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This election is about Blair’s legacy

The 2015 general election, the most unpredictable for a generation, is ultimately about the shape of the union, says Research Fortnight editor Ehsan Masood.

A year after Ed Miliband shocked his colleagues by winning the leadership in 2010, Labour’s former Europe minister Denis MacShane was taking a car journey through the picturesque villages of Tuscany. His fellow passenger was his colleague and newly-minted MP Tristram Hunt, historian at Queen Mary University of London, and tipped for a shadow cabinet seat under the new Labour leader.

The pair were returning from a conference when the veteran MacShane wryly remarked that Labour had better be ready for a long period in opposition. According to MacShane, the party had never won an election by moving to the left and wasn’t therefore about to rewrite its own history. I cannot remember what Hunt said (I was there), except that at the end of the journey the two went their separate ways.

MacShane’s warning was a sad lament from a member of the New Labour ministerial team. This was a team so used to winning that it couldn’t—indeed still cannot—come to terms with Miliband’s election. MacShane was suggesting that Miliband’s embrace of the traditional would risk, not only the future of New Labour as an idea, but the Labour party itself.

In some ways MacShane was right. Labour has indeed moved somewhat to the left, and in Scotland it is about to take a pounding at the polls. But in another respect he was wrong: in Scotland Labour could be wiped out partly because of a perception that it isn’t left wing enough, and that it is being run by the same people who worked with Tony Blair.

That Labour faces possible annihilation in Scotland is partly, if not wholly, also because of Blair. As the Daily Mail likes to remind us, the legislation creating the parliament in Scotland and an assembly in Wales was passed in Blair’s first term in 1998, and with good reason.

Blair and the founders of New Labour understood something that the majority of the London-based media and political classes have only now begun to recognise: you cannot govern without genuine consent and that means having to devolve power. What they perhaps failed to realise is that since devolution the people of Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales have come to cherish their autonomy. So much so that, regardless of who wins on 7 May, Scotland, at least, is on an unstoppable path to independence.

In the run up to the general elections, the leaders of the two main parties have sought to take a different approach to the desire of many in Scotland to seek independence.

With the independence referendum over, David Cameron’s strategy has been to appeal inwards. If Scotland’s parliament was to have more powers then logic dictated that English MPs should be able to vote exclusively on laws affecting the people of England, in effect creating a Westminster parliament that wouldn’t represent all of the UK.

In addition, Cameron’s government has a poor record of saying positive things about immigration and Europe. Many Research Fortnight readers will have been grateful to the Conservative-led coalition for protecting their funding, and Russell Group vice-chancellors will be pleased with the fees settlement. But on immigration and on Europe, our correspondents are in despair.

Such negative talk is only likely to continue in the event of a Conservative win, partly because of the emergence of Ukip and partly because Cameron will no longer have the balancing forces of influential One-Nation Conservatives—including William Hague and David Willetts—who are retiring; or Dominic Grieve, who is no longer in the Cabinet.

In contrast, of the two major party leaders Ed Miliband likely has the greater potential to make an attempt at keeping the union intact; or at least intact for longer. But whether he can is open to question.

Miliband has the edge because the Labour leader has more in common in terms of values and outlook with the leadership of the Greens/SNP/Plaid Cymru. Natalie Bennett, Nicola Sturgeon and Leanne Wood would scoff at this idea but, to varying degrees, they share with Miliband the recognition that inequality has to be a policy priority; that there is a way to protect the environment along with creating new jobs. Moreover, perhaps most importantly, each recognises that any more austerity risks mainly hitting the poorest. They know that if we keep closing police stations and make it more difficult for genuine claimants to obtain benefits, it isn’t the middle classes that will suffer.

At the same time each has defined him or herself in opposition to unrestrained multinational corporations. This is potentially a problem in terms of the direction of much of research and innovation policy.

Globally, there is an expectation on researchers to form better and closer links with corporations. It was after all the profits from these corporations that helped to pay for a decade’s worth of increases to science funding during the Labour years.

But in terms of more macro-level policymaking, Miliband, along with Sturgeon, Bennett and Wood, recognises that it was Blair’s uncritical support for the corporations and ‘light touch’ regulation of their desire to make astronomical sums of money, that hastened the 2008 financial crisis—and the long tail of scandals and wrongdoing that has hit many a well-known bank and drug company in the years since.

Sharing values is one thing. Working together for the national interest is quite another—especially when the goal of the SNP and Plaid is to leave the UK.

The challenge that Miliband must lay before the SNP is this: if the party is genuinely serious about changing how economic policy is made, then there is an opportunity to do this. However, in return the SNP has to understand that there must be no demands for a second referendum.

It is clear that for the SNP and for Plaid, freedom from the UK is the goal. That is ultimately what will be driving them into any arrangement with Labour. But for any such unionist-nationalist coalition to work, talk of independence has to be left at the door of Downing Street.

Miliband has so far, and sensibly, ruled out any form of post election cooperation with the SNP. This is partly under pressure from the Tories, and partly because Sturgeon and the SNP leadership have been supremely successful in portraying themselves as Miliband’s conscience. 

But for all the talk of instability and chaos, the UK is now very practised at having nationalist parties in government. There is precedent. Since 1998 each one of the regions has been governed at one point or other, with a nationalist party as part of the governing apparatus. It has happened because politicians have been forced to display statesmanship; to understand that sometimes individual demands have to take a back seat to a greater goal.

Blair signed this nation up to opening the gates to devolved assemblies and parliaments and there can be no going back. One of the consequences of giving up power, is that it becomes doubly hard to take it back.

Blair’s shadow continues to loom large. He may well have quit the British political scene for a role as global businessman and fixer, but the coming election is as much about Blair’s contested legacy to the UK as anything else.

This article also appeared in Research Fortnight


Correction: This article was corrected on Wednesday 29 April as readers pointed out that the Conservative MP for Beaconsfield Dominic Grieve will not be retiring at this election.