Keep to centre of political spectrum, Blair urges Miliband

Former leader’s comments come amid internal Labour rancour

Former British prime minister Tony Blair said “no political philosophy today will achieve support unless it focuses on individual empowerment, not collective control”. Photograph: PA

Former British prime minister Tony Blair said “no political philosophy today will achieve support unless it focuses on individual empowerment, not collective control”. Photograph: PA

Tue, Jul 22, 2014, 01:00

Former British prime minister Tony Blair warned Labour leader Ed Miliband to stick to the middle-ground of politics, saying that voters hurt by the economic crisis since 2008 have not “fallen back in love with the state”.

In a speech in London marking 20 years since he took the Labour helm, Mr Blair said “no political philosophy today will achieve support unless it focuses on individual empowerment, not collective control”.

His declaration comes amid significant internal rancour within Labour about the type of policies it should offer in its 2015 general election manifesto, with some quarters arguing that Mr Miliband is being too cautious about pushing reforms.

Complaining about the difficulties of forcing through change, Mr Blair said Labour’s 1945 prime minister, Clement Attlee, would not recognise Britain if he returned today because of the scale of changes that have taken place since.

“However, he would feel entirely at home in Whitehall,” said Mr Blair, who has frequently regretted not driving through much greater reforms during his first five-year term after the 1997 election.

Some of Margaret Thatcher’s changes were “inevitable” and were kept after Labour took power in 1997, he said, while he defended the involvement of private companies in public services, including the National Health Service.

The adoption of some policies that may be supported by the centre-right should not frighten off Labour: “It happens the world over and where it doesn’t – see the polarisation of American politics today – a country is the poorer for it.”

Last Saturday, Mr Miliband ruled out imposing higher taxes and higher spending if Labour wins power next year – a result that is the most likely if one looks at opinion polls, but one which is doubted because of concerns about his leadership.

Labour manifesto

Work on Labour’s manifesto continues, but it is likely to pledge a Harold McMillan-style plan to build a million homes from 2015, offer the prospect that railways could come back under state control, along with a higher minimum wage.

A succession of opinion polls puts Labour in the lead, though not by the margins that the main Opposition party should be enjoying late in a parliament – a fact that deeply worries Labour.

Conservative support is expected to rise as the election draws nearer, backed by the strengthening economy which could report the highest growth in Europe this year in figures to be published later this week.

So far, Mr Miliband consistently trails behind Mr Cameron when the public is questioned about which of them displays the greater leadership skills, while large numbers of voters consistently declare that they find the Labour leader odd.

Signalling the improving economic figures, perhaps, Mr Blair yesterday issued a warning to Mr Miliband to heed that today’s voters are increasingly individualistic, even if they expect state help in difficult times.

The global economic crisis has lessons for all politicians, he said, particularly since people better understand the “dangerous consequences” that can flow from poor regulation of financial markets.

“But what the financial crisis doesn’t alter is as important as what it does: it doesn’t mean that people have fallen back in love with the state,” he told Progress, a Blairite group of Labour members and supporters.

Emphasising that Labour must speak to the public, not itself, Mr Blair, who served as prime minister between 1997 and 2007, said: “In the end, parties can please themselves or please the people.”

Labour, during that time, he said, “possibly for the first time in our history had the character of a governing party and it was the Tories who seemed like the shriekers at the gates outside”.