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Labour's 'Angry Brigade' Shouldn't Dismiss Tony Blair

12/04/2013 12:40 BST | Updated 12/06/2013 10:12 BST

Shortly after Tony Blair became leader of the Labour party, the BBC began running Caroline Ahern's mock talk show, The Mrs Merton Show. One of the elderly host's best comic one-liners was her famous quip to Debbie McGee: "so what first attracted you to the millionaire Paul Daniels?" Reaction to the former prime minister's article in the New Statesman certainly has an air of: 'so what does three-time election winner Tony Blair think he knows about winning elections?'

Mark Ferguson, editor of LabourList, seems particularly riled by Blair's suggestion that "we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion". According to Mark, "considering what the Tories are trying to do to the country, we should be hugely passionate - furious even". Blair, he says, "speaks with the dispassionate detachment of the Davos Left".

But Labour's 'angry brigade' has misunderstood Blair's message which is simply: don't let red mist cloud your judgement. Rather than getting angry with the Tories, get even with them. And, on this, Blair is right: Labour needs to be in the business of the politics of answers, not simply the politics of anger. In a week when the 1980s has loomed large, Labour should not forget the lesson of its four consecutive defeats: that faced between a government and a pressure group masquerading as an opposition, the voters will pick the former every time. It was only when Labour came to be seen as an alternative government - a party willing to level with the electorate about hard truths and show that it was capable of picking priorities not simply producing a shopping list - that it was once again entrusted with office.

Thankfully, Labour has avoided many of the traps that it fell into in the early 1980s. Sneered at by some, Ed Miliband's talk of the 'squeezed middle' has entered the political mainstream. His recent call to "grow the economy from the middle out" echoes the agenda which saw Barack Obama re-elected six months ago. And rather than becoming a forum for internecine warfare, the party's policy review has sought to uncover some of the deeper causes of Labour's defeat in 2010, while the man charged with leading it, Jon Cruddas, has warned that "simply opposing the cuts without an alternative is no good".

The complexity of public opinion surrounding the cuts underlines the need for the dispassion and alternative that Blair is calling for. Look underneath the headline numbers in the polls, which show Labour with a comfortable double-digit lead over the Conservatives, and the picture is somewhat more unsettling. Those who want Labour to get angry can take comfort, for instance, in the fact, that, according to YouGov, 45% of the public think the government's spending cuts are 'bad for the economy' (although given that George Osborne looks on the brink of pulling off a triple-dip recession, I'm somewhat surprised that figure is not higher), and 56% correctly deduce that the cuts are 'being done unfairly'. Labour's problem, however, is that 59% of the public still think they are 'necessary' (as against only 29% who think they are 'unnecessary') and, indeed, by a margin of 12%, more people think the blame for the cuts rests with the last Labour government than with the coalition.

As Blair correctly points out, "Labour should be very robust in knocking down the notion that it 'created' the crisis. In 2007/2008 the cyclically adjusted current Budget balance was under 1 per cent of GDP. Public debt was significantly below 1997. Over the whole 13 years, the debt-to-GDP ratio was better than the Conservative record from 1979-97". However, that feeling on the part of 59% of the public that the government's cuts are 'necessary' will only begin to shift when Labour is able to demonstrate that it has an alternative plan that can both kickstart the economy in the short term, while bringing down the deficit and reducing debt over the medium term.

On welfare, too, Labour cannot allow its justifiable anger at the 'bedroom tax', cuts to disability benefits or Osborne's distasteful attempt to exploit the deaths of six children to blind it to where the public are. As YouGov found this week, 70% of voters (including 51% of Labour voters) believe the benefit system works 'fairly' or 'very' badly and needs 'significant' or 'major' reform. Sixty three per cent of people (including nearly half of all Labour voters), moreover, think the benefit system is 'not strict enough and too open to abuse'. As Ipsos MORI's managing director, Bobby Duffy, commented earlier this week: "Views of the welfare system have hardened over the past few years - but... there has [also] been a generational shift. Younger generations don't have anything like the connection to the welfare state that previous generations have, and that's a real challenge for the future".

In place of the Tories' attempt to divide the nation into 'strivers' and 'skivers', Labour needs to show that it offers an alternative which reflects the public's desire for reform. Liam Byrne is right to talk of a return to the contributory principle which underlay the original Beveridge plan, but the public will remain unconvinced that Labour is serious about reform until it moves from advocating a principle to producing a detailed plan for how this would be realised.

With two years to go until the next election, the question is no longer whether the Tories are bad enough to lose, but whether Labour is good enough to win. Tony Blair's intervention today is a timely reminder of that fact.