Miliband and the Blairites have more in common than they suggest

A leader who has explicitly "turned the page on New Labour" makes many of the same compromises and electoral calculations as the former prime minister and his allies.

There are only two things that former ministers – the big beasts of a party – can be in relation to an incumbent leader: silent or unhelpful. To offer advice in public is to imply that private counsel has not been sought or not been heeded. No veteran politician thinks his experience is worthless or irrelevant so the very act of commenting in public contains a rebuke to the younger generation, which is why no amount of code and caveat prevents it being reported as such. 

So it was with Tony Blair’s comments in the centenary edition of the New Statesman, Peter Mandelson and Alan Milburn in the Independent, David Blunkett in the Observer and John Reid all contributing to the discussion of what Ed Miliband should be doing. Not silent, therefore not helpful. That isn’t a comment on their collective insight or entitlement to an opinion it is just a fact of the way news reporting works.

Ed Miliband would be foolish to ignore the views of those with more experience of ministerial office and of beating Tories in elections than is currently amassed on the opposition front bench. As it happens, Miliband doesn’t entirely ignore the views of senior figures in his party. But what he has done is express doubt that their prescriptions for success, fashioned to meet the demands of political combat 1994-2010, are transferable to Labour’s current task.

This is widely interpreted as a move to the left. Partly it is. Miliband and some of his closest advisors believe that the New Labour project was corrupted by excessive deference to a super-rich financial elite, that it was too credulous about the supposed benefits of introducing competitive market forces into public services and too squeamish in expressing the potential merits of government intervention generally.

Milibandism holds that Blairite accommodations with free-wheeling, turbo-capitalism, while understandable in the mid-90s, are no longer required. Nor are they thought to be what the majority of British people want now that they have seen the destructive potential of that model fully realised in the financial crisis. In short, a tack to the left, but on the presumption that the centre isn’t where it used to be.

It is hardly surprising that senior figures on the retired Blairite side of the party think those are hazardous assumptions. No-one likes to see their professional work denigrated. (But it is worth noting also how irrational it would be for any party leader to follow without deviation the methods and policies of his predecessors.)

Whether or not Miliband’s judgment about the shifting geometry of British politics is sound will become clear soon enough. Meanwhile, he would not even have the job without explicit efforts in the 2010 contest to distance himself from Blair and his works. Regardless of what that says about Labour’s – or more precisely trade union bosses’ – ambivalent relationship with a thrice election-winning leader, it was effective campaigning politics on Miliband’s part. He shrewdly gamed his party’s prejudices to present himself as the compromise candidate of post-Blair social democratic restoration.

Much of his leadership energy has subsequently been spent shoring up that position so he now has an unshakeable claim to occupy the centre ground of Labour, if not the country. If Miliband does win an election from that stance he will arrive in Downing Street with an advantage that David Cameron never had – a victory that party and leader can own together. Cameron revelled in his dissimilarity to the average Tory and his MPs have never forgiven the insult.

Given all of this, the remarkable thing is not how far Miliband has shifted to the left, but how little. So he likes a 50p top rate of tax for high earners. It is a very popular policy that some Tories privately concede they should not have abandoned. So he resists the effective privatisation of swathes of public services, especially in the NHS. In so doing he reflects a suspicion held by millions of non-aligned voters about the deleterious effect of market forces in health and education. A Labour government would almost certainly adjust the governance system and admissions process that applies to academies and free schools. It would not enact some great restoration to pre-Blair education structures. "One Nation" Labour is hardly Bennism 2.0.

Meanwhile, Labour has accepted the public sector pay freeze and recognised, in theory at least, the obligation to reform welfare spending (including a cap of some kind). Miliband promises to impose more rigorous controls on immigration.

These are compromises that have disappointed some sections Labour party, enraged others. On the left there has been little doubt what force is to blame – the wicked residue of Blairism. Inside Westminster it is obvious that the Cult of Tony is a depleted band of refugees with their haggard faces pressed hungrily against the Miliband shop front. Yet in leftier corners of the national party there endures a myth of the Zombie Blairites whose instincts are crypto-Tory and who wield tremendous power and influence. Their sinister bastion is held to be the campaign group Progress, depicted as an engine of wild capitalist entryism. (It isn’t.

Of course, that interpretation is handy to some figures in the trade union movement who would otherwise have to explain why the candidate they advised their members to elect is not behaving as advertised. Likewise, there have been advantages for Miliband in having on his right flank a diminished but conspicuous Blair-loving tendency that serves as scapegoat in the party for any distasteful compromises that need making with public opinion.

But if it were true that Blairites were such a powerful influence, why on earth would they be putting their delicately worded doses of advice in the pages of magazines and newspapers? If they had any strings to pull, they would be pulling them. They would not be writing opinion pieces or giving interviews advertising their impotence. There lies the real significance of the veterans’ interventions of the past few days. If there is a coded message it needs to be heeded not by the leadership but by the left of the party and it is this: your wish is granted, Blairism is repudiated, the ideological treason you despised is reversed. And yet a leader who isn’t Blair and who has explicitly "turned the page on New Labour" makes many of the same compromises and electoral calculations as the Blairites. Miliband has as much room to move left as he wants. There is no external impediment, no zombie grip on his shoulder. The lurch is there for the making. But for all the fervent hopes of Tories that he will do it and their spin that he already has done it, really he hasn’t. Why not? What is stopping him? What is preventing Miliband from becoming the ultimate fantasy candidate of the anti-Blair revanche? No one but Miliband himself and his ambition to win an election.

