Tony Blair is back, admittedly in a minor role. Is this a good or bad thing for the Labour party? What you think depends on how you view Blair’s record in government, yet recent history is the part of history most open for debate and disagreement. To coin something Tony said, “The Kaleidoscope has been shaken. The pieces are in flux.” The pieces are still settling, five years on from Blair’s Downing Street exit.
Despite what some say, he was an incredibly successful leader of the Labour party. It may be true he started from an advantageous position against a crumbling Tory government. And it may be true he lost significant numbers of voters throughout his time in No. 10. Yet he was successful because in so many ways he changed the order of things. You may disagree with what he did, but there is no denying he was achieved a lot of what he set out to achieve. The reformation of the Labour party, getting the press onside, increasing government spending, the minimum wage, civil partnerships… Over 13 years of New Labour the country entered a new phase of liberalism – economically and socially – that changed this country (largely for the better). As a political operator, Tony Blair was a master: who else would receive the support from the Guardian and the Express at the same time? This means he is not a bad choice to help the party.
I am also pleased about Blair’s return to the Labour party because it serves as an indicator of Ed Miliband’s internal support. At times it has seemed the centrist wing of the party was more inclined to support the coalition on issues like public sector reform, welfare reform and the deficit, leaving the Labour party hopelessly isolated. Having the whole of the party behind Miliband will look more secure as leader and will take him closer to public opinion and improve the quality of Labour’s ideas.
However, I end with two caveats. Those who think a high-profile Blair returning to the political fore-front with the same old ideas would improve Labour’s election chances are wrong. Since Blair left Downing Street in 2007 the political scene has changed. Blair did not have to cope with the economic crash, the deficit, austerity or eurozone crisis, all of which contributes to a gloomier country. The answers the big economic questions of the next election will not be found in New Labour nostalgia.
It is clear a lot of what Blair supported is not popular with voters now. Obviously elections are won in the middle, where Blair sat firmly. He was a social democrat, a liberal, a moderate, a reformist and a radical: an electable leftie for the left, a moderate pragmatist for the centre-right. However, today a lot of the things he is most associated with are attacked. The Left moan about unregulated bankers protected by the state; Murdoch and politicians being too cosy; the “filthy rich” being allowed to pay little tax; and the war on terror in Afghanistan and Iraq. These moans are often pinned on New Labour. The Right complain about the deficit and what they see as uncontrolled immigration, over the top human rights legislation, welfarism and loss of sovereignty to Europe. These are all also pinned on New Labour. Blaieris also tainted with the image of a The Thick Of It slippery PR man, misleading the public and going off to earn lots of money after leaving Downing Street. Scepticism of politicians has increased post-Blair; New Labour’s spin tactics may not be as effective now.
None of this means Ed Miliand shouldn’t look to the help of Tony Blair and his supporters; it just means he has been right to recognise New Labour needs a revamp.