Wednesday, 16 May 2012

Return of the New Labour Big Beasts

Just when he thought it was safe to oppose alone, carving out his own narrative and winning over exiled lefties, along comes some unexpected cheerleaders. The New Labour crew have returned, piggybacking on Ed Miliband’s (or more accurately, Labour’s) recent surge in the polls.

Fresh from spreading pearls of wisdom in the Middle East, uniting the world’s faiths, and advising dictators on economic and political reform, Tony Blair has joined Lord Mandelson in rallying round the Labour leader. Or so it seems.
According to a scoop back in March, The Sun revealed that Miliband and Blair had been in secret talks about strategy and the need for the party to be ‘at the centre ground of British politics.’

Now he’s popped up again, with his chum Mandelson by his side, with yesterday’s Financial Times (£) headline: “Blair to back Labour’s economic strategy.” The paper stated that:
“Tony Blair and Lord Mandelson are to add their weight to Labour’s calls for a renewed emphasis on growth in a sign that the big beasts of the New Labour era are returning to the cause to help make the party’s case on the economy.”

No doubt Ed will feel emboldened by this soon to be very public backing of his and Ed Balls’ ‘too far, too fast’ mantra.

The question that the party faithful will be asking is whether a New Labour intervention strengthens, weakens, or even undermines Ed Miliband’s standing.
If his main line of attack on the government receives the thumbs up from one of the party’s most successful double acts, then this surely shows that he is on the right track, knows what he’s doing, and most crucially for the voters, is economically competent.

Yet, it may also weaken him. Ed has declared, from the moment he took over, that New Labour’s time has passed, with a new generation waiting in the wings. The insular and destructive Blairite-Brownite feuds have been consigned to history. Will they now be re-opened? An acknowledgement of some past mistakes has been made, time to look forward. This drags Labour back.
It has been argued that Ed must be his own person and ‘take on the Blairite zombies:’

“The Labour leader has been successful when he's been bold: standing for leader, opposing Murdoch, making the case for a new economic model.
“As long as he is threatened internally, he will look weak. So he needs to pick a fight with a leading Blairite and win – to show who is in charge.”

But, Blair’s foray into front line British politics is intended to back Ed. The question is what comes next. If Tony Blair does make a full-time return, as some have speculated, there could be many more Blairist incursions to come. And you can bet they won’t all be as glowing.
In terms of undermining Ed Miliband, Blair’s presence will act as a constant reminder (to himself, the party, and the public) as to the size of the shoes that need filling. The stature and gravitas of the two men will invite endless comparisons.

However, there is a feeling that Blair is yesterday’s man, no longer the powerful force he once was. A recent poll found that only 24% of people would be more likely to vote Labour if he, rather than Ed, was leader, with 40% less likely. Amongst Labour voters in 2010, the figures were roughly reversed, with 40% more, and 21% less likely. Not exactly a ringing endorsement.
The likely outcome of all this is that Ed Miliband will have to do even more to show that he is his own person, be enthused and delighted for the cameras for any support that comes his way, but privately hope that the New Labour entourage give him a wide berth and sticks to self-promotion and after dinner speeches.

This article was first published by Shifting Grounds on Wednesday 16 May 2012

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