Ed Miliband is so scared of becoming Tony Blair he has forgotten how to communicate

Over the past four years there have been long periods of almost monastic silence from Miliband's office, allowing his opponents to dominate the agenda

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The Independent Online

Fifteen years ago, in the summer of 1999, it seemed there was only one viable ideology in town. Back when Tony Blair was a young, idealistic leader able to command the attention not just of Britain but the world his "Third Way", which synthesised left-wing social policies with right-wing fiscal ideology. It was promoted with equal enthusiasm by Bill Clinton, and dominated the political discourse at the time.

Today Blair remains damaged goods outside the narrow fan club of GQ magazine and some die-hard "Blairheads". But the Third Way is enjoying something of a revival. It has been embraced belatedly by President Hollande in France and with more conviction by Italy’s Matteo Renzi. Barrack Obama would find little to disagree with in its basic precepts. And while he’d be reluctant to admit it, even Ed Miliband with his "One Nation Labour" frequently harks back to the language of the Third Way.

Time then for an honest reappraisal of what it was all about and whether it still has anything useful to contribute to the presentation of centre-left thinking as the election approaches. 

At first sight the Third Way was an attractive route map. It felt like the political equivalent of the Cotwolds Way. Difficult going in parts, but essentially a manageable and invigorating march with the promise of a warm feeling of accomplishment – if not a warm pub – at the end of it.

Sadly, the appeal was short-lived. It came to represent more of a meander than a journey with a purpose So if it didn’t catch on the first time around, why try to tempt people back onto the path?

I say "sadly" because in my view the politics behind the Third Way were sound and durable. They continue to constitute part, though by no means all, of what any Labour programme with a chance of electoral success must embrace.

Professor Anthony Giddens, the intellectual guru of the Third Way, said it was based on a recognition that "socialism is dead as an economic doctrine”. Instead the intention was to “create a more humane capitalist society that continues the values of the left — equality, solidarity, protection of the weak - and that recognises the role of active government in achieving this.”

When given substance this remains the ideological magnet for progressive reform. An economy that offers opportunity and employment to the largest number of people on fair and equitable terms, a government that protects our national security and the personal security of all its citizens, and a fiscal framework that seeks over time to eliminate the inequalities of birth, race and sex is an offer of enduring appeal because it is right.

Presentationally, however, Third Way was a disaster, too easily derided as an exercise in smoke and mirrors.

 

For a start it tried to define itself by what it wasn’t rather than what it was. It wasn’t old Left (the state for the state’s sake – boo). And it wasn’t the new Right (laissez-faire individualism without a thought for the disadvantaged – double boo). It was something in between. And it appeared tactical rather than strategic. ‘Third’ brought to mind the three-sided geometry of the dreaded triangulation. Take what your enemies to left and right are saying and split the difference. Not much principle there.

Worst of all it seemed to encapsulate weakness and a failure to make hard choices. It sounded like a fudge, a sugary confection cooked up because the alternatives were too unpalatable for our sensitive tastes.

That two gifted communicators like Bill Clinton and Tony Blair should have stuck with it with such tenacity for so long is surprising. In their defence I would say that they were genuinely immersed and engaged with the politics of the Third Way, to such an extent that they lost sight of how it appeared to the majority of people unwilling to follow them into the thickets of the policy detail.

And having attended two lengthy Third Way seminars as a member of Blair’s communications team, in Washington and Florence in 1999, I can testify that the detail was copious, the scope wide-ranging and the ambition over-arching. But for those of us employed to sell it rather than to give it substance it presented real challenges.

I remember Bill Clinton in Florence telling Alastair Campbell that he “loved this stuff”. Alastair was characteristically blunt. “You’re sick.” I did manage to persuade the BBC to air a lengthy late night discussion on the event hosted by Andrew Rawnsley, but I’ve a feeling the audience may have been confined to the core constituency of political anoraks and insomniacs.

