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.

ELLIE FOREMAN-PECK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Craig Oliver, Cameron's attack dog, finally bites

A new book reveals the spiteful after life of Downing Street's unlikely spin doctor.

It must be hard being a spin doctor: always in the shadows but always on-message. The murky control that the role requires might explain why David Cameron’s former director of communications Craig Oliver has rushed out his political memoirs so soon after his boss left Downing Street. Now that he has been freed from the shackles of power, Oliver has chosen to expose the bitterness that lingers among those on the losing side in the EU referendum.

The book, which is aptly titled Unleashing Demons, made headlines with its revelation that Cameron felt “badly let down” by Theresa May during the campaign, and that some in the Remain camp regarded the then home secretary as an “enemy agent”. It makes for gripping reading – yet seems uncharacteristically provocative in style for a man who eschewed the sweary spin doctor stereotype, instead advising Cameron to “be Zen” while Tory civil war raged during the Brexit campaign.

It may be not only politicians who find the book a tough read. Oliver’s visceral account of his side’s defeat on 24 June includes a description of how he staggered in a daze down Whitehall until he retched “harder than I have done in my life. Nothing comes up. I retch again – so hard, it feels as if I’ll turn inside out.”

It’s easy to see why losing hit Oliver – who was knighted in Cameron’s resignation honours list – so hard. Arguably, this was the first time the 47-year-old father-of-three had ever failed at anything. The son of a former police chief constable, he grew up in Scotland, went to a state school and studied English at St Andrews University. He then became a broadcast journalist, holding senior posts at the BBC, ITV and Channel 4.

When the former News of the World editor Andy Coulson resigned as No 10’s communications director in January 2011 because of unceasing references in the press to his alleged involvement in the phone-hacking scandal, Oliver was not the obvious replacement. But he was seen as a scandal-free BBC pen-pusher who exuded calm authority, and that won him the job. The Cameron administration, tainted by its association with the Murdoch media empire, needed somebody uncontroversial who could blend into the background.

It wasn’t just Oliver’s relative blandness that recommended him. At the BBC, he had made his name revamping the corporation’s flagship News at Ten by identifying the news angles that would resonate with Middle England. The Conservatives then put this skill to very good use during their 2015 election campaign. His broadcast expertise also qualified him to sharpen up the then prime minister’s image.

Oliver’s own sense of style, however, was widely ridiculed when he showed up for his first week at Downing Street looking every inch the metropolitan media male with a trendy man bag and expensive Beats by Dre headphones, iPad in hand.

His apparent lack of political affiliation caused a stir at Westminster. Political hacks were perplexed by his anti-spin attitude. His style was the antithesis of the attack-dog mode popularised by Alastair Campbell and Damian McBride in the New Labour years. As Robert Peston told the Daily Mail: “Despite working closely with Oliver for three years, I had no clue about his politics or that he was interested in politics.” Five years on, critics still cast aspersions and question his commitment to the Conservative cause.

Oliver survived despite early wobbles. The most sinister of these was the allegation that in 2012 he tried to prevent the Daily Telegraph publishing a story about expenses claimed by the then culture secretary, Maria Miller, using her links to the Leveson inquiry as leverage – an accusation that Downing Street denied. Nevertheless, he became indispensable to Cameron, one of a handful of trusted advisers always at the prime minister’s side.

Newspapers grumbled about Oliver’s preference for broadcast and social media over print. “He’s made it clear he [Oliver] doesn’t give a s*** about us, so I don’t really give a s*** about him,” a veteran correspondent from a national newspaper told Politico.

Yet that approach was why he was hired. There was the occasional gaffe, including the clumsy shot of a stern-looking Cameron, apparently on the phone to President Obama discussing Putin’s incursion into Ukraine, which was widely mocked on Twitter. But overall, reducing Downing Street’s dependence on print media worked: Scotland voted against independence in 2014 and the Tories won a majority in the 2015 general election.

Then came Brexit, a blow to the whole Cameroon inner circle. In his rush to set the record straight and defend Cameron’s legacy – as well as his own – Oliver has finally broken free of the toned-down, straight-guy persona he perfected in power. His memoir is spiteful and melodramatic, like something straight from the mouth of Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It. Perhaps, with this vengeful encore to his mild political career, the unlikely spin doctor has finally fulfilled his potential. 

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