Blair reshuffle rewards loyal mainstreamers

  • @johnrentoul
Tony Blair put the finishing touches to Labour's election team last night as his election campaign came under early fire for confusing the voters by using ever more "elaborate and obscure" language. New Labour should start speaking the language of the people, according to Joy Johnson, Labour's former campaigns and media chief.

The Labour leader expanded his front-bench team by four to 101, promoting Glenda Jackson to shadow transport minister and appointing four new whips as Joan Lestor, the veteran leftwinger, retired.

The promotion of the 60-year-old Oscar-winning actress was the main feature of interest in a dull reshuffle of junior ranks, which saw full-time election planning roles confirmed for Peter Mandelson, Mr Blair's close adviser, and Brian Wilson, who fell out with Clare Short in the transport team over nationalising Railtrack.

Janet Anderson, Ann Coffey and Peter Hain were promoted from the whips office, to make way for the next tranche of hopefuls plucked from the back benches. But "modernisers" seen as close to Mr Blair, such as John Hutton and Margaret Hodge were denied in favour of loyal mainstreamers Tommy McAvoy, Kevin Hughes and Clive Betts, the former leader of Sheffield council. The fourth new whip, Angela Eagle, is a leftwinger who has refrained from criticising the leadership.

In addition to record numbers of front-benchers, there are 18 members of the "Leadership Campaign Team", with four vacancies, equivalent to Government Parliamentary Private Secretaries. Nearly half of the 272 Labour MPs are therefore part of the system of patronage which is the main enforcer of discipline in parliament.

As the pre-election temperature rose, Ms Johnson's attack on Labour language was backed by the Plain English Campaign, which has written to all party leaders asking them to "ensure that election material is in plain, understandable English".

Ms Johnson attacks Mr Blair's "Young Country" and "British Dream" slogans, describing them as meaningless attempts to echo foreign political rhetoric, in an article in today's New Statesman.

She says Labour is not going to abolish the monarchy, which would indeed make Britain a "young country", a phrase with "a distinctly Australian flavour".

She ridicules Mr Blair's fondness for the idea of "renewal", saying that for most people the word applies to TV licences. While the Tories used simple messages at the last election like "You Can't Trust Labour", Labour was opting phrases like New Labour, New Life For Britain - the title of the advance manifesto launched last month.

The Conservatives immediately issued a two-page compilation of "New Labour, New Gobbledygook". These included a transcript of Mr Blair's last conference speech: "I want us to be a young country again. Young. With a common purpose. With ideals we cherish and live up to. Not resting on past glories. Not fighting old battles. Not sitting back, hand on mouth, concealing a yawn of cynicism, but ready for the day's challenge. Ambitious. Idealistic. United."

But Labour sources countered with the claim that the five pledges in its advance manifesto had gone down "astonishingly well" with small focus groups of floating voters. These have been written in clear English, such as: "Cut class sizes to 30 for under for five-, six- and seven-year- olds - by using money saved from the assisted places scheme" and "Get 250,000 under-25-year-olds off benefit and into work - by using money from a windfall levy on the privatised utilities".