Nick Clegg leaves the Hall Park Centre after casting his vote in the AV referendum on May 5, 2011 in Sheffield. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Why Labour's "decapitation strategy" could help Clegg keep his seat

Local voters resent outside interference and Lib Dem activists will be encouraged to rush to their leader's defence.

For Labour, talk of a future coalition with the Lib Dems is politically dangerous. Party strategists fear that the prospect of Ed Miliband entering government with Nick Clegg in just over a year's time could be viewed by Lib Dem defectors as "permission" to return home. With Labour's poll lead heavily reliant on this group (it enjoys the support of around a quarter of 2010 Lib Dem voters), the party needs to do all it can to discourage this impression. 

Ed Miliband, then, has been quick to dismiss Clegg's latest overtures. While no longer insisting that the Lib Dem leader's departure would be a precondition of any coalition agreement (in common with Ed Balls), he told Daybreak: "What I'm looking for is a majority Labour government. There are such big issues that the country faces, I think Nick Clegg should be worried about the Liberal Democrats." Today, the party is briefing that it has launched a "major bid" to defeat Clegg in his Sheffield Hallam constituency at the next election, with one NEC source declaring that it is "pouring resources" into the seat. 

Whether these "resources" amount to more than a few extra leaflets is unclear. As I said, the story has much more to do with conveying the broader message that Labour isn't going soft on Clegg. But given his dismal approval ratings and the large student population in the area, the Deputy PM might be thought an easy target. Yet for several reasons, the odds are against Labour taking the seat. For a start, Clegg currently enjoys a majority of 15,284, making him the safest Lib Dem MP in the country. In 2010, Labour finished in third place with just 16.1 per cent, 3,812 votes behind the Tories (it has never won and last finished second in 1979) and 19,096 behind Clegg. That Labour chose not to make the seat one of its 106 targets suggest that it recognises there is little prospect of advancing to first. 

In October 2010, a Lord Ashcroft poll put Labour just two points behind the Lib Dems (33-31) but recent council election results suggest the party's vote is holding up better than many expected. In a by-election in the suburb of Fulwood last year, for instance, it won 400 more votes than in 2012. 

Labour's decision to explicitly target the seat could, if anything, tilt the odds further in Clegg's favour. Lib Dem activists now have an excuse to rush to their leader's defence (albeit potentially drawing valuable resources from other seats), while local voters are likely to resent interference by outsiders with little knowledge of the constituency. For the latter reason, no prominent "decapitation strategy" has succeeded in recent times. As Lord Ashcroft wrote (see p. 304) of the Lib Dems' attempt to oust prominent Tories, including Oliver Letwin, David Davis and Theresa May in 2005, "My polling uncovered many interesting facts, including that voters in the Liberal Democrats' decapitation seats were less inclined to vote against the sitting Conservative MP when they were told of the decapitation motivation...Oliver Letwin clearly understood the message because when he was interviewed by Ann Treneman of the Times during the campaign, he asked her to use the word 'decapitation' a lot because he said it would help him to get elected"

In 2010, the Tories similarly failed to oust Labour heavyweights such as Ed Balls, Jack Straw and John Denham. The smart money is on Clegg continuing this trend. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Tony Blair might be a toxic figure - but his influence endures

Politicians at home and abroad are borrowing from the former prime minister's playbook. 

On 24 May at Methodist Central Hall, Westminster, a short distance from where he once governed, Tony Blair resurfaced for a public discussion. Having arrived on an overnight flight, he looked drawn and puffy-eyed but soon warmed to his theme: a robust defence of liberal globalisation. He admitted, however, to bafflement at recent events in the world. "I thought I was pretty good at politics. But I look at politics today and I’m not sure I understand it."

Blair lost power in the summer of 2007. In the ensuing nine years, he lost reputation. His business ventures and alliances with autocrats have made him a pariah among both the public and his party. A YouGov poll published last year found that 61 per cent of voters regarded Blair as an electoral liability, while just 14 per cent viewed him as an asset. In contrast, John Major, whom he defeated by a landslide in 1997, had a neutral net rating of zero. It is ever harder to recall that Blair won not one general election (he is the only living Labour leader to have done so) but three.

