Talk of Blair ‘virus’ misses the point

The Corbyn train is picking up steam with a third major trade union throwing its weight behind the man who started the protracted Labour leadership contest as an afterthought, but is now seen as the presumptive leader.

The unions have decided that Mr Corbyn represents a return to traditional Labour. And, never one to mince his words, Dave Ward of the Communication Workers’ Union (CWU) has claimed that Mr Corbyn represents “an antidote” to the “virus” of Blairite Labour – namely the move towards the centre.

Mr Ward’s comments have added further fuel to the contest and shown, yet again, that the battle is not only over who is Labour’s best bet to win back Downing Street, but over the Party’s ideology and its very soul. But while questions about which direction Labour must take are necessary in light of an election defeat, the Party will have to be careful it doesn’t throw the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

It would be unduly flippant to suggest that the Blairite ‘virus’ Mr Ward is referring to is actually ‘winning’. But equally, Tony Blair is the Labour leader who won three consecutive elections. That is part due to the Conservatives languishing in the doldrums in the years after the 1997 landslide. But it’s also because the then-Labour leadership and its political strategists hit on both the messages that appealed to the public and the way to deliver them.

Time will tell as to whether Mr Corbyn will become Labour leader and, if he does, whether under his leadership Labour will offer a credible alternative to the Tories. There are already suggestions that a Corbyn victory could hasten a David Miliband return and a further leadership change in 2018. As noted previously, this would be a profound error – Labour would be parachuting in a leader who, however heavyweight and unfortunate in 2010, took his ball and went home. But if Labour chooses to elect Mr Corbyn and commits to more left-wing platform, it must try to retain some of the institutional memory of its years in government. Not in terms of policy, given the economic inheritance of the Coalition in 2010, but in terms of the ability to convey a message and communicate effectively with voters.

Ed Miliband’s communications apparatus was much maligned during his leadership. Mr Corbyn, if elected leader, can ill afford to do divorce the Party so much from the Blairite years that his strategists miss the Blairite lessons of how to communicate with the public and win elections.