PM warns Labour of falling into 'comfort zone'

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Tony Blair has urged Labour not to retreat to a political "comfort zone" after he stands down this summer, warning that such a move would result in electoral defeat.

Aides denied his message was aimed at Gordon Brown, his most likely successor, saying his target was the candidates running for Labour's deputy leadership. Mr Blair fears they will send a damaging message to the public if they "play to the party gallery" by proposing a shift away from New Labour during the election to choose John Prescott's successor.

What he called his "advice" to his party came amid growing signs that Cabinet unity over Iraq is breaking down. The Independent revealed a week ago that three cabinet ministers have questioned America's decision to send more troops to Iraq. They include the Northern Ireland Secretary and deputy leadership contender Peter Hain, who yesterday attacked George Bush's "failed" and "incoherent" foreign policies.

Speaking to Policy Network, an international think tank that promotes progressive policies, Mr Blair said left-of-centre parties must maintain the "broad coalition" that helped Labour win power in 1997 with the support of the disadvantaged and those who cared about them.

"Never go back to the comfort zone," he said. "All parties have comfort zones. Progressives are more prone to them than conservatives. 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 uncomfortable."

He added: "Standing still means falling back. This will mean going further from the comfort zone, not straying back to it."

Although some ultra Blairites doubt Mr Brown would deliver the "New New Labour" product sought by Mr Blair, the Prime Minister exempted the Chancellor from his warning. He said he had no doubt that those who would lead Labour into the next election wanted the party to remain New Labour.

Mr Blair also made a call for a shake-up of Labour's "old-fashioned" and "hopeless" structure so it was based on "stakeholders" including supporters who are not members as well as activists. "If we need to have a broad coalition of real people supporting us to win, then we need such people to be part of our party," he said.

The conference on "Britain and Europe in the global age," was chaired by the European Trade Commissioner Peter Mandelson, who criticised the Government for not doing to enough to combat Euroscepticism in Britain.

Mr Mandelson said: "There is a paradox. Britain now has more influence inside the EU than it has ever had but at the same time, I think the Government as a whole has failed to counter and turn round the anti-Europeanism which I think is still rife in parts of Britain's political culture," he said.

Mr Blair said: "I've never had a problem speaking about the benefits of Britain being in a key part of Europe... to me, it's a no-brainer."

Alan Milburn, the former Cabinet minister, attacked the German government's plans to revive the EU constitution, which was stalled by "no" votes in referendums in France and the Netherlands in 2005. He said changing the EU's institutions was not the way to create a "people's Europe" relevant to the public. "It [Germany] is not learning from history but apparently determined to live in it," Mr Hain said.