Time to end Just William politics

In a New Statesman exclusive Charles Clarke takes on critics who abuse the word Bla

As various commentators consider Labour's prospects, the term "Blairite" is being deployed to characterise the policies and personalities of some who question the party's current direction and urge Labour to face the future. Like "Thatcherite", the word is not used kindly. "Blairite" (even "über-Blairite") is a lazy and inaccurate shorthand. It is intended not to illuminate but to diminish, marginalise and insult. It was, for example, the stock phrase used by the Brown political briefing team to traduce David Miliband's Guardian article in early August.

Moreover, this misleading language damages the vital need for Labour to move on to new, post-Blair ground. Those journalists and politicians who use it are fighting the last political struggle, the War of the Tony Blair Succession, in a way that owes rather more to Just William and the Hubert Laneites than to the challenges of modern British politics.

In the newspapers this summer, I have read about "eye-wateringly 'Blairite' gospels"; about "Blairites" "thumbing their noses" at progressive politics; about "Blair privatisers" and how "Blairites" are the "business wing" who "play the markets against the 'progressive wing' of the party". Some argue David Cameron is now more progressive than new Labour and that Labour under Blair became a party of the centre right.

This deceitful nonsense has to end. Everyone in Labour needs to stop obsessing about the past and to start obsessing about the future.

Central achievement

We should recognise that Tony Blair was an outstanding Labour prime minister who has now departed the British political scene and has no future part to play. His legacy, on the basis of what we inherited in 1997, is historically important, but it does not define the way forward from 2008 onwards. It is worth summarising his approach to government.

In international affairs, Blair stood for a liberal interventionist strategy in our increasingly interdependent world. This attracted fierce criticism in relation to Iraq, but general support on the former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. It led him to work with the power of the United States rather than join the anti-American claque, even when George W Bush demonstrated crippling incompetence or opposed British policy. And in the European Union, Blair's good intentions turned to dust, so that Britain is now more remote from the centre of European power than ever.

Liberal interventionism must be underpinned by military force, but its moral authority was undermined by the glacial progress in preventing proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and the ill-considered determination to renew Trident. The rise of terrorist atrocities, including London in 2005, identified Tony Blair with tough efforts to strengthen security, sometimes at a perceived cost to liberty. In some circles, this damaged his reputation, despite the series of progressive constitutional reforms that modernised Britain. As for the economy, the achievement of the Blair-Brown leadership was to demonstrate, for the first time ever, that Labour could run the economy well and promote general prosperity. The contrast with their crisis - encircled Labour predecessors is stark.

This enormous success was accomplished by insulating economic decisions of long-term significance from short-term political pressures. In monetary policy, the institutional means was Bank of England independence. The fiscal method was creation of, and adherence to, the various "golden rules".

Tony Blair saw this achievement as central, the foundation of his political success. Indeed, he wanted to reinforce this long-term economic rigour by locking the British exchange rate in to the euro, though disagreement with his chancellor made this impossible when joining would have been feasible.

Economic "Blairism" was also defined by opposition to increasing taxes. This reflected the Reagan/Thatcher economic consensus, reinforced by Labour's 1992 shadow Budget, that tax-raising political parties lost elections. This belief underpinned the disastrous and unfair basic-rate cut, financed by abolition of the 10p rate, of Gordon Brown's 2007 Budget.

Political tensions

Social policy is the area in which the adjective "Blairite" is most widely and pejoratively used - often inaccurately linked to the word "privatise". In fact, Blair believed that divisive private alternatives would spread within education and health unless the quality of public services and public life was significantly improved.

This meant prioritising the interests of public-service users and strengthening the state in some areas (for instance, antisocial behaviour). Empowering schools and hospitals, and extending user choice, would maximise public-service efficiency and help prevent the incursion of profit-driven alternatives.

This approach challenged some vested interests and it certainly created political tensions, not least with his deputy prime minister and chancellor. In the end, social change did not come quickly or consistently enough and, despite very major successes, reform in some areas was patchy.

This past week, Alistair Darling rightly said that the "coming 12 months will be the most difficult 12 months the Labour Party has had in a generation". Blairism as a concept offers little by way of rescue. It is certainly not a guide to action. Equally, however, it is inaccurate and misleading to dismiss as some kind of Blairite rump those who fear that Labour's current course will lead to utter destruction at the next general election.

There is no coherent Blairite ideology. Many of us who were proud to be members of Tony Blair's government had differing approaches even then, and certainly propose differing prescriptions now.

Similarly, there is no Blairite plot, despite rumours and persistent newspaper reports. There is, however, a deep and widely shared concern - which does not derive from ideology - that Labour is destined to disaster if we go on as we are, combined with a determination that we will not permit that to happen.

Charles Clarke is MP for Norwich South and a former home secretary