The excitable media reaction to Tony Blair’s announcement that he would seek to serve a full third term obscured three critical issues – the need for Labour to win the election, the need to ensure a successful third term, and the need to secure an orderly succession. Despite the Tories’ lamentable showing in Hartlepool, the next election is still far from won. Labour voters could desert to the Liberal Democrats or, more likely, simply stay at home. The government’s majority could be drastically reduced, so much so that Labour would no longer be by-election-proof or, in the
worst case, would be deprived of an overall working margin. It is
in this context that Blair’s announcement needs to be assessed.
Labour went into the conference season apparently in poor shape. The Blair-Brown partnership, for so long the mainstay of the government, was under strain, while back-bench revolt and division over Iraq was constantly in the headlines. There was a feeling that, despite its achievements, the government had lost momentum. The conference and holding Hartlepool helped Labour pull together and strengthened Blair’s leadership. His statement was his way of saying that he would lead Labour into the next election and would not be bounced into an early retirement. It was also a reminder that he was still, despite Iraq, an electoral asset. Blair may not be loved, but he is still respected as a strong leader. And, as his continuing support among Labour MPs in marginal seats suggests, he retains much of his rapport with Middle England. Reassuring these voters that he intends to be around after the general
election will strengthen rather than weaken the party’s chances.
After conference and the Blair announcement, Labour may be in a stronger position to win a majority. However, it needs
to win on a positive rather than a negative platform – otherwise
there is the danger that a third-term Labour government, like that of John Major in the 1990s, will simply disintegrate under pressure. In recent weeks, there has been a somewhat phoney debate between the Blair and Brown camps about the shape of the manifesto. It is right that Labour fights the next election on its achievements, especially in health, education and employment. Yet centre-left parties do not normally win by referring only to the past. They have also to set out a road map for the future. Here the series of policy documents on key issues agreed by the whole cabinet provides a useful source of new ideas around which the party should be able to unite.
I hope that the government will also demonstrate that it has recovered its nerve over Europe. If Labour is to win the referendum on the European constitution that is likely to follow the general election, cabinet ministers will need to start explaining why British involvement in the European Union is essential to the United Kingdom, including why the constitution is a benefit and not a threat to us.
As to the succession to Blair, that is not in his gift, but will be decided by Labour’s electoral college. But he has a responsibility to try to ensure that the leadership issue does not dominate the third term and that the leadership election, when it comes, does not destabilise the party. In particular, he has to be fair to Gordon Brown. Brown has been an exceptional chancellor, but he has also sometimes been an uncomfortable colleague.
It will also be up to the Chancellor to make his contribution to restoring the Blair-Brown partnership to full health. He will need to be more of a team player and exercise greater control over his followers.
The past fortnight has demonstrated that, unless he is forced out by electoral defeat or some other unforeseen event, Blair is still very much with us. Those who are anti-Blair will have to accept this political reality. Those of us who think that he is still an electoral asset and believe, despite his mistakes, that he is a strong and effective leader are pleased that he has reasserted his authority.
Giles Radice is a Labour life peer and the author of the recently published Diaries 1980-2001 (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £25)