Blair returns: does the Labour Party miss him?

Last Tuesday Tony Blair returned to the Labour Party front-line when he gave a speech to his former sedgefield constituents. In his speech he praised Gordon Brown as the man who made the brave and correct decisions at the right time regarding the economy, “It required leadership. Gordon Brown supplied it”, and criticised the Conservatives for offering nothing more than change for change sake, describing the “time for change” mantra as “vacuous”.

With Blair’s speech, does this signal a return for the former leader in the upcoming election campaign – a campaign set to be one of the closest in history? Further, does the Labour Party miss Tony Blair? Indeed, he is the man who led the Party back from the precipice into Government after 18 years in the wilderness.

Bringing Blair back some might say would be a public relations disaster. They might justifiable point out that he – as prime minister – oversaw one of the most un-popular political decisions in modern history with the War in Iraq. Then again, as un-popular as the War was, and still is, Blair still managed to lead Labour to yet another comprehensive electoral victory two years after the 2003 Iraqi invasion in 2005. Indeed, in an election with everything to fight for I think all Parties should be using all the tools they can to secure support from the electorate. Indeed, the power of a formidable former leader – despite the individual decisions which defined their term(s) in office – should not be understated. Both Blair and Brown held high profile, ‘informal’ and ‘friendly’ conversations with former Conservative ‘iron lady’ Margaret Thatcher shortly after coming to office. This move was seen as an indication that the Party was willing to overcome strictly partisan lines, but to also attempt to cling in part to any last vestiges of power still surrounding Miss Thatcher and her public image. So equally, Tony Blair must be utilised by Labour in their forthcoming election campaign, and he should be utilised to full effect. Since he is now out of office, and out of the Parliamentary Party, he can use his high profile, and still popular, public image to affirm his support for Gordon Brown in a way he was unable – and probably deterred – to do when he was in office. Blair also has those precious qualities all politicians crave – a friendly and approachable charisma, adept at wooing television audiences and judging public mood with aplomb. A re-call to the infamous “lady’s princess” moment springs to mind here.

Blair summed up Labours main obstacles to electoral success aptly when he said last Tuesday; ”The tough thing about being in government, especially as time marches on, is that the disappointments accumulate, the public becomes less inclined to give the benefit of the doubt, the call for ‘a time to change’ becomes easier to make, the prospect of change becomes more attractive,”. In essence, it’s the simple fact that Labour has been in Government for such a long time. Indeed, it certainly does become easier when one is stuck with the ‘same old’ to start rebutting the current norm with its ‘time for change’. Undoubtedly the Conservatives are also attempting to catch on to the popular Obamaesque mantra of ‘change’ also. What Labour must do, and what I have consistently advocated, is to draw the Conservatives into a debate on the hard policy details they propose to implement if re-elected. The Conservatives are devoid of real policy substance – as the recent Chancellors debate showed on channel 4- and the forthcoming television debates between the party leaders will provide an excellent opportunity for the experienced Brown to up-stage the in-experienced and vacuous Cameron. Blair has judged the current political climate correctly yet again, and involving him in the campaign trail will reap more rewards than negative consequences.

So with Tony Blair back in the media spotlight, the question has arisen whether the Labour Party misses him? Sure, any political party will miss a strong, effective and popular leader much like a football team would miss a former effective, successful and popular manager. But like football, political tactics change over the course of time, and a new breed of players come to the fore requiring a different type of leadership to move forward. It would of course be political suicide to involve Blair in an election campaign as a way to subvert the role Brown would play.

Tony Blair oversaw a radical change in the Labour Party and British politics. He successfully – along with other key players like Kinnock, Smith, Mandelson and Brown – completely re-branded a political party from Labour to New Labour. He shed the cobwebs that had long tarnished the party with a new ideology some called the third way, and successfully maintained its links to the left without being constrained by the old leftist ideals of the seventies. New Labour became acceptable to modern business, where previously Labour had been seen as un-workable with business, and the Party became acceptable to former right wing stalwarts such as Rupert Murdoch and The Sun newspaper. Gordon Brown was very much part of the New Labour tide which swept British politics, but he now finds himself in a Party where many of the former big-guns like Hoon, Clarke and Hewitt have now left the scene. Instead Brown is faced with a youthful and ambitious bunch consisting of Milliband, Benn, and Balls, aware that New Labour cannot hang on to the successes of its past if it is to continue to progress and stay in Government.

Perhaps there are some within the ‘New’ part of ‘New’ Labour who miss Tony Blair. Certainly Blair dealt effectively with the issue of the Party’s links to the Unions which is now rearing its head again. But, the current economic climate and subsequent pressures on business were bound to lead decisions unpopular to workers and ultimately strikes. The question is whether Brown can affectively deal with the Unions like Blair did. At present it’s a mixed bag, with the failure to intervene and prevent the BA cabin crew strikes, contrasted with the victory in the High Court’s preventing a strike by rail workers on April 6th (the likely day the forthcoming election date will be announced). Finally, if the Tories only line of attack against Blair’s presence on the Labour campaign trail is by reference to the animosity between him and his then Chancellor Brown, one should remind them that it was the Tory Party themselves who ousted their most successful leader in modern history by way of a messy, conceited, and dramatic coup. Labour do not miss Tony Blair, but he can certainly vouch for the strong leadership credentials and sense of purpose abundant in Gordon Brown that Britain needs and the Labour Party needs to move forward.

This election is beginning to bare some uncanny similarities to the pre-1992 election atmosphere. A Government who has been in office for successive terms under a leadership many consider to be failed, with a leader who has been unable to capture the spark and aura of his predecessor and who the party’s past and current success is largely based upon, and a youthful opposition leader claiming to be a new manifestation of his Party whilst criticising a worn-out Government and promising change. The Labour Party really does face the fight of their lives, and electoral success will require Labour Party members to mobilise in ways not seen since 1997. High profile Labour Party members like Tony Blair, John Prescott and Alistair Campbell, can only benefit the campaign for a fourth term in Government.

First published April 04th 2010

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