Mandelson backs pursuit of Middle England's votes

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Peter Mandelson delivered a staunch defence of New Labour's electoral pursuit of Middle Britain last night, warning that it would be a mistake for the party to return to the rhetoric of class division.

Peter Mandelson delivered a staunch defence of New Labour's electoral pursuit of Middle Britain last night, warning that it would be a mistake for the party to return to the rhetoric of class division.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, one of the architects of the party's modern image, made his comments during a clash with Peter Kilfoyle, a former minister, at a fringe meeting organised by The Independent.

Mr Kilfoyle, who has attacked New Labour for lacking substance, compared the party's rhetoric with the kind of terminology used when the Khmer Rouge seized power in Cambodia, likening Labour's May 1997 general election victory to the "year zero" crusade of the party's leader, Pol Pot.

But Mr Mandelson argued that there was compelling logic behind New Labour's ambition to appeal to all sectors of society rather than accepting repeated calls to devote less attention to the concerns of Middle Britain and to concentrate more on the needs of Labour's inner-city, working- class "heartlands". Tackling issues such as unemployment and poverty were not minority concerns but interests for the country as a whole, the Hartlepool MP said.

"So please let us not fall into the trap of believing that the alternative and outdated class appeal which some people seem to want to harken back to will make Labour more popular and more successful.

"It won't, either in Hartlepool or in Hertfordshire, because in both places people understand about hard choices. They understand about why it's necessary to turn our backs on short-termism ... because they were paying the price for the Tories' short-termism for the last decade and more."

He added: "The idea that because our language is different as a party that we have somehow turned our back on working people, our deprived people, our vulnerable people, is quite frankly simply ridiculous. This view goes to the heart of a mistake of a misunderstanding that people make about New Labour and I think it is a fundamental misunderstanding."

Mr Kilfoyle, the MP for Liverpool Walton, who resigned as a defence minister because he believed New Labour was ignoring the party's "heartlands", said: "The more and more that I hear New Labour being used, it reminds me very much - in some people's usage of it at least - of the Khmer Rouge and the year zero. Of course year zero presumably was 1 May 1997 [when Labour came to power]. And it is as though our distancing is gone to such a degree that we forget at times, or we ignore, that very very long tradition that went before."

Mr Kilfoyle added: "I suppose what really began to concern me was that much of the rhetoric seemed to be aimed towards keeping Middle England on board ... as though only one side of that equation was being fully addressed. At times the rhetoric seemed to leave out a broad swath of popular support which has been consistently with us."

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