Tony Blair talks with Ed Miliband during a Loyal Address service to mark the Queen's Diamond Jubilee at Westminster Hall. Photograph: Getty Images.

Rafael Behr is political columnist at the Guardian and former political editor of the New Statesman

Getty
Show Hide image

Find the EU renegotiation demands dull? Me too – but they are important

It's an old trick: smother anything in enough jargon and you can avoid being held accountable for it.

I don’t know about you, but I found the details of Britain’s European Union renegotiation demands quite hard to read. Literally. My eye kept gliding past them, in an endless quest for something more interesting in the paragraph ahead. It was as if the word “subsidiarity” had been smeared in grease. I haven’t felt tedium quite like this since I read The Lord of the Rings and found I slid straight past anything written in italics, reasoning that it was probably another interminable Elvish poem. (“The wind was in his flowing hair/The foam about him shone;/Afar they saw him strong and fair/Go riding like a swan.”)

Anyone who writes about politics encounters this; I call it Subclause Syndrome. Smother anything in enough jargon, whirr enough footnotes into the air, and you have a very effective shield for protecting yourself from accountability – better even than gutting the Freedom of Information laws, although the government seems quite keen on that, too. No wonder so much of our political conversation ends up being about personality: if we can’t hope to master all the technicalities, the next best thing is to trust the person to whom we have delegated that job.

Anyway, after 15 cups of coffee, three ice-bucket challenges and a bottle of poppers I borrowed from a Tory MP, I finally made it through. I didn’t feel much more enlightened, though, because there were notable omissions – no mention, thankfully, of rolling back employment protections – and elsewhere there was a touching faith in the power of adding “language” to official documents.

One thing did stand out, however. For months, we have been told that it is a terrible problem that migrants from Europe are sending child benefit to their families back home. In future, the amount that can be claimed will start at zero and it will reach full whack only after four years of working in Britain. Even better, to reduce the alleged “pull factor” of our generous in-work benefits regime, the child benefit rate will be paid on a ratio calculated according to average wages in the home country.

What a waste of time. At the moment, only £30m in child benefit is sent out of the country each year: quite a large sum if you’re doing a whip round for a retirement gift for a colleague, but basically a rounding error in the Department for Work and Pensions budget.

Only 20,000 workers, and 34,000 children, are involved. And yet, apparently, this makes it worth introducing 28 different rates of child benefit to be administered by the DWP. We are given to understand that Iain Duncan Smith thinks this is barmy – and this is a man optimistic enough about his department’s computer systems to predict in 2013 that 4.46 million people would be claiming Universal Credit by now*.

David Cameron’s renegotiation package was comprised exclusively of what Doctor Who fans call handwavium – a magic substance with no obvious physical attributes, which nonetheless helpfully advances the plot. In this case, the renegotiation covers up the fact that the Prime Minister always wanted to argue to stay in Europe, but needed a handy fig leaf to do so.

Brace yourself for a sentence you might not read again in the New Statesman, but this makes me feel sorry for Chris Grayling. He and other Outers in the cabinet have to wait at least two weeks for Cameron to get the demands signed off; all the while, Cameron can subtly make the case for staying in Europe, while they are bound to keep quiet because of collective responsibility.

When that stricture lifts, the high-ranking Eurosceptics will at last be free to make the case they have been sitting on for years. I have three strong beliefs about what will happen next. First, that everyone confidently predicting a paralysing civil war in the Tory ranks is doing so more in hope than expectation. Some on the left feel that if Labour is going to be divided over Trident, it is only fair that the Tories be split down the middle, too. They forget that power, and patronage, are strong solvents: there has already been much muttering about low-level blackmail from the high command, with MPs warned about the dire influence of disloyalty on their career prospects.

Second, the Europe campaign will feature large doses of both sides solemnly advising the other that they need to make “a positive case”. This will be roundly ignored. The Remain team will run a fear campaign based on job losses, access to the single market and “losing our seat at the table”; Leave will run a fear campaign based on the steady advance of whatever collective noun for migrants sounds just the right side of racist. (Current favourite: “hordes”.)

Third, the number of Britons making a decision based on a complete understanding of the renegotiation, and the future terms of our membership, will be vanishingly small. It is simply impossible to read about subsidiarity for more than an hour without lapsing into a coma.

Yet, funnily enough, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Just as the absurd complexity of policy frees us to talk instead about character, so the onset of Subclause Syndrome in the EU debate will allow us to ask ourselves a more profound, defining question: what kind of country do we want Britain to be? Polling suggests that very few of us see ourselves as “European” rather than Scottish, or British, but are we a country that feels open and looks outwards, or one that thinks this is the best it’s going to get, and we need to protect what we have? That’s more vital than any subclause. l

* For those of you keeping score at home, Universal Credit is now allegedly going to be implemented by 2021. Incidentally, George Osborne has recently discovered that it’s a great source of handwavium; tax credit cuts have been postponed because UC will render such huge savings that they aren’t needed.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She has presented BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and is a regular panellist on BBC1’s Sunday Politics.

This article first appeared in the 11 February 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The legacy of Europe's worst battle