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.