Lost opportunities the common theme of Labour, past and present

Blair looking back and

David Miliband .looking in both directions- it’s been a week of contemplation for Labour in unfamiliar opposition, as the coalition absorbs the pressures of government. Ironically the common theme of the former and the most likely future leader was lost opportunities, under Blair and under Brown. From Blair a confession; from Miliband a bold attack on Brown.

At the Institute of Government the former Prime Minister laid out his mistakes with some frankness and gave advice to his successors, regardless of party. The transcript is here and behind it, the videostream. This is policy director David Halpern’s take on Blair’s talk and answers to questions.

In a clear suggestion to his successors, Blair now wished it would have been possible to have had private, apolitical discussions with his predecessors about why they concluded what they did on policy.

In short, he admitted he had largely wasted his first term, it took them a while to realise that their early prescriptions weren’t up to the job. By the same token he wished he had seen earlier in his term that some issues required a very different and unique policy approach – such as social exclusion.

Some of his warnings were ones that the current government seems to have already heeded. For example, he said the 1997 incoming government viewed the ‘civil service as a Tory plot’.

What makes good politics

Perhaps most striking was Blair’s view that good politics boils down to good policy.

Blair deeply believes that under the ‘ideological wrapping’ of different parties and even countries, there are essentially technical and systemic issues that smart people can work their way through and ultimately would reach a similar conclusion.

Love it or hate it, this post-ideological view of the world is one that may seem strangely familiar when you listen to Cameron and Clegg.

Advice to future Prime Ministers
His final, practical advice to PMs that follow him echoes that of many senior ex-Ministers – get a grip on your diary and ensure that you have people around you who can really do project management.

Blair reckoned that, despite the importance he put on it, he spent less than 5% of his time on policy. And when a crisis like foot and mouth came along, it could wipe out most of your time for six months. It’s just part of the job, but somehow you have to find a way to keep the progress on the things you got elected to do.

Compare the lessons learnt byTony Blair with the task ahead for Labour, as seen by the leading candidate David Miliband in a lecture criticising the leader whom Blair never mentioned – Gordon Brown.

Miliband the former young Blairite steers sway from the yearning for the ideal.  

Ideological uncertainty, administrative methods and a recession that threatened real depression did for us. But it was deeper. We lost the trust of the people and in a democracy that’s a very big problem.”

He said of Brown: “I supported and voted for him. I agreed that we needed greater moral seriousness and less indifference to the excesses of a celebrity-drenched culture. I agreed with him when he said that we needed greater coherence as a government, particularly in relation to child poverty and equality.

“I agreed with him on the importance of party reform and a meaningful internationalism … I agreed that we needed a civic morality to champion civility when confronting a widespread indifference to others. But it didn’t happen.

“It was not just more of the same. Far from correcting them, failings – tactics, spin, high-handedness – intensified; and we lost many of our strengths – optimism born of clear strategy, bold plans for change and reform, a compelling articulation of aspiration and hope.

“We did not succeed in renewing ourselves in office; and the roots of that failure were deep, not recent, about procedure and openness, or lack of it, as much as policy.”

Miliband pinpointed a “lack of democratic discussion, the hollowing out of the party,” and said that “our administrative and managerial methods meant we were seen as a fearsome but not attractive political machine, and the ugliness of that kind of politics. We did not come to represent a new dawn, but another government whose time had passed.”of technocratic state of his former mentor.

Miliband includes Blair in his criticisms but more circumspectly than in his frank deconstruction of Brown.  The ironic references to Blair’s “new dawn” on that first morning and to celebrity in power will not be missed.  However great their rivalry and  the differences between them, the striking thing is that Miliband sees similar failures in both.  

But is Miliband’s new vision thing enough to resonate with movers , shakers and voters?  Not yet, I think. Work in progress. Having disposed  of the past pretty crisply, he has yet to chart a  route for the party’s future that will seem inevitable – after they’ve arrived.

Adds    From the soap opera of  New Labour, a coda from  Peter Mandelson, locked in a race with Tony Blair to get his memoirs out first. You have to buy the Times to read the full version. The fact that the Labour leadership put up with the debilitating feud for so long is a kind of tribute  to  the  Blair-Brown dominance, and the weakness of the rest of them. 

In the case of Gordon, he goes through three phases: pre-’94; ’94 to 2007 and 2007 to 2010. And the middle period, as I recount in the book, was awful. That was when he [Brown] kept saying to me: ‘Why are we doing this to each other? We’ve killed each other. It’s no fun. It doesn’t make being a minister any more enjoyable – you know, we’ve got to stop it.’ But no sooner had he said that to me then we’d be off again in the same sort of cycle.”

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London