Times have changed – and Tony Blair is very much behind them

New Labour’s policies have reached the limit of their electoral acceptability

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The Independent Online

The wizard communicator of yesteryear, Tony Blair, complains thus: “My remarks have been misinterpreted. I fully support Ed and my party and expect a Labour victory in the election.” What are we humble voters to make of this, rather abject, correction from a three-term prime minister?

For a tweeted statement so ostensibly simple, there are at least three plausible ways of looking at it. First: at face value. He genuinely did not realise that something he had said in an interview with the Economist would be interpreted as disapproval of Ed Miliband and his policies and a forecast that he would lose. He did not intend to give this impression and wishes to clarify.

Second: as gentle criticism from an insider. The original gloss placed on his remarks was correct. He had wanted to send a warning to Miliband, but wishes he had expressed the same sentiments more subtly, so they must now be disowned in the higher cause of party unity. Divided parties tend not to carry conviction at the ballot box.

Or third: the Machiavellian – that Blair understands that his own unpopularity with a large proportion of the electorate could be an electoral liability, so he is deliberately distancing himself from his successor-but-one in the hope that these (and other expressions of) misgivings will work to Labour’s advantage.

Among the responses to the former Prime Minister’s accidental, deliberate or misinterpreted remarks – to the effect that Miliband had taken the Labour Party to the left and that no party could win from the left in Britain any more – a couple were blissfully unambiguous. One followed Blair’s “correction” and ran – in varying degrees of unprintability – you’ve had your time; now keep out of the way.

The other came from the vice-chair of Labour’s election campaign, Lucy Powell, and it boiled down to a more sophisticated version of the same thing. She told the BBC that, while she had “a great deal of respect” for Blair, he was a politician “from another era” and the “challenges” (a New Labour weasel word if ever there was one) were now different. 

It has to be said that Powell has not received the best of publicity since Miliband gave her the election role late last year. But her response this time around cannot be faulted. The British public has got used to the idea of having a young-ish elder statesman who swans around the world expensively advising others on the basis of his own – now questionable – record. But they prefer their elder statesmen to speak on domestic politics only when absolutely necessary (Sir John Major’s rare and restrained words of wisdom; Gordon Brown’s tour de force when his fellow Scots seemed seriously tempted by independence). They do not want them becoming embroiled again in party politicking, least of all when their interventions suggest – as with those recently from Blair – a belief that they have a right to a privileged say.

You could argue that if Blair wants to play a part in British politics again, he should intimate his openness to the offer of a seat in the House of Lords. It is hard to see how a peerage could be denied to a past prime minister who was never defeated at the ballot box, and he would have a legitimate forum in which to present his views.

 

Now it may be that the conclusions of the Chilcot Inquiry, finally due – at the best guesstimate – soon after the election, will make it tricky for Blair to return to British politics, even as a life peer in a still unreformed House of Lords. But the mis-sold and ill-conducted war in Iraq is not the main reason why Blair would be ill-advised to seek a speaking part in the coming election campaign. 

When Lucy Powell described Blair as being “from a different era” she hit the nail squarely on the head. The political battles that he fought to make Labour electable (the abolition of Clause Four, the tolerance of pecuniary success), and the policies that are associated with New Labour in office (“light-touch” regulation, out-privatising Thatcher, a generosity on migration without precedent) have probably reached the limits of their electoral acceptability.

For all that David Cameron has denied being the “heir to Blair”, his response to not winning an overall majority at the last election was a Coalition that effectively co-opted much “New Labour” thinking. Electoral expedience dictates that Cameron keep this quiet– and his own centrism has surely contributed to Ukip’s rise. But the result is that the political territory colonised by Blair with such success is no longer Labour’s to claim.

This leaves not just Miliband, but also voters, in a quandary. Both the “traditional” parties, as Blair referred to them, are ideologically split between their fundamentalists and their centrists. So both leaders have a hard job deciding where to pitch their appeal, and voters find it difficult to discern where they stand. Blair’s frothy blast from the simplicity of a generation past adds a complicating distraction that absolutely no one needs.

Why was the Tour de Yorkshire’s founder so ignored?

Six months on, do you remember the enthusiasm generated by the Tour de Yorkshire – as last year’s Grand Depart for the Tour de France came to be known? The way that habitually rival cities worked together, the way people thronged the roads to cheer, the way everyone had such a joyful time and put Yorkshire on the international map?

Celebrating all this as a one-time Sheffielder, I forecast that the inspiration for much of this, Gary Verity of the region’s tourist board, would be knighted “for services to Yorkshire”.

A number of Yorkshire readers wrote to correct me. Verity, they said, had incurred the displeasure of the powers-that-be for prevailing over their preference for London or pre-referendum Scotland. Well, they were right and I was wrong. The only honour for anyone associated with the Tour de Yorkshire, an MBE, went to a local government official in Leeds.

The Yorkshire Post waxed indignant at Verity’s omission, contrasting it with the bevvy of honours for those associated with Glasgow’s Commonwealth Games. It’s possible, I suppose, that time and distance militated against Verity, although I leave you to judge what this says about all the supposed support for regionalism from Westminster. But if it’s true that a grudge lurks behind this decision, that is more than ungenerous: it’s ignoble. Mary Quant had to wait 40 years to be made a dame; here’s hoping that Verity won’t wait as long.

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