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16 June 2011

Only the Blairites can move beyond Blairism

"No one is putting coins in the New Labour juke box any more. We recognise that."

By Dan Hodges

Ed Miliband deserves support. Not the “see-no-evil, hear-no-evil” fantasising of the flat-earth brigade, nor the pom-pom waving of the plastic loyalists who see devotion to the leader — doesn’t really matter which leader — as a ticket to the top. But the construction of a structured political framework that will allow him to move himself and the Labour party onto secure political ground.

Monday’s speech on the Responsibility Agenda was, by common consent, his best since he was elected. It wasn’t especially beautifully crafted, nor powerfully delivered. But much more importantly, it was brave.

If Labour’s leader is uncomfortable at the thought of hugging a hoodie, then whacking a benefit scrounger is anathema to him. That’s not to say he doesn’t believe in the policy he was advocating. He does. But until Monday he had been reluctant to use policy announcements for, what to him, were a crude tool to provide definition. “That’s just not Ed’s politics,” one Ed supporter told me soon after he was elected.

Well, it is now, and he and his party are the stronger for it. Miliband and his team spent a lot more time working on his Coin Street address than any of his other recent speeches, and the result was there for all too see. As Kevin Maguire, no Miliband sycophant, wrote in the Mirror, “Ed Miliband proved his mettle under fire … He was coherent, occasionally persuasive and sketched an attractive alternative to ConDem mayhem.”

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Even more importantly, he provided a clear direction of political travel. This wasn’t a speech aimed at the “progressive majority”. It was a speech directed to the heart of small c conservative middle England. And for once, Ed Miliband didn’t care who knew it.

But if Labour’s leader is going to continue along this path, he can’t do so alone. There are a number of his supporters who sit on the left of the party, including some members of his inner circle, who are going to be alarmed and discomforted but this sudden change of tone and emphasis. And over the next few weeks the depth of that support will be tested.

To date the Milibite ultras have been quick to round on anyone calling for a reassessment of their man’s strategy. Given that reassessment is now being conducted by Ed Miliband himself, it will be interesting to see the extent to which they can hold their own tongues.

But more significant will be the reaction of Ed Miliband’s former critics, especially those on the former Blairite wing of the party. Because it’s vital that as he begins his journey back towards the political centre, people are left in no doubt about his final destination.

Miliband has no intention of returning to the days of New Labour. He may have overplayed his hand during the leadership election by positioning himself as the aggressively “anti-New Labour” candidate. But his assessment that for Labour to win again it must ditch its tired Blairite branding was sound.

In truth, most senior former Blairites accept that reality. “For a decade we were top of the charts,” said one Blairite shadow cabinet source, “But by the end everyone had moved on. No one was putting coins in the New Labour juke box any more. We recognise that.”

That recognition now needs to be translated into action. The Labour party has to be reassured that Miliband is not being lured into a Blairite trap. And that reassurance can only be provided by the Blairites themselves making a clear, clean break from their former mentor.

That doesn’t require every last vestige of Blairism to be chucked out with the bathwater. New Labour provided the most successful template for opposition in British political history, and it should be learnt from. But nor can people be asked to buy into a world-view that says it’s Blair’s way or the highway.

The reality is that Miliband can’t move the Labour party beyond Blairism. Only the Blairites can move the party beyond Blairism.

And that will be a difficult process for some. Those who hold Labour’s former leader in contempt must understand that many of his erstwhile supporters remain loyal to him and his legacy with equal passion and conviction. Nor is their attachment based solely on sentimentality. When my NS colleague Mehdi Hasan produced his damning list of Tony Blair’s political failings the one significant fact he left out were the three successive general election wins.

But those wins lay in the past. Milband will not be helped by the blind loyalty some demand for him. When he makes mistakes, they need to be pointed out. If he makes them consistently, he will take some heavy flak.

But equally, when he gets things right, as he did this week, he deserves the plaudits. And help in adding to them.

Miliband has demonstrated the courage to look again at himself and his strategy. Those of us who have been among his fiercest critics have an obligation to do the same.