Last week at an event, I asked Alastair Campbell whether the well-known worship he and team Blair receive from Cameroons alarmed him or was a reason to be flattered. Campbell, intrigued by the question, went on to write a blog where he concluded that the current crop of Conservatives have learnt many lessons from New Labour in terms of communication, but have yet to define a strategy to underpin it.
Most commentators are now awaking, blurry-eyed from their honeymoon with Cameron to agree with Campbell. Blair's modernising zeal, whilst often upsetting the Labour Party, was a vision to pull the government through murky times and a narrative the public could chart during the superfluous media frenzy that surrounded day-to-day political news. In the cold light of day even Tories sympathetic to the Cameroons admit there is no strategy to anchor this government. A former adviser in CCHQ told me, "Cameron and Osborne believe in almost nothing."
In politics, if you don't believe in much, you have to find something to hold onto quickly. We've had the Big Society, which lacked coherence and frustrated Steve Hilton to America. Gove's attempts at radical reform are ironically steeped in history, repealing the Thatcher government's education policy. Gove is a politician who strives for modernisation, but has a historical brain - shown by his long-held and quite strange reverence for the Victorian age ('I don't think there has been a better time in our history'). Lansley's health reforms, much of which merely resumed Blair's agenda, lack an intellectual foundation on which the Health Secretary could communicate the change effectively. There are sensible arguments about the demographic challenges our NHS faces and the importance of breaking up the medical establishment. But without a common theme for Ministers to latch onto, Lansley was isolated, destroyed by the press, private briefings and the powerful medical lobby. And if the raison d'être of this government is to cut the deficit fairly, they would not have cut the 50p tax rate.
If I was allowed to go back and ask Alastair Campbell a second question, it would be - "I agree that Cameron and Co. have not learnt the right lessons from Blair. But has Ed Miliband made the right assessment of Blairism and New Labour?"
I agree with Miliband's central analysis that New Labour was good for many, but not enough. In a period of boom, it was understandable that the whole political establishment embraced globalisation, the financial markets, and all that came with it. With the benefit of hindsight, however, too many missed out on the rewards.
So the Labour Party is currently offering a vast array of impressive intellectual positions on confronting the dangers of globalisation. Blue Labour was partly about a renewal in the emphasis of community and kinship in 21st century progressive politics. Ed Miliband's recent speech on immigration said the last Labour government was too lax in aspects of its immigration policy. Miliband's central message of delivering a more ethical capitalism is, at its heart, an acceptance that markets played too important a role in economic growth under New Labour. Indeed, the murmurings about Labour calling for an EU referendum, whilst mostly political posturing, also reveals a new European scepticism that is spreading through the party - especially amongst the 2010 intake.
Many of these positions reacting to globalisation are important lessons learnt (although I for one disagree on Europe). But if Labour is to win the next election, reactive positions will not be enough. There needs to be a vision that also embraces modernisation and shows an understanding of the very different state we need in a globalised world. This includes a vision of public service reform, a new contract for our welfare state, improved transport infrastructure and capacity, and a distinct view of Britain's place in the world.
Tony Blair's appearance on the Andrew Marr show last Sunday reminded us that politicians can still be forward looking, bold and radical in an age of austerity. Especially on Europe, Blair was brave, but correct, to point out that in the long term, further European integration is a necessity, and the UK can ill-afford to be on the sidelines. Similarly, Blair would argue that our public services must reflect our modern needs - with an ageing population, high expectations in standards of living, a housing crisis, mass youth unemployment and an almighty deficit - the Labour Party cannot be a reactionary force, on these issues but instead look for new models of state action.
Labour's next election campaign will undoubtedly be dominated by their opposition to the Coalition's broad economic strategy. But an underlying narrative must be a vision of a modern Britain that is more benign in its treatment of swathes of the public, but also to be competitive and strong as a nation in a constantly changing world.
Miliband has learnt one lesson from Blair's government - admiration of markets and a fear of state involvement went too far. He must also learn a second - a modernising, clear and focused direction for the country is key for a successful opposition and government. Cameron has learnt neither, and is ready and waiting to be beaten.
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