Modernisers urge Blair to stay true to his aims

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Indy Politics

Robin Cook and Peter Mandelson have formed a modernisers' alliance aimed at ensuring Tony Blair remains true to the original aims of his New Labour project.

Robin Cook and Peter Mandelson have formed a modernisers' alliance aimed at ensuring Tony Blair remains true to the original aims of his New Labour project.

The Foreign Secretary and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have backed moves by modernisers at grassroots level to keep the pressure on Mr Blair to maintain close links with the Liberal Democrats and not to water down Labour's positive approach to Europe in the run-up to the general election.

Mr Cook and Mr Mandelson hope to act as a counterweight to John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, who called on Sunday for Labour to ditch its close co-operation with the Liberal Democrats, and the Chancellor, Gordon Brown, who wants to shelve debate on the single currency until after the election.

Modernisers are worried that relations between Labour and the Liberal Democrats have cooled since Charles Kennedy succeeded Paddy Ashdown, partly because Labour has rejected a blueprint for proportional representation drawn up by Lord Jenkins of Hillhead.

Mr Cook and Mr Mandelson are confident Mr Blair will retain a pledge to hold a referendum on the voting system for Westminster in Labour's election manifesto. Opponents of reform dropped plans to urge the Labour conference to vote to abandon the promise this week, leaving the Prime Minister the room to include it in the party's programme.

New Labour activists, such as the grassroots group Renewal, have welcomed Mr Blair's commitment to be more radical if he wins a second term. They have become increasingly frustrated that he has been too cautious on policy and failed to capitalise on the huge majority he won in 1997 to force through sweeping change.

"The irony is that we might be much more bold with a small majority," said one moderniser. "We hope Tony has now got that message." But another prominent figure in the New Labour project said the Prime Minister was "schizophrenic" about it as he tried to appeal to different groups in society under his "Big Tent" policy. "We have got to move away from the old-style fixes and fudges and have the confidence to map out a radical new agenda."

A debate over the future direction of New Labour has broken out at fringe meetings during the Brighton conference. Matthew Taylor, director of the Institute of Public Policy Research think-tank, told a meeting staged by Renewal: "It is time for 'Blairites who mean it' to stand up and be counted.

"For the last five years, many MPs and activists have allowed themselves to become the new Establishment. But by rediscovering their critical edge, it is they who can provide a renewed narrative for this government."

Mr Mandelson admitted at a fringe meeting yesterday that the "glitz and glamour" of New Labour trends such as Cool Britannia were a mistake because they lacked substance.

The Northern Ireland Secretary, one of the key architects of New Labour's image, told a Fabian Society meeting: "The public like razzmatazz. But glitz and glamour is no substitute for substance. Politicians are wrong to assume the public do vote for that."

Mr Mandelson said "trust" was crucial to the relationship between the Government and the electorate which was increasingly demanding and intelligent. It requires more than a bit of guff ... the voters do not want negative partisan attacks on opponents ... they now demand and expect the level of information that ministers have."

Mr Mandelson also deniedcriticising Mr Brown during television interviews on Monday in which he said the Government had been a "bit unsympathetic and a little high-handed" in its approach to the fuel crisis. He said he meant the Government as a whole and was not directing his criticism in a specific direction. On Sunday, Mr Mandelson admitted the Government had been "undermined" by too much spinning to the media.