Blair and Miliband face off as the Labour machine runs out of steam

Image courtesy of the Daily Mirror

Oh dear.

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.

The great governmental omnishambles

George Osborne and Andrew Mitchell with Sir John Parker, chair of Anglo-American plc in happier terms before the reshuffle when Mitchell was development secretary.

At a fringe event during the Conservative party conference recently, former secretary of state for Wales, Cheryl Gillan said that in order for the party to win the general election in 2015 they needed to restore their reputation for competence.

She said the frequent and painful U-turns and political embarrassments such as the ‘pasty tax’ fiasco and the First trains financial fiasco undermined the Conservatives traditional reputation for order and competence compared with the ideological chaos and woolly headedness of the left.

However, if she told her MPs what she told the grass roots party members in the meeting, then it has obviously fallen on deaf ears.

Since plebgate, the furore over former chief whip Andrew Mitchell allegedly shouting and swearing at a Downing Street police officer who did not allow him access to the street on his bicycle, which was bubbling away throughout the conference season their record has read more like an episode of the Thick of It than the actions of members of the G7.

First there was the surprise announcement from the Prime Minister that the government were planning to force energy companies to put all customers on their cheapest tariff available, a move widely regarded as unworkable and anti-competitive.

Then, his already unpopular Chancellor George Osborne, added fuel to the fire by first dismissing the green lobby as the “environmental Taliban” and then instigated what Twitter called the “great train snobbery” by accidentally sitting in a first class train carriage with a standard class ticket and refusing to move.

What should have been a small piece of gossip for lobby journalists to pass around Westminster soon mushroomed into a minor political scandal thanks to an ITV news reporter, Rachel Townsend who happen to be on the same train and the modern, news hungry and slightly giddy force of hundreds of political journalists, bored and on Twitter on a Friday afternoon.

In the aftermath of Osborne’s ticket trauma, Mitchell was forced to fall on his sword by announcing his resignation despite being given the support of the Prime Minister and the 1922 committee of backbench Tories early in the week. They had previously derided calls for his dismissal as an attempt by the policing lobby to embarrass the government in shelving there cuts to the force.

George Osborne is not the first person to accidental get on a train with the wrong ticket and Andrew Mitchell is certainly not the first person to lose their temper with a police officer (although the typical person faces up to a £1000 fine for doing so in normal circumstances) but the in which they did it has provoked the ire of the public in the exact way the party’s press team was trying to avoid.

The long suffering Conservative party press team and their supporters in the right wing press have been at pains to re brand the Conservative party as a new, nicer antidote to the ‘nasty party’ of years past ever since the comparatively progressive David Cameron became party leader in 2005.

However the effect of their welfare cuts and their supposed assault on access to further and higher education through cuts to the Education Maintenance Allowance and the tuition fee rise has made the public turn away from their tentative (and effectively half hearted, given the election result) support for the Conservatives in 2010 and 2011 now that they the economy appears to be tanking once again with only millionaires appearing to benefit.

While instances of police abuse and fare dodging are not enough on their own to do much damage to the Conservative party image, the class snobbery that has tainted both episodes in a way the rest of the political establishment will not let them forget for awhile. This is especially bad when Ed Miliband and the left wing have controlled the media cycle for the past six months.

In the modern political era calling someone a ‘pleb’ and telling them to ‘mind their place’ is unforgivable (and would have been in poor taste fifty years ago anyway. Refusing to sit in standard class is slightly less of a PR disaster but in this current economic climate, for the man who is supposedly in charge of managing the UK economy it is especially insensitive.

So it looks like the upper class ‘nasty party’ will continue to dog the government until the next election (as Labour will never let them forget it). However, this tag does necessarily spell election defeat in times of economic hardship as the British public is always looking for a scapegoat to blame.

Right before they entered government, Cameron and the conservatives successfully changed the political narrative from the recession being cause by a global financial crisis that was exacerbated by the dangerously reckless actions of the world’s financial industries to a simple problem of spending too much of the government on public sector pensions.

And for at least a year, it worked. So did the proposed cap on child benefit and job seeker’s allowance. These were direct appeals to their middle englander voter base who have traditionally felt put upon by the UK’s tax system.

However, their cuts have become a narrative of ideological bullying of the most vulnerable members of society, particularly the obviously disabled, whilst the richest get away with tax dodging.

Now that the media cycle is against them, their only recourse is their traditional reputation for competence. The Conservatives, and stereotypically the right in general, have always been seen as the party that is strong and steady and not prone to internal chaos unlike New Labour under Blair and Brown.

Regardless of whether they agree with their policies or not, the Conservatives’ reputation as a strong leader is what the public want to believe in, in times of economic and social instability- therefore their constant U-turning and attempts to please will do nothing but ensure that Labour gets a majority in 2015, regardless of whether the economy improves or not.

After all, comparisons to John Major’s government between 1992-97 have been made frequently over the past few months, by 1997 the economy was in rude health but the Conservatives reputation was in tatters.