Tony Blair and our desperate news cycle

30 Apr

By Chris Hansell

Photo by Chatham House, London

Photo by Chatham House, London

First of all let me say that I have no personal investment in the nooks and crannies of party politics. I’m not a member of a political party and have never voted for a major party and never intend to. The last general election, the first time I was old enough to vote in one, saw me vote Green because I was dragged to the polling station by a far less pessimistic friend.

Several weeks ago, as part of the New Statesman’s 100th anniversary edition, former Prime Minister Tony Blair delivered a guest column implying that risks abound should Ed Miliband’s labour shift to the left. The piece, however Mr Blair intended it, was jumped upon by every news outlet imaginable. This was a story that could easily clog up air time or column inches.

Eventually Mr Blair gets down to brass tax: ‘where should progressive politics position itself’? This would be a good question if it wasn’t for the fact that ‘progressive politics’ is often more about what is in fashion from month to month than tackling serious problems.

In any case our former leader’s conclusion is that ‘the guiding principle should be that we are the seekers after answers, not the repository for people’s anger’. This misstates the choice in front of Ed MIliband. Blind anger can lead to hate, but in the case if Britain today there is every reason to be angry. The state of the economy, excessive rents, a narrowly avoided triple dip recession and higher unemployment are the reality of Britain’s current economic policy.

The one area in which Mr Blair hits the nail on the head is in his assessment of the true causes of the financial crisis from 2007 onward. Left leaning commentators should be pointing this out – the New Statesman’s own twitter feed advertised it as ‘the bit the Tories don’t want you to read’ and this is probably a good analysis.

His points about the comparative levels of debt before and after 1997 are ones that perhaps Ed Miliband should be making more noise about. The deficit was caused by the subprime mortgage disaster and bailing out the banks, not an overspend on the part of the coalition’s predecessors.

 The Telegraph’s Tory in Labour clothing, Dan Hodges, used Blair’s column to take a nice stab at Ed Miliband and labour. ‘The terms of political debate are indeed being subtly redefined, with Labour being nudged the wrong side of them’ he says. Whether this is the case is unclear, but given the state of recent opinion polls it is at least worth scrutinising much more.

Most papers focused heavily on building a narrative out of Mr Blair’s column and the Labour party’s subsequent statement. If they are to be believed it is a war of words between Labour past and Labour present. The newspapers need to fill column inches, but journalists and politicians can sometimes trap themselves in a bubble. This is what has happened here.

Dan Hodges talk that ‘the Tories are locking down issue after issue’ is entrenched in the same bubble. It is the same bubble that causes columnists to spew election strategy voodoo like the 35 Per Cent strategy. From inside it makes sense, but to the average person on the street, who might be unemployed, underpaid or overcharged on rent, we might as well be speaking a different language.

And really this is the problem. The political media’s attempts to string out a narrative when ultimately we have very little reason to care about the opinions of a former prime minister who led the country into two disastrous wars and did nothing to temper financial markets is a little embarrassing. It doesn’t matter what Blair thinks.

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