Andrew Forsey was at the Progress event with Tony Blair last week. Blair still holds the magic touch, and Ed should learn from his abundant qualities as a thinker, speaker, and performer.
On Friday, I was privileged enough to have attended the Progress event with Tony Blair, in which the former Prime Minister made a short speech before taking questions from the floor. Quite frankly, I am not ashamed to say I was in awe of The Man (as Chris Mullin referred to him in his brilliant memoirs). Okay, it was almost inevitable that Blair would be on top form at an event hosted by an ultra-Blairite group which has remained fervently in line with the concept of ‘New Labour’. But my goodness, he can still hold a room in the palm of his hand. He had every one of us hanging on his every word in Church House, as the great performer rolled back the years. He could have been feeding us absolute baloney, but we would all have gone home believing every word (Insert comments along the lines of: ‘he fed the country absolute baloney and we all believed it for a while’). His body language was natural and purposeful, his tone and vocabulary seemed genuinely heartfelt, and his demeanour was personable and at ease. This was the Blair of multiple sound bites who persuaded the electorate to hand him the keys to Number 10 with such glee in 1997, and to keep him there with another landslide victory in 2001. Persuasive, powerful, and personable.
Before I left home on Friday morning, I caught the speech that Ed Miliband was making to Reuters regarding the state of British journalism. The content and purpose of the speech was admirable, and there was a lot of appeal in what Miliband was telling the gathered journalists. It probably looked great on paper. Yet for the entire duration of the speech and the questioning that followed, I felt as though I was watching a man who was presenting his findings from a piece of research he had been told to conduct because he had to. He stood rooted to the spot; shoulders dead still; monotonous voice; eyes staring into space. It was a credible, appealing speech delivered in a lifeless manner which I believe will fail to resonate with the general public. I have written with similar criticisms about Miliband’s style before, relating to his performances in PMQs. In the 2010 Labour leadership election he blossomed as a passionate speaker who was bursting at the seams with progressive ideas to showcase to the Party and the public; yet now we repeatedly see on our screens a wooden performer who struggles to articulate a convincing, authentic line of argument. It seems that we are faced with the problems Labour suffered under Gordon Brown: Edging it on substance, but annihilated on style.
I am, nonetheless, aware that style alone can only get you so far. The public gradually tired of New Labour’s emphasis on style and spin, and I remain convinced that David Cameron’s undoubted talent as a PR man will not be sufficient to keep voters firmly on the side of the Conservative-led Government. But I am equally convinced that the public wish to see panache, passion and enthusiasm from their leader, regardless of party affiliation. When they hear their leader telling them that they are acting in the national interest, the public want their leader to look as though he means it, and believes it with every fibre of his being.
To a certain degree, I think Cameron still holds a fair amount sway with his polished presentation and well-drilled narrative. Miliband, on the other hand, is still struggling to strike a chord with the public despite winning on substance in many areas. Even a bruised and tarnished Blair was still trusted and admired by the public for his leadership and charisma in 2005, and this certainly contributed to Labour’s third successive election victory. As Chris Mullin noted in his diaries, even if policies such as Iraq were enough to push you to the limit, you could not help but feel a certain degree of personal loyalty to Blair.
Therefore, I think it is no coincidence that Ed Balls has been consistently ranked as Labour’s most effective performer by party members in recent months. I believe he has consistently combined style and substance to create an argument that chimes with the ‘squeezed middle’ of Britain. This, to me, is how you get the public back on side.
Blair perfected this for many years, and his performance at Progress convinced me that he deserves to be recognised as the most gifted politician of his generation. The sceptics argue, quite rightly, that if we continue to use Blair as the standard by which we judge our leadership, as the Tories looked to compare their leaders with Thatcher, then we are destined for a cycle of failure in future. But I do strongly believe that there are many positives to draw from looking back to Blair, and that he remains highly relevant when we analyse the current Labour leadership.
The Tories didn’t win the outright majority at the last election because, for their almost faultless style and presentation, the public remained wary of their substance. Conversely in 2015, I fear that whilst Labour will hold the advantage in substance over the Tories, they will struggle to muster enough style, positivity or likeability to convince the public that they can govern with purpose. What Blair has taught us is how to communicate the values and policies of the Party to the public in a passionate, purposeful way which appeals to ordinary people from across the social spectrum and from all parts of the country. That, for me, is what made Tony Blair a very rare gift to British politics, and I hope that the Labour leadership of the present and future will learn the lessons, positive and negative, from his time at the top.