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.

Show Hide image

Theresa May's big thinker - an interview with George Freeman

The Conservative policy board chair on the meaning of Brexit, state intervention and whether "Mayism" exists.

Theresa May’s three months as Prime Minister have been marked by ruthless changes of both personnel and policy, from grammar schools to fiscal targets. The man tasked with overseeing the latter is George Freeman, a newly bearded 49-year-old who jokingly describes himself as “a designated thinker”.

“It’s a huge privilege,” Freeman told me when we met recently in Westminster. “As [May] has indicated, she’s determined to open up the policymaking process to good ideas from a much wider pool.”

After entering parliament as the MP for Mid Norfolk in 2010, Freeman distinguished himself as one of the most intellectually energetic Tory MPs. He founded the 2020 group of Conservative modernisers and became the first ever life sciences minister in 2014. Before this, he had worked for 15 years as a biotech entrepreneur.

Politics is in his blood. The Liberal prime minister William Gladstone was his great-great-great-uncle and Mabel Philipson, the first female Conservative MP, his great-aunt. Yet Freeman attributes his reformist zeal to the belief that “with privilege comes responsibility”. He boarded at Radley College after his parents, both alcoholics, divorced and has spoken of his “emotionally damaged” childhood.

It is unsurprising that May, confronted by the greatest policy challenge since 1945 – EU withdrawal – has called on his services. The chair of the Prime Minister’s policy board, to give Freeman his official title, was a passionate Remainer but told me “we are now all Brexiteers”. The “Brexit roar”, he explained, was “a mixture of very deeply felt concerns and complaints about globalisation, powerlessness and the growing gap between London and [other] places . . .

“There’s an understanding that if we simply delivered Brexit, and didn’t tackle the rest, we would only have dealt with some of the problem.”

His ambition was “to do for our generation what Disraeli did in the 19th century, in understanding that the extraordinarily challenging pace of franchise extension was also a huge opportunity to harness and fashion a New Model Conservative Party”.

Besides abandoning the surplus target (“to boost growth and investment in infrastructure”), Freeman cited welfare policy as a point of departure. The government would “better differentiate” between changes in the welfare budget and systemic reform – a division that May believes was eroded by George Osborne.

The Prime Minister underlined her commitment to industrial strategy by naming a new department after it. But what does it mean? “I think there is a recognition that we are embracing something unrecognisable from the failed ‘beer and sandwiches’ interventionism of the Sixties and Seventies,” Freeman said. “Twenty-first-century Conservative industrial strategy is about backing our science, innovation and knowledge economy, and other sectors where we have serious global leadership.” He spoke of “stepping in where only the state can”, citing the publicly funded Diamond Light Source synchrotron facility, which he recently visited with the astronaut Tim Peake. The government must be not merely “pro-enterprise”, but “more enterprising”.

May has endured her heaviest dissent over education, and Freeman was notably lukewarm about the idea of new grammar schools. “As well as her position” on the latter, he emphasised, “the Prime Minister set out a much broader vision”. Asked whether he understood MPs’ objections to academic selection, he said “there will be all the usual consultation and discussions through parliament about specific measures”.

The Prime Minister has entered office with greater ideological definition to her thinking than David Cameron, who struggled to reconcile his early vision with austerity. Can we speak of “Mayism”? “I’m not sure the ‘ism’ is helpful or appropriate at this stage. The Prime Minister is very strongly driven by her conservative values, and converting those values into effective policies to tackle the challenges we face. I think we have to wait for the judgement of history to define the ism.”

Freeman is close to “DC” (as he calls Cameron) and praised his premiership. “I was very sorry to see him go. But in the end, given the way the referendum turned out, it was inevitable. I thought he handled that whole last week in the most exemplary way: typical of the man. In time, I think he will come to be recognised as a transformational leader who brought the Conservative Party to terms with modern Britain.”

He rejected the former education secretary Nicky Morgan’s suggestion that May would struggle to “reach into” the marginal seats that the Tories won under Cameron. “Theresa May is appealing widely across whole swaths of the country as a One-Nation leader,” he declared.

With the re-election of Jeremy Corbyn, Freeman said, “the centre ground of British politics, once dominated by Blair and New Labour, has been vacated . . . That is a huge opportunity for a One-Nation Conservative Party to demonstrate our relevance beyond our core vote to those around the country who have clearly felt so marginalised.”

Corbyn’s triumph “illustrates the extraordinary challenge for mainstream political parties in this age of asymmetric, post-Brexit politics . . . We now have to use the opportunity of incumbency in government to tackle the root causes of the insurgency that has taken out the Labour Party.”

Freeman acknowledged the risk that Labour’s divisions would produce an internal Tory opposition.

“It also creates a question for the Conservative Party. Will we turn in on ourselves and generate our own arguments, or unite and reach out into the space that Corbyn has vacated?” 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories