Tony Blair tells the story of walking down the street in his constituency one weekend and bumping into a long-standing party member. ‘I didn’t see you at the last branch meeting’, says TB. ‘If I’d known it was the last branch meeting’, replied the member, ‘I’d have definitely come along.’ We have all had that feeling, haven’t we? I remember the first time I wasn’t a GC delegate for years – I won’t say how long but suffice to say I started going to GMCs – and what a liberation it felt. I have the same feeling today as I contemplate the National Policy Forum. A bullet dodged.
There will be a lot of sound and fury in the coverage of the NPF both in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere. Before anyone takes any of it too seriously let me make one thing clear – the National Policy Forum does not produce the manifesto. That is the responsibility of the leader. The NPF is a party management process whose sole job is to ensure that no future Labour government is trashed by its own party. The damage done by the Bennite left in the 1970s lasted until the early 1990s. Tom Sawyer, now Lord Sawyer, saw how that damaged his union members when he ran NUPE (the National Union of Public Employees, now absorbed in Unison). When he became general secretary of the Labour party he established the NPF and it has been a great success. Just think of the last government. Through all the turbulence of 13 years of office, party and government never turned on each other – even during the Iraq war. That was a huge achievement. It was so successful it became the new normal. That’s a thing we should never lose.
So, whatever happens at the NPF you should neither condemn too loudly or praise too highly. Far too much will be read into the fine print. Understandably the Tories will want to find examples of extreme leftism – we saw this week just how unscrupulously they exploited Harriet Harman’s endorsement of the progressive nature of our tax system. Those who want Labour to win should have more discipline. Whether you support or oppose rail renationalisation, don’t condemn or celebrate any fudge you read about. The truth is that the next Labour government’s position on this will not be agreed, let alone mandated, by the NPF – because that is not its job. The work of the NPF which we should all celebrate is to create the secret formula for electoral success – unity.
Progress has a treat on Monday – Tony Blair will deliver the Philip Gould Lecture. Whenever he speaks, Tony reminds us of what a scrupulous analyst of politics and gifted strategist he is. Everyone should read his lecture when published. There will, though, be voices off, so here are two big myths about TB you should watch out for.
First, that he is making some dramatic re-entry into British politics. The truth is he has never been away. His excellent analysis of the rise of the United Kingdom Independence party is a case in point, as was his speech to the CBI on jobs, growth and the European Union.
Second, it will be said that in some obscure way Blair doesn’t want Ed Miliband to win the next election. I know, I don’t get it either, there is no logical way that the man who led Labour to a historic three election victories in a row wants to see a Tory government, but it’s amazing what some people will believe. Particularly on our side – remember the ‘storm’ about his proposed donation to the party.
What we will get next week is what we have always got from Tony – vision, inspiration and an optimism about how great our country is, and how the only thing holding us all back is the current government.
John McTernan is former political secretary at 10 Downing Street and was director of communications for former prime minister of Australia Julia Gillard. He writes The Last Word column on Progress and tweets @johnmcternan
Progressive centre-ground Labour politics does not come for free.
Our work depends on you.