of Miliband's recent pronouncements, he writes that Labour must not "tack right on immigration and Europe, and tack left on tax and spending". Miliband has argued that the last Labour government was wrong not to impose transitional controls on migration from eastern Europe and has called for the introduction of a "mansion tax" on properties worth more than £2m. 

Blair writes: "The ease with which it [Labour] can settle back into its old territory of defending the status quo, allying itself, even anchoring itself, to the interests that will passionately and often justly oppose what the government is doing, is so apparently rewarding, that the exercise of political will lies not in going there, but in resisting the temptation to go there." 

Unlike some associated with New Labour, Blair argues that the party has been right to reject Conservative claims that it "created" the crisis by overspending. He points out that the current structural deficit was under 1 per cent of GDP in 2007-08 and that that public debt was significantly below 1997 levels at the time of the crash. "Over the whole 13 years, the debt-to-GDP ratio was better than the Conservative record from 1979-97." But he warns that now the crash has occurred "no one can get permission to govern unless they deal with its reality". 

Blair goes on to pose seven questions that he says are examples of those Labour must answer if it is to address the need for "fundamental reform of the post-war state". In a sign of how he would have approached last week's debate on welfare differently, he says that the party should look at the "right balance between universal and means-tested help for pensioners" and ask what is "driving the rise in housing benefit spending". He adds: "If it is the absence of housing, how do we build more?" Blair also urges the party to explore how it can focus on "the really hard core of socially excluded families, separating them from those who are just temporarily down on their luck". In 2011, the coalition launched a scheme led by Louise Casey, the former head of Blair's Respect Task Force, aimed at helping England's "120,000 most troubled families". 

On public services, Blair says that Labour should ask how it can take "the health and education reforms of the last Labour government to a new level, given the huge improvement in results they brought". Blair has recently praised Michael Gove's free schools as "a great idea" and has accused the teaching unions of obstructing "necessary educational change". In addition, he calls for Labour to explore how "developments around DNA" can help reduce crime and how technology can "cut costs and drive change in our education, health, crime and immigration systems". 

Hinting at his frustration at the party's perceived lack of policy development, Blair writes: "There is no need to provide every bit of detail. People don't expect it. But they want to know where we're coming from because that is a clue as to where we would go, if elected." The danger for Labour, he adds, is of "tactical victories that lead to strategic defeats".

Miliband, who has consistently spoken of the need to move on from New Labour, is likely to be unfazed by Blair's intervention but the former Prime Minister's words will reinforce the concern among some in the party that Labour risks being defined as a party of opposition, rather than  a government-in-waiting, as it continues its crusade against austerity.

Tony Blair argues in the New Statesman that the financial crisis "has not brought a decisive shift to the left". Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
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Forget planning for no deal. The government isn't really planning for Brexit at all

The British government is simply not in a position to handle life after the EU.

No deal is better than a bad deal? That phrase has essentially vanished from Theresa May’s lips since the loss of her parliamentary majority in June, but it lives on in the minds of her boosters in the commentariat and the most committed parts of the Brexit press. In fact, they have a new meme: criticising the civil service and ministers who backed a Remain vote for “not preparing” for a no deal Brexit.

Leaving without a deal would mean, among other things, dropping out of the Open Skies agreement which allows British aeroplanes to fly to the United States and European Union. It would lead very quickly to food shortages and also mean that radioactive isotopes, used among other things for cancer treatment, wouldn’t be able to cross into the UK anymore. “Planning for no deal” actually means “making a deal”.  (Where the Brexit elite may have a point is that the consequences of no deal are sufficiently disruptive on both sides that the British government shouldn’t  worry too much about the two-year time frame set out in Article 50, as both sides have too big an incentive to always agree to extra time. I don’t think this is likely for political reasons but there is a good economic case for it.)

For the most part, you can’t really plan for no deal. There are however some things the government could prepare for. They could, for instance, start hiring additional staff for customs checks and investing in a bigger IT system to be able to handle the increased volume of work that would need to take place at the British border. It would need to begin issuing compulsory purchases to build new customs posts at ports, particularly along the 300-mile stretch of the Irish border – where Northern Ireland, outside the European Union, would immediately have a hard border with the Republic of Ireland, which would remain inside the bloc. But as Newsnight’s Christopher Cook details, the government is doing none of these things.

Now, in a way, you might say that this is a good decision on the government’s part. Frankly, these measures would only be about as useful as doing your seatbelt up before driving off the Grand Canyon. Buying up land and properties along the Irish border has the potential to cause political headaches that neither the British nor Irish governments need. However, as Cook notes, much of the government’s negotiating strategy seems to be based around convincing the EU27 that the United Kingdom might actually walk away without a deal, so not making even these inadequate plans makes a mockery of their own strategy. 

But the frothing about preparing for “no deal” ignores a far bigger problem: the government isn’t really preparing for any deal, and certainly not the one envisaged in May’s Lancaster House speech, where she set out the terms of Britain’s Brexit negotiations, or in her letter to the EU27 triggering Article 50. Just to reiterate: the government’s proposal is that the United Kingdom will leave both the single market and the customs union. Its regulations will no longer be set or enforced by the European Court of Justice or related bodies.

That means that, when Britain leaves the EU, it will need, at a minimum: to beef up the number of staff, the quality of its computer systems and the amount of physical space given over to customs checks and other assorted border work. It will need to hire its own food and standards inspectors to travel the globe checking the quality of products exported to the United Kingdom. It will need to increase the size of its own regulatory bodies.

The Foreign Office is doing some good and important work on preparing Britain’s re-entry into the World Trade Organisation as a nation with its own set of tariffs. But across the government, the level of preparation is simply not where it should be.

And all that’s assuming that May gets exactly what she wants. It’s not that the government isn’t preparing for no deal, or isn’t preparing for a bad deal. It can’t even be said to be preparing for what it believes is a great deal. 

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