How worried should Miliband be about Blair?

Laurence Janta-LipinskiAssociate Director
June 19, 2014, 9:43 AM UTC

As the former PM resurfaces once more, we ask how damaging his legacy is for Labour

With the current crisis in Iraq, and the Chilcott inquiry due to report in the not too distant future, Tony Blair, and Labour’s, record in Iraq is likely to spark much debate in the coming months. How Ed Miliband reacts to this, and wider questions about the New Labour years, will be an important indication of the direction of a future Labour government and its electoral prospects for 2015.

Blair’s recent essay on the troubles in Iraq has re-opened questions about a conflict that dominates much of the discussion on the New Labour governments. Taking two of his central points in turn (first an impassioned defence of the Iraq war, and second that the war of 2003 is not to blame for the current conflict) recent YouGov polling shows these views are widely criticised by a hostile public. By two to one, Brits believe military action in Iraq was wrong and, even more troubling for Blair, nearly three quarters put most (29%) or some (44%) of the blame for the current troubles at his feet.

Of particular interest is the view of those who voted Liberal Democrat in 2010. These respondents are hugely hostile to Blair on these measures; 56% believe the war was wrong and eight in ten believe Blair is to blame for the current troubles in Iraq.

These findings are unsurprising given the general mood of the public; in 2010, 50% believed Tony Blair had deliberately set out to mislead the public over Iraq with one in five wanting him tried as a war criminal.

Despite the hostility shown towards Blair over Iraq, wider attitudes are less straightforward. In May this year, following Blair’s advice to Miliband over Syria, YouGov asked the British public both their views of Blair’s premiership and also his current role in Labour. By 48% to 44%, Brits claim that Blair did well as leader of the Labour party and this figures rises to 71% of Labour voters.

However, on the issue of whether Blair should offer his opinion to the Labour party, just 40 per cent claimed they thought of him as an experienced politician who still has relevant advice for the Labour party. By contrast, 46% believe he is a discredited politician who no longer has relevant advice to the Labour party and should stop offering his opinion. The Labour split here however is more favourable with 61 per cent claiming he should offer his opinions compared with 32 per cent who thought he should not.

There are questions for Miliband to answer not just about Blair, but over the entire New Labour period in office. In the summer of 2010, when asked whether Labour should look to build on or distance itself from the New Labour, a large proportion of both the general public and current Labour voters (45%) said they should abandon the ideas of New Labour.

Even more crucially for the current Labour leadership are the figures from 2010 Lib Dem voters. These voters are firmly against any continuation of New Labour; just 17% said New Labour should continue with 50 per cent believing Labour should abandon these ideas.

Based on all of YouGov’s voting intention surveys in May this year, including over 7,000 Lib Dem voters from 2010, a quarter indicate they would now support Labour. Given the effort of Labour strategists into winning over these disaffected Lib Dems, many of whom will have originally deserted Labour over the Iraq war, any move back to the Blair and Brown governments could see these gains damaged.

With Iraq and Blair back in the news, Miliband will likely be faced with some tough questions on its legacy and his relationship to it and his replies to these questions must be handled delicately. Any move one way or the other could risk alienating either those Labour voters who are proud of its record or the new recruits who have joined a party that is, in Miliband’s own words, “humble about its past and enthusiastic about its future”.

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This article orginally appeared in Prospect