Len McCluskey and the Flat Earthers Are Wrong - Tony Blair Still Has Many Lessons For Today's Politicians

02/10/2012 17:25 BST | Updated 02/12/2012 10:12 GMT

Bill Clinton stole the show at this year's Democratic convention, with a piercing show of strength from the political centre. His approval ratings amongst US voters are at an all time high. This centrist political leader from the 1990s has soared to new heights of popularity.

One man in particular must have been watching Clinton's speech with barely contained envy. Tony Blair, his 'Third Way' partner, who also rescued his party from the electoral wilderness by dragging it to the centre, isn't speaking at the Labour Party conference this week - he hasn't been back since standing down as Prime Minister five years ago. Last year's Labour conference even saw a smattering of boos when Blair's name was mentioned. And Len McCluskey this weekend vowed to "purge" the Labour Party of remaining Blairites.

Blair has become a stranger in his own land. Every public appearance in the UK is met by protests and extreme levels of security. While Neil Kinnock, defeated at two elections, is lionised at Labour's conference, three times winner Tony Blair is nowhere to be seen. The aftermath of the Iraq War and his perceived covetousness means that his reputation both in his own party and beyond isn't what you would expect of a three times election winner.

Surely now, five years after leaving Downing Street, is a good time to reconsider Blairism. And its architect probably has very good reason to feel aggrieved that he doesn't get Clintonesque levels of acclaim in his own party.

To put Blair's achievements in perspective, by the time of the next election, it will be 49 years since a Labour leader not called Tony Blair has won a working Commons majority. Blair has won three of the five majorities in Labour's history over 50 seats.

Only two years before Blair became Labour leader, there was much anguish in Labour's ranks over whether Labour could win again, what Giles Radice famously called 'Southern Discomfort'. Blair won seats in the South among aspirational voters, including many who hadn't previously considered voting Labour - expanding way beyond his traditional party base in a way that both David Cameron and Ed Miliband have so far failed to do.

Under his leadership, Labour won three election victories with majorities of 179, 167 and 66 and helped to redraw the electoral map. In 1992, the Conservatives had 11 seats in Scotland. In 1997, they were wiped out and have still not come close to recovering. English seats that would have been regarded as safely Tory in 1992, such as Brent North, Luton North and Birmingham Edgbaston remain Labour.

Crucially, Blair decimated the traditional Tory support base in the middle classes and destroyed the Tory electoral coalition that had made the party the 'natural party of government'. 54 per cent of middle class voters voted Tory in 1992 (it had been around that level for most of the post war period). That plummeted to 39 per cent in 1997 and has remained at the same level since. Blair also gained 50 per cent of the vote of the electorally crucial skilled working class in 1997 and 49 per cent in 2001.

His great success was building an electoral coalition of Labour's traditional working class support, with aspirational working class voters and middle class voters, built on an understanding that a centre-left party had to speak to language of aspiration.

Some critics point to "Labour's lost voters" - suggesting that millions of Labour voters from lower income backgrounds have stopped voting since 1997. They have a point - millions of working class voters did stop voting between 1997 and 2010 and there's a growing sense of political disengagement in working class areas. But it's worth noting that Labour's share of the vote amongst working class voters was still at the same level in 2005 than it was in 1992, while the share of the middle class vote had increased considerably.

A lesson that Blair's success should teach modern leaders is that it was achieved by reaching outside of Labour's comfort zone. Rather than going for a 'safety-first' policy that, thanks to Jack Straw's memoirs, we now know was favoured by John Smith, Blair was willing to question his party's sacred cows and pick a fight with his party on a variety of issues in order to persuade voters that Labour was serious about governing. Both Cameron and Miliband could learn lessons from Blair's ability to speak to voters over the head of his own party. Modern politicians need to remember that the primary audience for their political message should be the country, rather than the narrow confines of their political party.

In policy terms, Blair's influence is frequently understated. The policy parameters of modern British politics still follow a Blairite design - combining economic efficiency with social justice. No political party would now put forward ideas such as the 'patient's passport', previously advanced by the Tories - Blair's success forced the Tories had to modernise and return to the centre ground. The fact that Ed Miliband, who would have been regarded as on the right of the Labour Party in the pre Blair years can be described as 'red Ed' shows just how much Blair changed British politics and moved it towards the centre.

And Blair's ideas about public service reform are central to how reform of public services should be pushed forward. He argued that, "just as the 1945 government pioneered a new settlement, so today we can re-invent collective provision, and make our public services a real engine of opportunity for all our people." Blair's view of public service reform was that investment on its own was not enough and that services should be reformed to give users (rather than providers), ensure diversity of supply and provide specific help to those particularly in need.

These principles were behind reforms such as the introduction of academies and reform of the NHS and they should continue to guide policy makers today. Despite Andy Burnham going into the last election as a Health Secretary committed to choice and competition and contestability, he's now performed a volte face and is using antiquated, pre Blairite rhetoric suggesting that top-down, producer centric public services don't need any reform.

Public services need to adapt to keep up with citizen demands, needs and expectations. Blair was right to suggest that 'change makers' should guard against the 'forces of conservatism' in the public services. That should be a lesson to all who want to improve public services, particularly as his own party get closer to the vested interests, who are keen to block necessary reform and prioritise the interest of providers over the interests of citizens. Of course, Blair's reform of public services emphasised choice and competition but sometimes had the impact of creating private monopolies, which didn't deliver enough in the way of service improvement or taxpayer value for money. That is why it's so important for this generation of policy makers to ensure that public service reform is also accompanied by proper local competition, which delivers real innovation.

Is Blair ready to 'do a Clinton' and make an 'elder statesman' return to domestic politics? Of course, Clinton didn't fight a hugely unpopular war which, rightly or wrongly, has affected Blair's reputation. Equally, two of Clinton's biggest successes could be regarded as two of Blair's biggest failures. Clinton balanced the budget, whereas New Labour eventually lost their fiscal prudence. Clinton also successfully introduced welfare reform, which Blair's government failed to do adequately and presents a real challenge to Ed Miliband and Labour's reputation.

However, like Clinton, Blair showed the public appetite for an economically responsible, socially aware centrist offering that both Labour and the Tories seem to be shifting away from. As Richard Reeves has suggested, there is a Blair shaped hole at the centre of British politics. It's clear with every one of Blair's occasional media appearances that he remains a massive beast in the political jungle - able to easily distil a complex argument in a way that nobody else can, with a unique ability to reach a broad coalition of voters. Blairism and Blair himself, disowned by many in his own party, still has an important role to play in British politics.