John Hutton: Let's end this absurd soap opera

We should continue as New Labour when Tony Blair is no longer our leader
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The Independent Online

The Labour Party is enjoying its longest period of electoral success in a hundred years. We have won three successive general elections. We have made Britain a fairer and a more prosperous country. It is our ideas, not those of our opponents, that define the centre ground of British politics. This could yet be our greatest triumph - the forging of a progressive consensus in Britain defined by our values. But to achieve that lasting shift, our central goal must be to remain the party of aspiration and opportunity at the next and subsequent elections.

People's expectations of what government and the world around them can and should offer are rising faster than ever; if Labour fails to understand that and does not champion further change we will quickly find ourselves on the wrong side of a crucial dividing line in British politics.

Foundation hospitals, greater choice over where to go for your treatment, trust schools and City Academies, tuition fees - these were all controversial. But just as forming the National Health Service was once controversial and difficult but is now overwhelmingly popular, in the future I think these changes will become equally part of the mainstream. And those who opposed the reforms we have made so far will be left asking themselves what all the fuss was about.

In the Eighties and Nineties the primary political battleground was over the structuring and management of the economy. If we are to be effective in our third term and win the next general election, then I am clear that we will need a powerful set of answers to new challenges facing Britain in the decade ahead. Already my colleagues are rising to those new challenges as they emerge. To name but a few: Alan Johnson at Education; Alistair Darling on energy; Ruth Kelly as minister of state for Communities; John Reid at the Home Office; Hilary Armstrong, Douglas Alexander and David Miliband.

For all the trials of recent months, the Labour Party has remained strong under the leadership of Tony Blair; we must never return to the bitter division of the 1980s that almost finished us off as a political force. Yet the welcome fact that there is no longer any fundamental policy divide in the mainstream of our party should not lessen the need for open discussion over how we face new challenges. We should all be determined to make a contribution to this debate.

I want every member of the Labour Party, and those who are not members but are committed to its values and ideals, to have a voice and a say in its future. The party does not belong to any one person. Its future must be decided democratically and openly. Debate is not a bad thing in politics; It is a vital part of it. In fact, New Labour itself was created through debate with the party and the country.

So let's not be afraid of a debate. But above all, let us be clear about one thing. Our goal is a fourth term. Not a hung Parliament. Not a Conservative government, where a period in opposition would somehow allow us to re-discover our "true heart and soul". It wouldn't. We don't need to re-discover something that has never been lost in the first place.

And we must not make the mistake of rushing headlong into a course that will make us look divided and insular in the eyes of the public and give comfort to the Tories. We will have a change of leader before the next election, that is perfectly obvious - but let us not forget that we are not yet even halfway into the third term of government we have long sought. We are in danger of severely damaging our cause if people believe that forcing the Prime Minister to lay out a timetable of departure, or even to go now, will restore harmony to our third term. In fact, it is those very demands that risk diminishing it.

We should focus on policy not personality over the next few months and get away from the absurd soap opera about whether the Prime Minister should name the date now for the forthcoming leadership election. It's a huge turn-off for the country and a source of enormous frustration for most party members, who rightly think our focus should be on the country, not ourselves. If we engage in a full and frank debate on the future of our party, if we meet the concerns of the British people, if we govern in the national interest, then I am confident that we can maintain and deepen the electoral coalition that New Labour built and win that fourth term.

My view is simple. When we campaign as New Labour we know we can win. And we should continue as New Labour when Tony Blair is no longer our leader. But our task now is to define what being New Labour at the next election should mean. The way we conduct ourselves over the next year can determine our future for the next decade.

The writer is Work and Pensions Secretary