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What do the Tony Blair boos tell us about Labour today?

Richard Moss
Political editor, North East & Cumbria

image copyrightPA
image captionTony Blair often mesmerised conference with his speeches, but this year his name was booed

Just a quick reminder: Tony Blair led the Labour party to an unprecedented three election victories.

No other Labour leader has had such electoral success, none has served as Prime Minister for longer.

Yet what happened when his name was mentioned during the current leader's conference speech?

Booing and jeers, and also some cheering - but only at the fact that Ed Miliband made it clear that he wasn't Tony Blair.

Still raw

On the face of it, that seems astonishing.

It's impossible to imagine Margaret Thatcher's name being booed at a Conservative conference.

Yet, in a way it's not surprising. Much of the Labour party has never loved Tony Blair.

Many members I have spoken to in the North East see him as someone who moved the party away from their values.

The scars from the decision to invade Iraq are still raw.

But it's not all entirely down to policy.

Gordon Brown was as much a part of the New Labour project as Blair.

He was there when private providers were invited into the NHS, when the Private Finance Initiative was introduced, and when the decision to go to war was made.

Labour values

He also led Labour to one of its worst-ever election defeats.

And yet, I can't imagine his name being booed. Despite his flaws, Labour members see him as one of their own - steeped in their values.

In contrast, I think some see Tony Blair as a kind of alien foisted upon them, an aberration.

Remember how Neil Kinnock talked about "getting his party back" when Ed Miliband was elected last year.

image captionEd Miliband told the Labour conference he was not Tony Blair but did praise the former leader

Now I should say that Ed Miliband did go on in his speech to praise Tony Blair, saying he was a great man, who achieved great things.

He says he didn't solicit the boos, even if he did make a dramatic pause after delivering the line.

On the face of it, there may not be much harm in it either. Tony Blair is hardly a universally popular public figure anymore.

And even if some are characterising yesterday's leader's speech as a shift to the left, we are a long way from 1983.

There is a need for Labour to find a new message.

Tough decisions

But much as Ed Miliband warned these are dangerous times for Britain, these are also dangerous times for Labour.

There are sizeable numbers of Labour members who were relieved to lose power.

No longer would they have to defend the kind of compromises and tough decisions which go with being in government (that baton appears to have passed to the Lib Dems).

They are free at this conference to discuss their ideas and champion their pet policies without having to worry too much about how they would implement them or whether the public would buy them.

It can also be liberating in being able to attack what your opponents are doing to the country.

The danger is, they could be rather too in love with the freedom of opposition.

Perhaps some might want to recall a quote from a different conference speech then: "They say I hate the party, and its traditions. I don't. I love this party. There's only one tradition I hated: losing."

And the speaker? Tony Blair in 2006.