If Ed Miliband had indeed been toppled last week, or manages to trip and fall under one of those new Routemaster buses in the near future, or even just fails to win next May, which direction will Labour go in? Will a soft-left successor raise the scarlet standard of Milibandism, or would the party look back to its election-winning recent history and opt for a Blairite to lead it?
The problem is that in today’s party, Blairite stock has reached junk status. The brief, flickering hope among some last week that Alan Johnson could be persuaded to take over if Miliband was forced to quit, came to nothing. He was the last, best hope of what remains of the party’s Blairite tribe. And he wasn’t interested. Most of its other chiefs are no longer involved in frontline politics (think David Miliband, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Geoff Hoon, Hazel Blears, John Reid, Patricia Hewitt and Charles Clarke).
There will be no sequel. The circumstances that propelled Tony Blair to the Labour leadership and on to Downing Street were unique, a conjunction of the party’s desperation to win after four general election defeats in a row and Blair’s personal reputation as “the man the Tories most fear”. For Labour, for a long time, winning became all that mattered.
As a result, Blair enjoyed unprecedented latitude in shaping New Labour, fusing together the old right-wing of the party with the metropolitan leftists who had literally shaved off their beards, donned designer suits, binned most of their Eighties posturing and moved to the political centre.
Even the trade unions were on-board in those days, with the then Amalgamated Engineering and Electrical Union (forerunner of Unite) under Sir Ken Jackson, the most loyal of the lot. Only the remnants of the Bennite left were excluded from this big tent, and even a few of them, like Tony Banks and Chris Mullin, jumped ship to serve in Blair’s government.
Fast forward to today and it’s clear just how parlous the prospects are for contemporary Blairites. They enjoy none of the old master’s advantages. There is no working class base to build on. The old Labour right of the party feels short-changed that after 13 years in power, the north and midlands still lag behind London and the south east; demanding a focus on the heartlands rather that the marginals.
The metro-leftists, who flocked to Blair’s cause, have now reached their political dotage. For the new generation of activists, well to the left of the party mainstream, it will take several more years (and election defeats) before they make a similar journey to the centre.
The trade union movement, so important in providing finance, organisational muscle and political cover for Blair, (certainly initially) will no longer accept a policy platform of privatisation, contracting out and spending cuts. They have their own battles to fight, with the centre of gravity in the main affiliated unions, again, now well to the left of Labour’s.
The late Tony Banks, in explaining his own embrace of the New Labour project, once quipped that his members would “eat shit” to see a Labour government. Today’s party grassroots are nowhere near desperate enough to switch off their critical faculties, extinguish their idealism and countenance allowing the party leadership to do absolutely anything to win.
Moreover, Blairites no longer have a figurehead to unite around. None of the assumed frontrunners to become the next Labour leader (should a vacancy present itself in the next 18 months) are what we would describe as Blairites.
Chuka Umunna, a former acolyte of the centre-left Compass movement, has been careful in his brief as shadow business secretary not to do or say anything that falls outside the rubric of Miliband’s “responsible capitalism” narrative.
Andy Burnham, seen in the 2010 leadership contest as a Blair-lite candidate (but in reality, a product of the old Labour right) has done more than any other Labour figure to broaden his appeal over the past four years, using the health portfolio to become a darling of the grassroots, with Unite’s General Secretary, Len McClusky now tipping him as the union’s favoured successor (should a vacancy occur).
Again, Yvette Cooper has deep roots in the Labour movement (her father is a former senior trade union official) and has been careful throughout her long frontbench career to avoid reductive descriptions, but has certainly never been called a Blairite. Indeed, she like the other two surely realises that being described as such is the kiss of death in the modern Labour party.
Indeed, the best thing adherents to this dead religion can now do is abandon the very label “Blairite” and regroup as “modernisers”, building new alliances with other strands of thinking within the party, as Blair and Brown and others did twenty years ago. Eventually, this will distil into a viable new centrist movement within the party.
Tony Blair once joked that he knew his project would be completed when the party learned to love Peter Mandelson. It never did. But it doesn’t love him any more either. Its time his last remaining disciples faced up to that.