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  1. Politics
25 April 2011

Why the Blairites must find a new leader

Trying to reconstruct Labour without those who last dragged it from opposition to government would b

By Dan Hodges

The Blairites need a new leader. Actually, we all need the Blairites to find a new leader.

I appreciate that may not be the most popular job advertisement ever promoted by the New Statesman. Many believe the time has come to move beyond Blairism and New Labour. Others view it as a period that should be excised from history while its architect does 50 years for war crimes in Wandsworth nick.

Fair enough. The enduring love of his party was never high on Tony Blair’s list of priorities for things to gain, and the Dodgy Dossier and 90-day detention bill were less than alluring billet-doux. But like it or not, Blairism, New Labourism and the whole “modernising agenda” are political strands that remain woven into the fabric of the party.

Those who thought the leadership election had consigned all this to the dustbin were wrong. The fact is that, since Ed’s victory, the party hasn’t really moved anywhere. That’s not another Ed Miliband dig by the way, because even Miliband’s most loyal supporters wouldn’t argue that he’s grabbed Labour by the scruff of the neck and started to drive through a bold new philosophical and political agenda.

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Team Ed’s pitch is that their man wants to use his time to sit back, assess the landscape, let the policy review programme develop, and within that framework start to construct a new, if not New, Labour prospectus. There are some – I’m one – who are sceptical of that strategy. But it’s what we’ve got, so it’s at least worth engaging with on its merits. And any meaningful engagement has to include the Blairites.

Pop-up Peter

The question is: who are they? Or, more precisely, who’s their figurehead? Who’s running the show?

Actually, let’s take a step back. Who shouldn’t be running it? Well, for starters, Peter Mandelson, Alastair Campbell, Tessa Jowell and Blair himself.

Peter popped up at the weekend to urge everyone to vote Yes to AV. Last time he pulled a stunt like that it was to urge everyone to vote for David Miliband, and look how that turned out. Expect a similar result next month.

The Blairite old guard deserve thanks and respect for what they did for their party and their country. Sorry, it’s a fact. New Labour ended in failure, but between 1994 and 2001 it had some radical progressive achievements to its name, and those people were the architects.

But their brand is now contaminated, and every time they pop up they just remind people of that final product recall. They need to move on, and they need to be urged to move on not by their critics on the left, but by the new generation on the Labour right. Indeed, the capacity of the younger Blairites to find a new voice, and quieten the noises off, represents their first defining test.

It is a test they must pass quickly, because the window for debate that is opening up in the party will not remain open for ever. Given the premium the Blairites have usually placed on presentation, its ironic that the launch of Purple Labour, their first foray into new territory, has been so poorly managed.

But that’s what comes of having a leadership vacuum. And when you have NEC members like Luke Akehurst attacking Progress for being divisive, you know you have serious command-and-control issues.

All smoke and no gunfire?

The Brownite leadership mantle has settled, after a few bumps along the way, on the shoulders of Ed Balls. The liberal left has found a leader in Ed Miliband, even if there have been one or two recent signs of buyer’s remorse. In the negotiation that is about to take place over the future direction of the party, the Blairites need to ensure they also have a seat at the table.

David Miliband, prematurely dismissed by many after his defeat, remains a candidate. But he can’t wait beyond the water for much longer, and will need to make his case with clarity and conviction.

Jim Murphy has already been identified as one great Blairite hope, and there are worst negatives than his “Scottishness”. Douglas Alexander is another candidate, having finally made the break with his Brownite past, though there are some who think his talents are better deployed behind the scenes than front of house. And some still speak wistfully of luring James Purnell back towards the sound of the guns.

There are other candidates that will emerge. And emerge they must, because trying to reconstruct Labour without those who last dragged it from opposition to government would be foolish, and deeply damaging.

Blairism without Blair. We need it. And if anyone can build it, the Blairites can.

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