Interestingly the Florence meeting was never branded as a Third Way event because the French prime minister, Lionel Jospin, refused to attend if it was. So it was dressed up as "Progressive Governance for the Twenty-First Century". And while Jospin then was no more successful at articulating a coherent strategy than Francois Hollande is today, he was right to insist on the name change. Now in the UK, Ed Miliband’s attempts to formulate his own definition of progressive governance have been uncertain and too often unfocused. His enthusiastic response to the election of Mr Hollande, on a programme that was unreformed and unconvincing, was one of the low points. That the French President has now repositioned himself much closer to the radical centrism of the Third Way is telling. But handbrake turns in political direction while in office are never edifying and rarely persuasive. At the risk of stating the obvious, it is much better to set your GPS correctly before setting off.

Miliband has put a great deal of thought and effort into doing just that. We are lead to believe – and must certainly hope – that over the next few months we will get a much clearer picture of what a Labour Britain in 2015-2020 would look like. Unfortunately in communications terms it will be too late.

When Bill Clinton wasn’t indulging his enthusiasm for lengthy policy discussions, he was a master of election-winning strategy. “Never stop communicating” was one of his early pieces of advice to Tony Blair and it was a lesson our most successful leader by a country mile never forgot. For all their differences, both Blair and Gordon Brown appreciated the critical importance of seeking to dominate the news agenda. Indeed it was Brown even more than Blair who insisted that Labour had to find stories to grab the headlines day in and day out. If we didn’t, he argued, the Tories would. And he was right.

 

In his haste to distance himself from all things New Labour, Ed Miliband appears to have forgotten – or deliberately rejected – that key component of successful leadership. It was a judgement call – albeit a mistaken one in my view – not to defend the record of Labour in office from 1997-2010 and to allow the Tory narrative on the economy and the Blair/Brown public spending programme to go unchallenged. But to abjure the belief in constant communication was to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

I am the first to concede that spin and over-zealous media management did our cause more harm than good. The collective efforts of those of us employed to present Labour’s case as effectively as possible resulted in most people by 2010 thinking the party had achieved less in government than it actually had. There can be no better definition of failure than that. But the remedy for the harm done by communications on Viagra is not communications on Valium.

Over the past four years there have been long periods of almost monastic silence from the leader’s office. For the first of those lost years there was perhaps a case for keeping a low profile on the grounds that the public didn’t want to hear from the lot they had just rejected at the ballot box. But in that time the Tory narrative, enthusiastically endorsed with breath-taking hypocrisy by the Liberal Democrats, had taken hold.

If Miliband’s objective was to start afresh with a clean sheet of paper, unburdened by the failures – real or perceived – of the past then he left it far too late. If those of us every bit as eager as he is to see Labour return to power after just one term in opposition don’t know what vision we are supposed to be espousing then there is little hope of the public getting it. It is another truism that seems to have been forgotten that only when you have repeated your best lines so often that you’re sick of hearing them is there any likelihood of a largely uninterested public noticing.    

Communications alone is not a strategy. But progressive policy development without communications is sterile political onanism. Miliband has professionals around him who know what a good story is and would have no difficulty getting it into the media. The froth around Ed’s supposed weirdness is just that, froth. It took hold and became the Labour story for far too long because the party wasn’t giving the media or the public anything more interesting to talk about.

If on May 8 2015 we wake up to find David Cameron still in Downing Street, it will not be because Labour failed to develop an alternative programme for government. Much cleverer people than me will have seen to it that we have policies in abundance. But the failure to articulate those policies and weave them into a coherent narrative that is both compelling and comprehensible will be seen as a major contributing factor.

The Third Way may have had its faults, but fifteen years on we are still talking about it. There’s a real risk that come 2030 people will be scratching their heads asking, “One Nation Labour, now what was that all about?” Assuming, that is, they can remember it at all.

Lance Price was a special adviser to Tony Blair and Labour Party Director of Communications from 2000 – 2001.

A version of this article first appeared in the Young Fabian magazine, Anticipations.

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