1 Sep 2010

Tony Blair endorses David Miliband, nearly

As the Labour Party gets ready to choose its next leader, Political Editor Gary Gibbon reports on former prime minister Tony Blair’s heaviest hint yet that he backs David Miliband for the top job.

The former prime minister, who is currently in the US taking part in talks between Israeli and Palestinian leaders, warned in a TV interview that his former party must not “drift to the left”.

Mr Blair, whose controversial memoirs A Journey have been published, distanced himself from directly endorsing leadership candidate David Miliband, but he did admit it may be “obvious” who he backs.

He said: “I know and it may be fairly obvious, but, and I’m not saying it isn’t, but one of the things that’s important… I mean I still have a huge loyalty, admiration and actually love for the Labour party and I want to see it do well.

“Whoever is elected leader I will you know, even if it’s Diane (Abbott) right, they’ll have my 100 per cent support and help.”

Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon has learned that Gordon Brown has consulted allies and told them “not to retaliate right now”.

It is understood he has warned them that hitting back could make “matters a whole lot worse” in the run-up to the Labour leadership contest.

“Incidentally just to say about David – anybody who knows him knows he’s very much his own man.” Tony Blair

Prompted to talk about the friction between the Miliband brothers, Tony Blair said: “Look all I can speak about is what I think, and incidentally just to say about David – anybody who knows him knows he’s very much his own man.

“I mean I think that for me the thing with the Labour party is, always be at the cutting edge for the future. That means on public services and welfare, you cannot run them in 2010 as if you were still in 1950.

“And the question for the Labour party is do you buck the historical trend, which has always been you lose an election and then you go off and decide to lose a few more before you come back to your senses.”

Asked if this juncture was a crossroads moment, he said: “This is a very, very interesting period of politics because we live in an era of no predictability. Anything could happen.”

The shadow foreign secretary David Miliband was today also boosted by the backing of the Labour-supporting Daily Mirror, which described him as the candidate the Conservatives “really fear”.

'We have to learn the lessons of history and Tony Blair is helping us do that'

Reacting to Mr Blair's comments his former adviser of 2003 to 2005, Darren Murphy told Channel 4 News that Labour needs to learn from the successes of "New Labour's 13 years in power, when deciding on its next leader.

He said: "In the book, he (Blair) is clear about the enormous contribution made by Gordon Brown. But he acknowledges it was difficult. I think the key thing now is, to learn the lesson of that.

"In terms of how we decide the next leader, it is the person who can bring the unity of purpose and personnel. For me that is David Miliband, who can draw support from both the left and the right.

"Moving to the left to increase our support never works. The result last time was 18 years in opposition. So we have to learn the lessons of history and Tony Blair is helping us do that.

"He is not just a Labour leader who won the election. He was the only one to win twice, and then three times."

Miliband rift
For weeks the tension between brothers David and Ed Miliband has been there for all to see. One brother, David Miliband, is a core Blairite and served under the new UN peace envoy to the Middle East in his cabinet.

The other, Ed Miliband, is more leftist and aligned to former Prime Minister Gordon Brown, also serving under him in his cabinet.

The two will meet tonight in a live Labour leadership debate on Channel 4 News at 7.00pm. They will be joined by the other three contenders Ed Balls, Andy Burnham and Diane Abbott.

Just yesterday Ed Balls criticised those who support both the Milibands by saying that they had turned the Labour leadership into a two-horse race by focusing on the “daily soap opera” of sibling rivalry.

The former head of political strategy for Tony Blair, Matthew Taylor told Channel 4 News whatever the rivalry between the two Miliband brothers, you can bet whichever wins they will both have influential roles within the Labour party as it challenges the coalition.

He said: “Inevitably if you’re contesting a campaign with your brother there are going to be tensions and I can’t imagine that Ed and David’s relationship is at its strongest now, but they’ve been together as brothers for a long time and they’ve got a long future ahead.

“This is going to be a difficult time they’re going to have to negotiate. Of course, when one of them wins, the one thing you can be certain of is they’re going to want the other one to be a very senior member of the cabinet so no matter the inevitable tensions now I don’t think it’ll have a long lasting effect.”

Gary Gibbon blogs on the Miliband rivalry
On the occasions when David Miliband was tempted to topple Gordon Brown it was, I hear, his brother Ed who "begged and begged and begged" him not to try to topple Brown and to wait for a vacancy. Now there is a vacancy I am told that David Miliband felt pained that his brother decided to join in the contest.
Read More

Channel 4 News Political Editor Gary Gibbon says the publication of Blair’s book and his apparent support of David Miliband could go two ways in the leadership vote.

He says: “Of course, there’s a chance that Labour activists will feel reminded of happier electoral times and will scour Tony Blair’s words to seek his guidance on who to back. But that, somehow doesn’t feel quite right.

“It seems more likely that David Miliband, currently thought to be ahead on first preferences, should be worrying that the shadow of his old boss could hurt him and he needs to have a strategy ready to deflect that damage and fast.”

Future of Labour
Tony Blair appeared to further endorse David Miliband by rebuking the leadership candidates who have fought on a platform of fighting against the coalition’s programme of public spending cuts.

He warned it would be “childish” and “out of touch” for Labour to define itself in opposition to its rivals.

He said: “If Labour simply defaults to a ‘Tory cutters, Lib Dem collaborators’ mantra, it may well benefit in the short term.

“However it will lose any possibility of being chosen as an alternative government. Instead, it has to stand up for its record in the many areas it can do so, but also explain where the criticism of the 13 years is valid.

“It should criticise the composition, but not the thrust of the Tory deficit reductions.”

Mr Blair said Labour needs to offer the voters plans to make different but “more radical” savings in government spending.

Failure to do so, according to Mr Blair, would leave the party in a position of “betting the shop that the recovery fails to materialise”.

The former prime minister dismissed the suggestion that Labour could have formed a coalition with the Liberal Democrats, claiming that “the people would have revolted”.

'I’d probably say go for the guy who's ready to fight now'

Blair's former head of political strategy Matthew Taylor tells Channel 4 News that Labour needs to go for the leader who can adapt straight away to the political uncertainty of a coalition.

He said: "We don’t know how long the coalition will stay in power and the next year is going to be vital because as the coalition makes very unpopular decisions will the blame lie with the coalition or will it be put on Labour?

"There's a danger, that like the winter of discontent in 1979, Labour could be really saddled with a reputation which could damage it for a decade. I think Labour faces an urgent task: it has to fight for its reputation, be an effective opposition and it has to be ready for the possibility the coalition could collapse next year and there might be an early general election.

"Because of those reasons you need a leader who can lead from day one. Whilst I have very little doubt about Ed Miliband’s capacity to grow into the role over the next two or three years, I think as a political strategist I’d probably say go for the guy who’s ready to fight now because you don’t know how soon you’ll have to fight."

He did however, say that whoever takes the reigns of the Labour party must act upon the weaknesses and vulnerabilities of the coalition, claiming that the Tories and Liberal Democrat partners “don’t really agree” on many areas of policy.

He said the party must remain “flexible enough to attack the Government from left and from right.

“Big-state politics today will fail. In fact, if you offer ‘small-state versus big-state’, small will win.”

Mr Blair urged Labour’s new leader to focus in opposition on “renewing the party” and “resisting any notion of letting the … trade unions get back any dominance in policy”.

He cited the “genius” of US President Barack Obama in reaching out beyond partisan divisions to build a progressive consensus around centrist politics.