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The Blairite case for Ed Miliband

John McTernan, formerly Tony Blair’s political secretary, says the new Labour leader mustn’t be afra

When I was Tony Blair's political secretary, one of the best pieces of advice he ever gave me was "You don't have to break both their legs, John." While I protested that I did all my politics through logic and sweet reason, I got his point:  our actions and our arguments should be finely calibrated. New Labour at the outset and at its best had perfect pitch. It was a tone that showed we were at ease living in the modern world, and it profoundly disconcerted the Conservative Party. It was only the election of David Cameron as party leader in 2005 that showed that our opponents were starting to embrace modern, diverse, tolerant Britain.

As Cameron moved closer to the public - "detoxifying the brand", in the political jargon - the Labour government became more distant. The dominant tone became harsh and strident. It was as if every argument had an underlying drumbeat: "We're right, you're wrong." This almost certainly undermined our attempts to push forward on public-service reform. It's not that we were wrong - what Labour did in government raised standards of education and transformed health care. But we couldn't re­discover that tone. (We couldn't take staff with us. We felt that we were in such a rush that we couldn't take time to stop and sell.) Cultural change is a complex thing and that is what we had embarked on. However, our model of management was too crude, based as it was on the search for levers. The problem was that we were trying to move people, not boulders.

Stop shouting

Shortly after Gordon Brown became prime minister, I attended a 50th birthday party. When other partygoers (mainly teachers) learned that I worked for the government, they queued up to tell me how pissed off they were with Labour. New school buildings, pay rises, cuts in poverty, rights at work - nothing mattered. On an emotional level there was a disconnection. Shortly afterwards, I was back in No 10 for a briefing to discuss party tactics; we would attack vested interests such as doctors and teachers, who were getting in the way of change. "The thing is," I said, "most of the public think we're the vested interest preventing things getting better." Our solution? To shout louder. But when has anyone been persuaded to change by being shouted at by a stranger?

Today, the profound gap between Labour and the public has to be bridged. Ed Miliband has made the right start both in style and in substance. His conference speech defended New Labour's record but recognised the need to be given "permission" to be heard again. His ruthlessness in blocking Nick Brown's appointment as chief whip showed that he understands the need to break with the worst brutality of the past.

Miliband knows he has to own the centre ground of British politics, but it is, to steal from Gerhard Schröder, a new centre. The new leader has received some misguided advice from Blairite sources. Tim Allan, a former adviser to Blair, recently claimed that for Miliband to say that some bankers were paid too much made Ed anti-aspiration. No, he's anti-overpaid bankers - and that is a correctly popular position to take at the moment.

An equally erroneous piece of advice is one that urges Miliband to take a hard line on crime and immigration. This is based partly on gut
instinct, reflecting back what activists heard on the doorstep from voters deserting Labour during this year's general election campaign. But
it is also backed by polling that shows Labour fell well behind the Tories on these issues. In most complex situations there is a solution that is simple, easy and wrong. The advice from Blairites such as Paul Richards on how Labour should approach crime is no exception. The argument goes: return to a John Reid-style hard line on crime, expose Theresa May and Ken Clarke as soft, and watch the working-class vote return. But this requires Labour to fall straight back into a harshness of tone that alienated voters over the past five years.

The tactical opportunity is obvious, but, on a strategic level, to move to the right on crime could be catastrophic. It would return Labour to the shrill monotone, describing a world in which punitive interventions were the only response to crime. No role for hope, rehabilitation or mitigation. That ground would be ceded to the Tories.

Politics out of prison

Better by far to return to where New Labour started - "Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime" - rather than where we ended - "Tough on crime, tough on criminals". The aim? Not just a softening of tone, but a bi­partisan approach to law and order. To take the politics out of crime would be a major tactical victory. Cameron and Clarke are locked in conflict about prison places. A senior civil servant described Cameron to me as "someone who definitely believes in prison".

Unfortunately for the Prime Minister, the Treasury definitely doesn't, nor, it would seem, does Clarke. And, as the spending axe is sharpened, who realistically wants to be the one arguing for cutting capital to schools and hos­pitals in order to build more prisons? Better, surely, a critique of rising crime that links back to our economic analysis ("causes"), attacks failures of prevention and rehabilitation (undermining the coalition's competence in the process) and articulates a politics of hope.

This is a risk, but we need to take risks if we are to get back into the game. The point of New Labour was to question accepted wisdom. That has to be as true of the rigidity in our own thinking as it is of the rigidities we see in public service and private markets. Over to you, Ed.

John McTernan was Tony Blair's political secretary between 2005 and 2007. He worked on the 2007 Labor Party election campaign in Australia.

This article first appeared in the 18 October 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Who owns Britain?