Blair warns against retreat to the left

Tony Blair has strongly defended his pursuit of centrist policies over the past ten years, and warned Labour that moving back to the left would only result in electoral defeat.

The prime minister rejected as “bulldust” the idea that people wanted more traditional Labour policies but that he had been refusing it, arguing: “The leaders are nearly always trying to align their parties with the public whose support they need to win.”

He added: “Setting out to win is not right-wing. Winning is the necessary pre-condition of serving.”

The prime minister has been challenged by his backbenchers over most of his reforms since 1997, including city academies, top-up fees, NHS reforms and tough measures to combat terrorism, crime and anti-social behaviour.

But in a speech yesterday, he argued he had only been responding to concerns among the general public about security and changing expectations of public services – concerns that the traditional progressive agenda failed to acknowledge.

“We face out to the people, not into ourselves,” Mr Blair told the Policy Network conference.

“That’s not to say we exist to be populist. We don’t. We have to lead as well as listen. But we don’t flinch from recognising where real people are. The public come first – our activists second.”

Mr Blair said Labour must never return to its “comfort zone” of traditional leftist policies, in what will be taken as a warning in particular to the candidates for the Labour deputy leadership, several of whom are trying to appeal to the party’s traditional values.

“As we in New Labour face the prospect of a fourth term, the danger is not a conscious decision to depart from New Labour, but an unconscious decision to cease driving it forward. It is that we go back to what makes us comfortable,” he said.

However, he expressed confidence in his successor, expected to be Gordon Brown, saying: “Fortunately, I have no doubt that those who will take on the mantle of leading the party into the next election do indeed want New Labour to remain New Labour.”

The prime minister argued that the Conservatives under David Cameron were “in a deep state of ideological confusion” because Labour held the centre ground, but stressed the party must continue to reflect people’s concerns if it was to stay ahead.

This included not just tolerating the middle classes but a “wholehearted embrace” of them and their concerns about security, crime and immigration.

“That means, difficult though it is, being for hard as well as soft power in international policy; patient power as well as investment in the NHS; tough measures on crime as well as against poverty; celebrating success merit, excellence as well as caring for those left behind,” Mr Blair said.

“It means never relapsing into appealing to our heart detached from our head.”