Blair: Left turn would be route out of power

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New Labour reform will continue well after Tony Blair has left Downing Street, the Prime Minister made clear as he warned his party that a shift to the left would be the "fastest route" to take Labour out of power.

Mr Blair gave his clearest endorsement yet of Gordon Brown as his successor, but insisted that he aimed to take reforms of public services "to the next level". Despite threatened revolts by Labour backbenchers over education and health reforms during the coming months, Mr Blair insisted that a lurch to the left would not help combat the resurgent threat of the Conservatives under their new leader, David Cameron.

He urged his party to "relax" about the new Tory leader, and warned MPs advocating a return to traditional Labour policies: "I'd say if you want the fastest route to opposition, that's the way to do it."

The Prime Minister told the BBC's Sunday AM programme: "What we should be saying is it's great, New Labour ideas are in the ascendant, the other political parties are having to work out how they stand in relation to what we've done.

"What is therefore our position? Our position is to hold absolutely firm to that New Labour centre ground and build on it so by the time the Conservative Party have caught up with the last bit of change we've made, we're already on to the next bit of change, and we're setting the agenda there."

The Prime Minister used the interview at the start of the new parliamentary year to reassure backbench critics of his education reforms that he remained opposed to academic selection in schools. He attacked the Conservatives for promoting academic selection and insisted that Labour would not return to the 11-plus.

He said: "The dividing line in this is the Conservatives are saying you can bring back the 11-plus if you want to, which I think would be a totally regressive and retrograde move."

Mr Cameron will attempt to sidestep Mr Blair's attack by launching a campaign today to promote setting by ability within schools. He will use the publication of his education policy to focus on ways of improving standards in all schools, arguing that an extension of setting could give children a greater chance of achieving. Only 55 per cent of secondary English lessons and 80 per cent of maths lessons are taught in sets.

Mr Blair also went out of his way to praise a string of rising stars within the Government - known as the Primrose Hill Set - as key figures in the party's future. He praised David Miliband, the minister in charge of the Government's "respect" policies, and Douglas Alexander, the minister for Europe. But he also pointed to up and coming Blairite ministers, Andy Burnham, James Purnell and Pat McFadden, as well as former Brown aides Ed Balls and Ed Miliband.

The Prime Minister made it clear Mr Brown's experience and stature within the Government made him uniquely qualified to take over the reigns of power when he steps down. Mr Blair said: "There is not doubt in my mind that new Labour will continue and will continue well after I have gone. I have absolutely no doubt about that. It is sometimes said that Gordon is, you know, not New Labour, he is old Labour, he is a roadblock to reform. It is complete nonsense. He is completely and totally on the same lines as me."

Mr Blair is to launch the Government's national "respect" action plan tomorrow, aimed at cutting down on anti-social behaviour. The action plan will include plans for a national parenting academy to improve the training of staff who work with parents, such as social workers and psychologists.

Councils, police and other bodies will be required to hold regular face-to-face meetings with the public and local people will be given new rights to force local authorities to take action against persistent anti-social behaviour.