Byers: Make or break time for Labour

Former cabinet minister Stephen Byers has warned that the forthcoming year will be “make or break time for New Labour”.

Writing in the Times, the Tony Blair ally claims that next year’s comprehensive spending review will involve a “fundamental reconsideration” of Labour’s priorities and establish the party’s political agenda for the next decade.

Mr Byers’ comments come amid growing speculation about the timing of the prime minister’s departure from Downing Street in the wake of criticism over his handling of the recent Middle East crisis and poor opinion poll ratings for Labour.

They are likely to be seen as an attempt by Mr Blair’s allies to “box in” his likely successor, Gordon Brown.

As chancellor, Mr Brown is responsible for overseeing the 2007 spending review, which Mr Byers claims will “effectively write many of the key elements of Labour’s manifesto for the next general election”.

The Times claims that political allies of Mr Blair are keen to ensure that New Labour’s controversial programme of public service reforms, which have been criticised by some of the party’s MPs, are continued by his successor.

Stressing the importance of the forthcoming spending review to Labour’s political future, Mr Byers said: “This will be make or break time for New Labour. The year ahead will set out Labour’s priorities for the next decade and, in so doing, the post-Blair agenda.”

The former transport secretary stressed that new policies would be needed to “improve social mobility” in Britain and said the government needed to “create public services that match quality and standards in schools and healthcare with the record levels of investment in these areas”.

But referring to “growing concern” among some Labour members about the party’s programme of reform, Mr Byers stressed that it would be a “monumental mistake” to abandon the concept of New Labour.

It represented a “well-thought-out, robust and policy-dominated approach” to meeting the nation’s problems, while remaining “true” to the party’s traditional values.

“The time for coded criticism is over. This is the moment for an open and honest debate about the future direction of the Labour party,” concluded Mr Byers.