His standing is likely to diminish further when the Iraq inquiry report is published on 6 July. Advance leaks to the Sunday Times suggest that he will be censured for allegedly guaranteeing British military support to the US a year before the invasion. Few minds on either side will be changed by the 2.6 million-word document. Yet its publication will help enshrine Iraq as the defining feature of a legacy that also includes the minimum wage, tax credits, Sure Start, devolution and civil partnerships.

Former leaders can ordinarily rely on their parties to act as a last line of defence. In Blair’s case, however, much of the greatest opprobrium comes from his own side. Jeremy Corbyn inclines to the view that Iraq was not merely a blunder but a crime. In last year’s Labour leadership election, Liz Kendall, the most Blair-esque candidate, was rewarded with 4.5 per cent of the vote. The former prime minister’s imprimatur has become the political equivalent of the black spot.

Yet outside of the Labour leadership, Blairism endures in notable and often surprising forms. Sadiq Khan won the party’s London mayoral selection by running to the left of Tessa Jowell, one of Tony Blair’s closest allies. But his successful campaign against Zac Goldsmith drew lessons from Blair’s election triumphs. Khan relentlessly presented himself as “pro-business” and reached out beyond Labour’s core vote. After his victory, he was liberated to use the B-word, contrasting what “Tony Blair did [in opposition]” with Corbyn’s approach.

In their defence of the UK’s EU membership, David Cameron and George Osborne have deployed arguments once advanced by New Labour. The strategically minded Chancellor has forged an unlikely friendship with his former nemesis Peter Mandelson. In the domestic sphere, through equal marriage, the National Living Wage and the 0.7 per cent overseas aid target, the Conservatives have built on, rather than dismantled, significant Labour achievements."They just swallowed the entire manual," Mandelson declared at a recent King’s College seminar. "They didn’t just read the executive summary, they are following the whole thing to the letter."

Among SNP supporters, "Blairite" is the pejorative of choice. But the parallels between their party and New Labour are more suggestive than they would wish. Like Blair, Alex Salmond and Nicola Sturgeon have avoided income tax rises in order to retain the support of middle-class Scottish conservatives. In a speech last August on education, Sturgeon echoed the Blairite mantra that "what matters is what works".

Beyond British shores, political leaders are similarly inspired by Blair – and less reticent about acknowledging as much. Matteo Renzi, the 41-year-old centre-left Italian prime minister, is a long-standing admirer. "I adore one of his sayings,” he remarked in 2013. “I love all the traditions of my party, except one: that of losing elections."

In France, the reform-minded prime minister, Manuel Valls, and the minister of economy, Emmanuel Macron, are also self-described Blairites. Macron, who in April launched his own political movement, En Marche!, will shortly decide whether to challenge for the presidency next year. When he was compared to Blair by the TV presenter Andrew Marr, his response reflected the former prime minister’s diminished domestic reputation: “I don’t know if, in your mouth, that is a promise or a threat.”

The continuing attraction of Blair’s “third way” to European politicians reflects the failure of the project’s social-democratic critics to construct an alternative. Those who have sought to do so have struggled both in office (François Hollande) and out of it (Ed Miliband). The left is increasingly polarised between reformers and radicals (Corbyn, Syriza, Podemos), with those in between straining for relevance.

Despite his long absences from Britain, Blair’s friends say that he remains immersed in the intricacies of Labour politics. He has privately warned MPs that any attempt to keep Corbyn off the ballot in the event of a leadership challenge would be overruled by the National Executive Committee. At Methodist Central Hall, he said of Corbyn’s supporters: “It’s clear they can take over a political party. What’s not clear to me is whether they can take over a country.”

It was Blair’s insufficient devotion to the former task that enabled the revival of the left. As Alastair Campbell recently acknowledged: “We failed to develop talent, failed to cement organisational and cultural change in the party and failed to secure our legacy.” Rather than effecting a permanent realignment, as the right of the party hoped and the left feared, New Labour failed to outlive its creators.

It instead endures in a fragmented form as politicians at home and abroad co-opt its defining features: its pro-business pragmatism, its big-tent electoralism, its presentational nous. Some of Corbyn’s ­allies privately fear that Labour will one day re-embrace Blairism. But its new adherents would never dare to use that name.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad