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.

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Politics doesn't just connect us to the past and the future – it's what makes us human

To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

I have long been haunted by a scene in George Orwell’s great novel Nineteen Eighty-Four. Winston Smith, the hero, is forced to watch propaganda films depicting acts of war and destruction. He is moved by something he sees: a woman trying to protect a child by wrapping her arm around him as they are attacked. It’s a futile gesture. She cannot shield the boy or stop the bullets but she embraces him all the same – before, as Orwell writes, “The helicopter blew them both to pieces.”

For Winston, what Orwell calls the “enveloping, protecting gesture” of the woman’s arm comes to symbolise something profoundly human – an expression of selflessness and of unconditional love in an unforgiving world. Scenes such as this we now witness daily in footage from the besieged eastern Aleppo and other Syrian towns, people in extreme situations showing extraordinary dignity and kindness.

I read Nineteen Eighty-Four for the first time in late adolescence. I’d dropped out of sixth-form college without completing my A-levels and was commuting on a coach from my parents’ house in Hertfordshire to London, where I worked as a junior clerk for the Electricity Council. During this long daily journey – sometimes two hours each way – I started to read seriously for the first time in my life.

I was just getting interested in politics – this was the high tide of the Thatcher years – and Orwell’s portrayal of a dystopian future in which Britain (renamed “Airstrip One”) had become a Soviet-style totalitarian state was bleakly fascinating. Fundamentally the book seemed to me to be about the deep ­human yearning for political change – about the never-ending dream of conserving or creating a better society.

Nineteen Eighty-Four was published in 1949 (Orwell died in January 1950, aged 46), at a time of rationing and austerity in Britain – but also of renewal. Under the leadership of Clement Attlee, Winston Churchill’s deputy in the wartime coalition, the Labour government was laying the foundations of what became the postwar settlement.

The National Health Service and the welfare state were created. Essential industries such as the railways were nationalised. The Town and Country Planning Act was passed, opening the way for the redevelopment of tracts of land. Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent was commissioned. New towns were established – such as Harlow in Essex, where I was born and brought up.

To grow up in Harlow, I now understand, was to be part of a grand experiment. Many of the families I knew there had escaped the bomb-ruined streets of the East End of London. Our lives were socially engineered. Everything we needed was provided by the state – housing, education, health care, libraries, recreational facilities. (One friend described it to me as being like East Ger­many without the Stasi.)

This hadn’t happened by accident. As my father used to say, we owed the quality of our lives to the struggles of those who came before us. The conservative philosopher Edmund Burke described society as a partnership between “those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born” – and I find this idea of an intergenerational social contract persuasive.

Progress, however, isn’t inevitable. There is no guarantee that things will keep getting better. History isn’t linear, but contingent and discontinuous. And these are dark and turbulent new times in which we are living.

A civil war has been raging in Syria for more than five years, transforming much of the Middle East into a theatre of great-power rivalry. Europe has been destabilised by economic and refugee crises and by the emergence of insurgent parties, from the radical left and the radical right. The liberal world order is crumbling. Many millions feel locked out or left behind by globalisation and rapid change.

But we shouldn’t despair. To those people who tell me that they’re not interested in politics, I often say: “But politics is interested in you!”

And part of what it means to be human is to believe in politics and the change that politics can bring, for better and worse.

What, after all, led so many Americans to vote for an anti-establishment populist such as Donald Trump? He has promised to “make America great again” – and enough people believed him or, at least, wanted to believe him to carry him all the way to the White House. They want to believe in something different, something better, in anything better – which, of course, Trump may never deliver.

So politics matters.

The decisions we take collectively as ­humans have consequences. We are social creatures and rational agents, yet we can be dangerously irrational. This is why long-established institutions, as well as the accumulated wisdom of past generations, are so valuable, as Burke understood.

Politics makes us human. It changes our world and ultimately affects who we are and how we live, not just in the here and now, but long into the future.

An edited version of this essay was broadcast as part of the “What Makes Us Human?” series on BBC Radio 2’s “Jeremy Vine” show

Jason Cowley is editor of the New Statesman. He has been the editor of Granta, a senior editor at the Observer and a staff writer at the Times.

This article first appeared in the 01 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Age of outrage