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

Show Hide image

Will Euroscepticism prove an unbeatable advantage in the Conservative leadership race?

Conservative members who are eager for Brexit are still searching for a heavyweight champion - and they could yet inherit the earth.

Put your money on Liam Fox? The former Defence Secretary has been given a boost by the news that ConservativeHome’s rolling survey of party members preferences for the next Conservative leader. Jeremy Wilson at BusinessInsider and James Millar at the Sunday Post have both tipped Fox for the top job.

Are they right? The expectation among Conservative MPs is that there will be several candidates from the Tory right: Dominic Raab, Priti Patel and potentially Owen Paterson could all be candidates, while Boris Johnson, in the words of one: “rides both horses – is he the candidate of the left, of the right, or both?”

MPs will whittle down the field of candidates to a top two, who will then be voted on by the membership.  (As Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 Committee, notes in his interview with my colleague George Eaton, Conservative MPs could choose to offer a wider field if they so desired, but would be unlikely to surrender more power to party activists.)

The extreme likelihood is that that contest will be between two candidates: George Osborne and not-George Osborne.  “We know that the Chancellor has a bye to the final,” one minister observes, “But once you’re in the final – well, then it’s anyone’s game.”

Could “not-George Osborne” be Liam Fox? Well, the difficulty, as one MP observes, is we don’t really know what the Conservative leadership election is about:

“We don’t even know what the questions are to which the candidates will attempt to present themselves as the answer. Usually, that question would be: who can win us the election? But now that Labour have Corbyn, that question is taken care of.”

So what’s the question that MPs will be asking? We simply don’t know – and it may be that they come to a very different conclusion to their members, just as in 2001, when Ken Clarke won among MPs – before being defeated in a landslide by Conservative activists.

Much depends not only on the outcome of the European referendum, but also on its conduct. If the contest is particularly bruising, it may be that MPs are looking for a candidate who will “heal and settle”, in the words of one. That would disadvantage Fox, who will likely be a combative presence in the European referendum, and could benefit Boris Johnson, who, as one MP put it, “rides both horses” and will be less intimately linked with the referendum and its outcome than Osborne.

But equally, it could be that Euroscepticism proves to be a less powerful card than we currently expect. Ignoring the not inconsiderable organisational hurdles that have to be cleared to beat Theresa May, Boris Johnson, and potentially any or all of the “next generation” of Sajid Javid, Nicky Morgan or Stephen Crabb, we simply don’t know what the reaction of Conservative members to the In-Out referendum will be.

Firstly, there’s a non-trivial possibility that Leave could still win, despite its difficulties at centre-forward. The incentive to “reward” an Outer will be smaller. But if Britain votes to Remain – and if that vote is seen by Conservative members as the result of “dirty tricks” by the Conservative leadership – it could be that many members, far from sticking around for another three to four years to vote in the election, simply decide to leave. The last time that Cameron went against the dearest instincts of many of his party grassroots, the result was victory for the Prime Minister – and an activist base that, as the result of defections to Ukip and cancelled membership fees, is more socially liberal and more sympathetic to Cameron than it was before. Don’t forget that, for all the worry about “entryism” in the Labour leadership, it was “exitism” – of Labour members who supported David Miliband and liked the New Labour years  - that shifted that party towards Jeremy Corbyn.

It could be that if – as Brady predicts in this week’s New Statesman – the final two is an Inner and an Outer, the Eurosceptic candidate finds that the members who might have backed them are simply no longer around.

It comes back to the biggest known unknown in the race to succeed Cameron: Conservative members. For the first time in British political history, a Prime Minister will be chosen, not by MPs with an electoral mandate of their own or by voters at a general election but by an entirelyself-selecting group: party members. And we simply don't know enough about what they feel - yet. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.