Ever since Tony Blair said he wouldn’t stand for a fourth term, the Labour party has been wrestling with a central question: whether to continue with his approach to politics or move in a different direction. In his recent article, Blair argued that his way is more needed than ever.
Voters don’t agree.
In our latest poll, by a margin of 50 points to 23, voters think Labour should “move on from the legacy of Tony Blair and become something different” rather than become “more like it was when Tony Blair first became Prime Minister”. This reflects what we found after the 2010 election when voters said Labour needed to move in a new direction by a margin of 27 points. When we named Blair and Brown as the authors of the Labour approach, the margin for change rose to 42 points. At the time, despite the financial crisis, Tony Blair’s reputation was even worse than Brown’s.
New Labour grandees are right when they argue that the party has to start where voters are. Unfortunately for them, that also means accepting the voters’ verdict on Labour’s time in office. Our poll shows that voters see Labour’s record from 1997 to 2010 as bad rather than good – on foreign policy by a margin of 22 points, on the economy by a margin of 28 points and on immigration by a margin of 33 points. Even on the NHS the country is evenly divided in judgment with 33 per cent saying the party has a good record to 32 per cent bad.
The desire to shift these numbers in a more positive direction is understandable. Labour’s leaders feel the public are wrong, with major improvements in public services undervalued and the blame for the economic crisis unfairly attributed to decisions they took. They think they need to stand up for themselves because no-one else is going to do it.
However, when you are the government that oversaw a failed war, a poorly managed surge in immigration and the deepest economic crisis since the Great Depression, you have to expect voters to blame you, fairly or not.
Ed Miliband’s defence of Labour spending in the final election debate – endorsed by everyone from John Hutton to Jeremy Corbyn – was even more damaging than his stumble off the stage. Voters accept that that that spending didn’t sink Lehman’s, but that is not a relevant response to the criticism they are making. The truth is that Labour in office rarely saw a problem without thinking more spending was part of the answer.
On the economy, foreign policy and immigration, it is hard to see a way for Labour to rekindle trust unless it is willing to concede and move on.
Politicians who were part of that past will either need to show change or move out of the limelight. That will be relatively easy for all but the most senior figures of the New Labour era, not least because Blair and Brown personally draw so much of the poison. Swing voters relate to them as if they were ex-partners not ex-prime ministers. They remember the early excitement, are nostalgic for the hopes they had of a better life together and feel bitter at having those hopes dashed.
The wisdom in Blair’s analysis is not his implicit desire to defend his record, but in his recommendation that the party embraces change. To win again, the party needs to stop fretting about how voters see its past and find a new direction for the future – neither the socialist retread we see at the moment nor the incoherence of the Brown and Miliband years nor a return to New Labour. Just as was the case after 1992, the party needs something new. The question is what?