That parts of the Labour Party still love Blair so much ought to worry the ‘new’ leadership

They cheer for Blair because he is not Miliband, who they fear will lose in 2015

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The relationship between a current leader and a former one is always complex. Tony Blair may be a well-behaved éminence grise but, like Margaret Thatcher and Ted Heath, he views the present mainly through the prism of his political past. Given that Ed Miliband has defined his leadership as a break from the New Labour era there are bound to be moments when the current leader is at odds with the former one.

The intensity of the adulation for Blair at yesterdays’s Progress event was genuine and, for Miliband, cause for concern. Blair received a rapturous reception when he walked on to the stage. Subsequently the audience gave him three standing ovations. They did so for lots of reasons. Partly they know that their friend, former colleague or political hero has been widely vilified and they want to show him their defiant appreciation. But they do so also because they see him as a guide to the future as well as the past.

They cheer because he is not Miliband, who they fear will lead their party to defeat. They turn once more to the three-time election winner to navigate them towards a vaguely defined Promised Land. The feverish scale of the idolatry has an echo with meetings of the more fervent Thatcherites after the Tories’ 1997 defeat, when either Michael Portillo or sometimes the Lady herself would speak to them in an atmosphere close to worship.  The dynamic then was a sign of a disturbed party, troubled by the unresolved battles of the recent past and uncertain of the immediate future.

Blair can judge better than any public figure in the Western world how to play different events. Yesterday he insisted several times that he wanted Labour to win the next election and delivered no damning quotes. Nonetheless the differences between Blair and Miliband are stark. There was one vivid contrast played out yesterday. In Washington, Miliband’s closest ally Stewart Wood wrote an article highlighting the “post-crash challenges” for progressive parties. Both Miliband and Wood believe that the 2008 financial crash was an epoch-changing event that requires radical solutions. In his speech yesterday Blair argued “what the financial crisis doesn’t alter is as important as what it does”. There is plenty of space in these words for Miliband to claim he agrees with the former leader, but in reality they highlight a very different analysis and ideological outlook.

 

There is no surprise here. The two of them were on different sides of the internal battles that marked the New Labour era, conflicts that were in part ideological. But there is another reason why divergence is inevitable, one that makes the relationship between past and present leaders so fraught.

If Blair had won the leadership in 2010, when Miliband did, he too would have wanted to signal a break with the recent past. He would have done it differently to Miliband, but he would have known about the importance of moving on after electoral defeat. When Blair became leader in July 1994 he made an overt leap declaring his party to be “new” and the past to be “old”. A former leader from the old Labour era, Harold Wilson, was dead so could not give an equivalent speech to Blair’s yesterday – perhaps gently reminding a new leader that he had won four elections out of five as “old Labour”. Leaders are younger these days and their predecessors remain in the wings, full of political life, seeking to play a role.

Blair’s precise advice is fairly vague. Having listened to many of his speeches in recent years I find that general assertions are rarely backed up by detailed prescriptions in relation to the dilemmas that Miliband now faces. Partly Blair is being discreet, but that is not the sole explanation. Blair argues there is no left and right division any more, the only divide being between those who seek “open or closed” societies. The assertion might reflect his personal journey but to extrapolate a global trend from that is quite a leap. I can see what he means in relation to immigration, Europe and dealing with Ukip. On all of these, he is impressively forensic. But on other mighty issues, he offers no clear route map. Who pays for health and  elderly care when people are living longer? With good cause, Blair regretted the  closure of Sure Start centres, but does that mean he believes Miliband should pledge to reopen some? The answers will be determined partly by whether an advocate is on the left or right.

Blair sometimes chooses to occupy a comfort zone on the centre ground that can lead to muddled policy and a certain amount of ideological flexibility. Iraq was not an issue about Blair’s integrity, but is partly explained by his determinedly centrist expediency trapping him in a place that became dangerously inexpedient.

Still, Blair won three elections and his governments made a large and too-easily-forgotten difference to people’s lives. He still uses humour and accessible language to weave diverse themes into compelling patterns. Unless Miliband wins an election, Blair’s followers will look to the former leader for inspiration. Probably they will do so even if Miliband wins. Labour’s discipline and is matched by an impressive will to win. But on strategy and policy they remain haunted by the past.

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