“You must stop calling me a Blairite,” a prominent New Labour figure barked at me the other day. How strange, I thought, that the name of a leader who won three general elections has become a dirty word in his own party.
At the Labour conference two years ago, Tony Blair’s name was booed during the speech of Ed Miliband, who didn’t know how to react. He had won the leadership on a “not Blair” ticket but knew that the jeers would appal some people who had voted for the former Prime Minister. Mr Miliband didn’t condemn the hecklers at the time, but criticised them later. A Blair-like third way.
Close allies say Mr Miliband wants to “move on from the labels of the past.” Forget Old and New Labour; we are all One Nation Labour now. Naturally, every party leader wants to play happy families. But Mr Miliband is finding it hard to keep everyone smiling.
When he reshuffled his Shadow Cabinet last week, he demoted three Blairites – Liam Byrne, Jim Murphy and Stephen Twigg. Their moves leaked out before the official announcement, and the media sniffed a “cull of the Blairites”, which is not what Mr Miliband intended. With hindsight, it would have been better to have leaked early the promotions of other Blairites. By the time they were announced, the die was cast.
The Conservatives were delighted. Exiling the Blairites fitted neatly with their claim that Labour is “lurching to the left”. The Tories dubbed the Labour reshuffle the “Blair Ditch Project.” But their celebrations were premature. On Sunday, important media interviews were given made by two of Labour’s rising stars – Tristram Hunt, the uber-Blairite promoted to shadow Education Secretary, and Rachel Reeves, the new shadow Work and Pensions Secretary, who would once have been described as a Labour right-winger. Mr Hunt appeared to soften Labour’s position on the free schools championed by Michael Gove, the Education Secretary. Ms Reeves seemed to harden Labour’s line on welfare, claiming it had a tougher policy than the Tories on denying benefits to claimants who turn down job opportunities. In fact, both frontbenchers were reiterating Labour’s existing policy, but they communicated it more forcefully – and, crucially, had been encouraged to do so by Mr Miliband. “We’re lurching to the centre ground,” was the joke that wizzed round Labourland.
The Conservatives are not laughing now. “Hunt and Reeves were bloody good,” one downcast senior MP told me. “If Labour can eliminate their negatives on welfare and education, we have a problem.”
Team Miliband insists their man is not lurching anywhere. “It’s not about left, right or centre,” one ally said. “The reshuffle was about promoting people with talent who ‘get’ his One Nation project. It was not about tribal markings.”
That’s all very well. But there are choices to be made and signals to be sent. Mr Miliband will not prevent the media pinning labels on him, even if they are sometimes unfair.
Whatever Mr Miliband’s distaste for Blairism and his determination to be different, to win a majority in 2015 he will need to build a coalition stretching beyond Labour’s core vote. That will mean appealing to the same people Mr Blair attracted.
This explains why David Cameron and George Osborne are targeting floating voters who want “a strong market economy and decent public services,” and why the Liberal Democrats offer a “stronger economy and fairer society.” They are all chasing one-time Blair voters now. Love him or hate him, you can’t write Mr Blair out of the script.