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.

Getty Images.
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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