Today marks the real return of Tony Blair to the domestic political debate, after an absence of six years. Whilst he has dipped his toe in the water before, today he’s taken off his shoes and socks, rolled up his trousers and had a good old splash about in the British body politic.
It will be largely written up by the press as a (not especially subtle) critique of Ed Miliband. And, to be frank, that’s exactly what it is. It surely will come as no surprise to anyone who follows British politics that whilst Ed Miliband thinks he needs to move on from New Labour, Blair thinks the choice is New Labour or bust. There’s plenty of scope for critique, and Blair has gone for it quite hard.
It doesn’t take a mind reader to realise that Blair considers Labour to have moved to the left on the economy, and to the right on Europe and on immigration. Nor does it take a clairvoyant to imagine that Blair thinks Miliband has aligned himself with the wrong crowd (Blair would never, for example, have been seen as leader on a TUC demo or speaking to the Durham Miner’s Gala). But as critiques go, it’s not especially inflammatory.
I disagree with his prospectus for where Labour needs to go next, but I take his point especially about Labour needing to more clearly define what we’re for. The big, broad, brushstroke themes of our policy agenda. That’s a fair and accurate criticism. That’s one I’ve made myself.
But what did annoy me about Blair’s piece, was this phrase:
“we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion”
I’m sorry Tony, but – with the greatest respect – that’s just wrong. What our party absolutely does not need, is more bloodless, dispassionate aloof politics. We don’t need more politicians who can talk a good game about (for example) welfare policy, but are absolutely ruthless, brutal and bloody “dispassionate” about implementing it.
This argument also fatally fails to understand the politics of this particular moment. In a way that’s understandable – Blair has been out of power for nearly six years, and living in a rarefied environment for sixteen years – but it also means that his advice should be taken with a pinch of salt. He speaks with the dispassionate detachment on what one might called the Davos Left.
Those of us still dwelling here – back on planet earth – are living through a period of immense political economic and societal flux, and it rightly inspires passion, anger, fury and discontent. But it can also, if handled correctly, be a time for hope and ambition too. Now is not a time to be “dispassionate” – not when so much damage is being done to our society – our problem is that there’s insufficient passion. Considering what the Tories are trying to do to the country, we should be hugely passionate – furious even. And nor should the Labour Party, seeing the harm being done – deliberately – to the disabled, the poor, the unemployed or the homeless, simply turn away in favour of a dispassionate analysis of GDP stats. That way lies bloodless technocracy.
But worse, Blair – a man fabled for his instinctive understanding of people – also fails to understand that passion is an essential part of political success in a social media age. See how Stella Creasy, Tom Watson or even Louise Mensch have crafted a media profile driven by online engagement – that’s certainly not dispassionate. See how Alastair Campbell’s – passionate – blog and Twitter feed have become essential reading. See how Glenda Jackson’s passionate denunciation of Thatcherism in the commons has gone viral online overnight. That kind of passion – carefully channeled – is exactly what Labour will need if we are to convince the public to back us, especially those who – under Blair, it must be said – stopped voting.
The somewhat tart response from the party suggests they won’t be losing much sleep over Blair’s critique. I’m not sure I will be either, but what’s sad is that a politician who was once as instinctive reader of what the public needed to hear has developed political tinnitus after so long away from the day to day public conversations that are – in the most fundamental way – the building blocks of politics.
Because if he was speaking to those who once voted for him, rather than those to whom he now speaks, he might find that a little more passion is the very least that’s expected.