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British Politics Has A Blair-Shaped Hole - Fill It, And Labour's Fortunes Could Quickly Transform

06/05/2017 17:59 BST | Updated 08/05/2017 16:50 BST
Chris Helgren / Reuters

Imagine if you could see Tony Blair for the first time.

A political leader who had not yet climbed George Bush's golf cart on the way to war in Iraq; untainted by his spin doctors' notoriety; without a record to defend. What would you see?

This week's HuffPost-Edelman focus groups gave some people that experience, or close enough to it. The result was remarkable.

Most political focus groups are with people old enough to remember 1997, largely because the older you are, the more likely you are to vote.

More often than not, they react to pictures of Tony Blair as they might to a photo of a former spouse who had cheated on them. It really doesn't matter what that person says - the sight alone is enough to provoke fury.

But the younger members of this week's focus group had not had their hopes built up under New Labour, and they had not seen them dashed either. Without that filter they could look afresh, and they saw the kind of political leader they are crying out for.

The clincher was the clarity of his argument. We tested a line he has used about the referendum: "Voting to leave the EU without knowing the actual deal is, is like buying a house without ever looking around it. You would never do it. What makes sense is to see what the house is actually like, before we sign the papers on the deal."

The most telling response came from the younger Leave voters: "You can spend two months watching them waffle on and still not understand it. And you've just done it in 30 seconds."

The older participants had a more mixed response: "The statement is positive, but sadly I wish it was delivered by someone else."

When you look at the quantitative data, there are signs that Blair is indeed more popular with younger voters.

According to YouGov, 81% of people over 65 feel unfavourable to him - nearly double the number for 18-24-year-olds.

The moral of this is not that the comeback is on. His offer to get his 'hands dirty' is not one the focus groups seemed keen to take up. As one man said: "His hands are already dirty."

Instead, the lesson is that British politics has a Tony Blair-shaped hole. There is no politician with his rhetorical skills or the ability he once had to connect with the common sense of the time.

Our focus groups could barely name a politician: the Chancellor's name was a mystery to most, the only Labour figures they could name have been around for ages, and the most popular one is now better known for his ability to perform Gangnam Style.

But the opportunity is there.

Our focus groups did not show voters emotionally bonding with May as they did with Blair in 1997. They showed them running from Jeremy Corbyn. Her support is rock solid while Corbyn is there, but if Labour could find a new Blair, the transformation could be quick.