Tony Blair attends the 2013 CCTV's China Economic Person Of The Year Award on December 12, 2013 in Beijing. Photograph: Getty Images.
Show Hide image

Blair on Miliband: disagreement, but also consensus

The two men remain at odds over the financial crisis, but there is a meeting of minds over the EU. 

At the start of his speech at Church House in Westminster, the venue where he celebrated his election as Labour leader 20 years ago, Tony Blair declared: "I only ever want Labour to win." He made the point again in the Q&A that followed. On one level this was remarkable: why wouldn't the man who served as Labour leader for 13 years want his party to win? But of course on another it was not. Upon his election as Labour leader, Ed Miliband broke unambiguously with New Labour, the political project Blair founded, and has never wavered from this stance since. 

Ten months away from a general election, the former prime minister was too shrewd to be explicitly critical of Miliband, but his disagreement could be easily detected. He argued that the financial crisis was not a great turning point, but one that "simply reinforces what we have always known". For Miliband, by contrast, the crash was the disastrous collapse of an economic model that had failed Britain for three decades, and proof of the need for fundamental reform. Blair takes a far more modest view: "we adjust, we reform, we regulate and supervise with the knowledge of this experience". He warned that the crash "doesn't mean that the whole private sector is somehow contaminated". Miliband would not dissent from that, but it is clear that Blair disagrees about the level of market intervention now required (he is privately critical of policies such as the 50p tax rate and the energy price freeze). 

On public service reform, too, Blair is in a different place to his party. In a line that could have been delivered by Michael Gove, he called for Labour to be "iconoclastic in reshaping public services" and to be prepared to take on its own "interest groups" (for which read the trade unions). Frustrated at how the Tories have claimed ownership of education reform, he called for the party to "be leading the battle of ideas", adding that "where, as with the Academy programme, the Tories are forced to follow, that should be a matter for rejoicing, not anguish." When Blair urged progressives to "relax" about "a certain convergence of thinking with the centre-right" it was an acknowledgment that he often now agrees more with Conservatives than he does with his own party. 

But if the disagreement was striking, so were the points of consensus. Blair praised Miliband's speech at the National Policy Forum for its rigorous focus on "value for money" and argued that the party's recent policy work - the Adonis review, IPPR's Condition of Britain - "brilliantly" confronts "the hard realities we face with new policy solutions at a time of limited resources". He warned that the crash "doesn't mean that people have fallen back in love with the state", a point that Miliband made repeatedly in his recent Hugo Young Memorial Lecture and that has defined Jon Cruddas's policy review. 

It was on Europe, though, that the overlap was most notable. Blair passionately denounced the Tories for allowing UKIP ("a backward force that doesn't offer anything for our country") to shape their stance and said it was "important to give Ed credit" for making "the right call" (that Blair is prepared to publicly praise some of his stances is evidence that he disagrees with others). With Miliband promoting the case for EU membership as part of his US trip, one Labour strategist told me that this intervention, and Blair's other supportive words, were "helpful". 

While the ideological differences between Blair and Miliband will likely never be bridged, both sides are relieved that they have found something to agree on. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Getty
Show Hide image

Leave will leap on the immigration rise, but Brexit would not make much difference

Non-EU migration is still well above the immigration cap, which the government is still far from reaching. 

On announcing the quarterly migration figures today, the Office for National Statistics was clear: neither the change in immigration levels, nor in emigration levels, nor in the net figure is statistically significant. That will not stop them being mined for political significance.

The ONS reports a 20,000 rise in net long-term international migration to 333,000. This is fuelled by a reduction in emigration: immigration itself is actually down very slightly (by 2,000) on the year ending in 2014, but emigration has fallen further – by 22,000.

So here is the (limited) short-term significance of that. The Leave campaign has already decided to pivot to immigration for the final month of the referendum campaign. Arguments about the NHS, about sovereignty, and about the bloated bureaucracy in Brussels have all had some utility with different constituencies. But none has as much purchase, especially amongst persuadable Labour voters in the north, as immigration. So the Leave campaign will keep talking about immigration and borders for a month, and hope that a renewed refugee crisis will for enough people turn a latent fear into a present threat.

These statistics make adopting that theme a little bit easier. While it has long been accepted by everyone except David Cameron and Theresa May that the government’s desired net immigration cap of 100,000 per year is unattainable, watch out for Brexiters using these figures as proof that it is the EU that denies the government the ability to meet it.

But there are plenty of available avenues for the Remain campaign to push back against such arguments. Firstly, they will point out that this is a net figure. Sure, freedom of movement means the British government does not have a say over EU nationals arriving here, but it is not Jean-Claude Juncker’s fault if people who live in the UK decide they quite like it here.

Moreover, the only statistically significant change the ONS identify is a 42 per cent rise in migrants coming to the UK “looking for work” – hardly signalling the benefit tourism of caricature. And though that cohort did not come with jobs, the majority (58 per cent) of the 308,000 migrants who came to Britain to work in 2015 had a definite job to go to.

The Remain campaign may also point out that the 241,000 short-term migrants to the UK in the year ending June 2014 were far outstripped by the 420,000 Brits working abroad. Brexit, and any end to freedom of movement that it entailed, could jeopardise many of those jobs for Brits.

There is another story that the Remain campaign should make use of. Yes, the immigration cap is a joke. But it has not (just) been made into a joke by the EU. Net migration from non-EU countries is at 188,000, a very slight fall from the previous year but still higher than immigration from EU countries. That alone is far above the government’s immigration cap. If the government cannot bring down non-EU migration, then the Leave argument that a post-EU Britain would be a low-immigration panacea is hardly credible. Don’t expect that to stop them making it though. 

Henry Zeffman writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2015.