Just when Labour thought it was safe to come out from behind the sofa. Just as the coalition’s benefit reform fails to liven up the party mood. Just when they thought they were on the upward swing. Tony Blair happened.
Unlike his successor, the Honourable Member for Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath, whose rare appearances in the House have become a Parliamentary Event, he is forever rising from the shadows and scuppering all of Ed Miliband’s plans.
This time, he has been criticising Miliband’s perceived tack to the left in an opinion piece for the New Statesman‘s centenary edition last week.
Blair argued despite the public protests, anger and hatred of the current coalition government, it would be dangerous to assume the centre ground of public opinion had shifted to the left.
At the same time, a new poll by Ipsos MORI said one in four respondents did not think Miliband was ‘ready to be Prime Minister’.
For so long it seemed to be going so well. After Miliband’s barnstorming performance at conference last year where he debuted his new ‘One Nation Labour’ rhetoric and reached out to the younger generation. That speech and the quick recovery of their high poll lead during Cameron’s EU referendum announcement gave the Labour camp a great deal of confidence as they fit themselves into the mould of ‘crusaders against the cuts’.
But, as always, with confidence comes complacency. The party’s continued lack of policy is starting to bite despite their protests that it is too early in the election cycle. This, coupled with the death of Margaret Thatcher, has seen Labour’s poll lead halved to 40 per cent against the Conservatives’ 33 per cent.
Simply put, Blair’s intervention could not have come at a worst time. Unlike most former leaders, Tony Blair may have gone down the ‘international statesman’, after dinner speaker route but he has not gone quietly. His previous public statements about wanting to be Prime Minister again and the defence of his record over Iraq.
While Cameron may be able to dine out on the legacy of Thatcherism, Blair will remain a constant thorn in Miliband’s side. He is the constant reminder of Labour’s recent past and Miliband cannot completely reassure the electorate that they are ready to be let loose on Number 10 again while he lurks in the shadows.
Miliband and his closet advisers believe the New Labour project was corrupted by a fear of Thatcherism and too much deference to the super-rich financial elite. Its halfway house between free markets and socialism allowed unscrupulous business practice to flourish as they underwrote rather than eradicated inequality.
Blair would be better off either shutting up or having a quick word with Jon Cruddas. His public interventions, whether well meant or not, only remind the public of Labour’s recent past. The 2010 election was not just lost by Gordon Brown. After 13 years the people had become tired of the ballooning deficit, the wars and the sense that the government which had swept to power so triumphantly to power in 1997 was no longer listening to them.
It is frankly remarkable that Miliband has managed to reinvent the party so quietly and kept the infighting to a minimum. In effect, Labour went through their first ‘years in the wilderness’ while they were still in office under Gordon Brown from 2007 to 2010. They seemed determined to tear each other apart over their failure before they’d even lost.
The problem is though; Tony Blair is right.
Labour has not been out of office long enough to really re-surge in the style of 1997. But if it is going to manage to hold onto its poll lead and become the majority party in 2015 it needs to get a grip. It cannot keep relying on the unpopularity of the current government and become the party of blind protest.
The coalition government is set to lose the next election but that does not mean Labour will win it. They are currently positioning themselves as the party opposed to everything and for nothing.
To be fair to the Miliband and his advisers the same criticism was leveled at Cameron during his time in opposition to Brown as it is a typical political move.
But these aren’t typical political times.
People are unusually disenfranchised by the ‘politispeak’ of politicians as they still frantically try to appeal to everyone and please no-one. Labour is in danger of listening to what it thinks people are saying like it did in the eighties and could find itself on the wrong of history.
We have been here before. Thatcher’s reforms destroyed communities around the country but it took ten to twenty years for people to truly recognise the effects. These reforms by Cameron will similarly take as long to disseminate.
People are not as opposed to them as you would think. The prevailing attitude of anyone questioned about welfare reform is that ‘genuine’ claimants should not be penalised but the overall system is broken. Yes, immigrants make up a tiny proportion of all claimants. Yes, there is no such thing as a life long benefit claimant.
But in politics truth and reality are powerless against the vagaries of the public’s attention. They are determined to blame immigration, the EU and the bankers for all their woes. No political intrigue will stop that.
Miliband may think he is doing what is right. But principle without power is futile.