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

Photo: Getty Images
Show Hide image

The Fire Brigades Union reaffiliates to Labour - what does it mean?

Any union rejoining Labour will be welcomed by most in the party - but the impact on the party's internal politics will be smaller than you think.

The Fire Brigades Union (FBU) has voted to reaffiliate to the Labour party, in what is seen as a boost to Jeremy Corbyn. What does it mean for Labour’s internal politics?

Firstly, technically, the FBU has never affliated before as they are notionally part of the civil service - however, following the firefighters' strike in 2004, they decisively broke with Labour.

The main impact will be felt on the floor of Labour party conference. Although the FBU’s membership – at around 38,000 – is too small to have a material effect on the outcome of votes themselves, it will change the tenor of the motions put before party conference.

The FBU’s leadership is not only to the left of most unions in the Trades Union Congress (TUC), it is more inclined to bring motions relating to foreign affairs than other unions with similar politics (it is more internationalist in focus than, say, the PCS, another union that may affiliate due to Corbyn’s leadership). Motions on Israel/Palestine, the nuclear deterrent, and other issues, will find more support from FBU delegates than it has from other affiliated trade unions.

In terms of the balance of power between the affiliated unions themselves, the FBU’s re-entry into Labour politics is unlikely to be much of a gamechanger. Trade union positions, elected by trade union delegates at conference, are unlikely to be moved leftwards by the reaffiliation of the FBU. Unite, the GMB, Unison and Usdaw are all large enough to all-but-guarantee themselves a seat around the NEC. Community, a small centrist union, has already lost its place on the NEC in favour of the bakers’ union, which is more aligned to Tom Watson than Jeremy Corbyn.

Matt Wrack, the FBU’s General Secretary, will be a genuine ally to Corbyn and John McDonnell. Len McCluskey and Dave Prentis were both bounced into endorsing Corbyn by their executives and did so less than wholeheartedly. Tim Roache, the newly-elected General Secretary of the GMB, has publicly supported Corbyn but is seen as a more moderate voice at the TUC. Only Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union, who lent staff and resources to both Corbyn’s campaign team and to the parliamentary staff of Corbyn and McDonnell, is truly on side.

The impact of reaffiliation may be felt more keenly in local parties. The FBU’s membership looks small in real terms compared Unite and Unison have memberships of over a million, while the GMB and Usdaw are around the half-a-million mark, but is much more impressive when you consider that there are just 48,000 firefighters in Britain. This may make them more likely to participate in internal elections than other affiliated trade unionists, just 60,000 of whom voted in the Labour leadership election in 2015. However, it is worth noting that it is statistically unlikely most firefighters are Corbynites - those that are will mostly have already joined themselves. The affiliation, while a morale boost for many in the Labour party, is unlikely to prove as significant to the direction of the party as the outcome of Unison’s general secretary election or the struggle for power at the top of Unite in 2018. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.