Regulars round these parts know I’m not a fan of Tony Blair. I don’t think much of his record in office, though I do recognise his legacy was more complex than Iraq and neoliberalism with a smile. Nor was I too enamoured of his new year interventions, which were widely read as a pop at Ed Miliband. If you can’t say anything nice, then don’t say anything at all in my humble opinion. Well, a month on and there’s been a bit of a volte-face. The Observer reported on a reconciliation between the offices of the former and current leader, with Blair apparently happy to do whatever the party requires of him in the general election campaign.
Most fellow lefties would probably say thanks but no thanks to that, but there are still plenty of Labour Party members and supporters that do like him. Whisper it, even a few trade unionists do too. And outside the lefty echo chamber and the frothing comment boxes of The Graun and Telegraph, there are still some people broadly supportive of Blair in the real world. Tory journalists might scratch their heads with faux puzzlement as to why Labour’s most successful leader makes many party members come out in a rash, but there will be voters who don’t follow the ins and outs of politics who could well be thinking the same thing. For every vocal anti-Blair hater, there is likely to be a few more quiet folk happy to give him time.
Making use of Blair in the election campaign, of weaponising him, might therefore not be as daft as it sounds. But how? Former leaders are always tricky to deploy. They threaten the reopening of old controversies, and could grab the limelight from the current leader. It’s always best to keep them in the background in a supportive, auxiliary role. At least so goes the received wisdom. The participation and handling of Blair however is doubly complex and tricky. Labour’s immediate problem is not the drift of its voters over to the Tory camp as per “normal” elections but the fracturing of its coalition, as per Scotland and, to a lesser extent, the Greens. Blair’s not likely to assist with the job of winning softer voters among these groups back to Labour. The same goes for bits of the working class vote that abandoned Labour before 2010 and are now happy to vote UKIP.
How to make use of Blair? By treading very carefully. Were I in charge of the campaign, there are three possibilities that come to mind. The first would have him do various pro-business-type events already on the campaign grid. Again, the claims Labour’s manifesto will be anti-business is idiocy straight from the 1992 Tory playbook. Nevertheless, there are some centre/centre rightish voters who aren’t necessarily politically clued up that might be swayed by nonsense of this sort – I’d draft him in to support Chuka Umunna on occasion, and front the odd business-focused fundraiser. Having Blair publicly endorse Labour’s Keynes-lite policies could help out in the odd marginal and rebut this silliness.
That brings me on to the second. This depends on the whims of the media of course: setting up interviews where Blair puts the Blairite case for voting Labour. These would be moments in the campaign, talking points for commentariat, and are bound to attract wider coverage. They’re not without their dangers, however. He might go off-piste and a savvy interviewer could use it to score points/open controversies. Best get Andrew Marr in, then.
Lastly, Blair should hit the campaign trail, but only in specially selected constituencies. A few south east marginals, perhaps the Scottish borders, the odd seat that turned Labour in 1997 and only went back to the Tories in 2010, here a bit of Blair visibility might assist and win over the waverers.
This begs the question, why does Blair want to help? According to wiser heads than I, this is all about positioning. Alan Milburn and John Hutton caused a minor stir with their comments about Labour’s NHS policy last week. I’m all for retro and nostalgia, but their prescriptions for more markets – sorry, “choice” – were something of an unwelcome throwback not at all related to Milburn’s post-Parliamentary career as a private health consultant. Understandably quite a few Labour people were peed off, not least in the leader’s office itself. Therefore Blair’s return, if it can be called that, is a way of throwing off any stigma of disloyalty by mucking in. That way any post-Miliband leadership candidate most associated with the Blairist tradition, which is looking increasingly like Liz Kendall should we not win come May, will not be tarred by the treachery brush.
Maybe that, or perhaps Blair as a party member would just like to see Labour win.