Leading Article: Mr Blair is the real Bennite now

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The Independent Culture
READERS OLD enough to remember the crazy years when Tony Benn nearly gained control of the Labour Party will recall the methods his supporters used.

They fixed constituency delegations and trade union block votes in defiance of the wishes of the "rank and file" members in whose name their revolution was being carried out.

One reader who is old enough to remember this is Tony Blair, who helped persuade John Smith to transform Labour's internal democracy in 1993, abolishing trade union block votes in the selection of parliamentary candidates and the election of the party leader. Another year on, Mr Blair was himself elected leader under this new franchise. More than three- quarters of a million trade union members, who paid their few pence to the Labour Party on top of their union dues, voted as individuals in a national ballot, and helped choose their future prime minister.

But now he has betrayed that legacy. Today the Labour Party in Wales votes to choose its leader and likely first minister of the Welsh Assembly. Superficially, the system looks the same as that under which Mr Blair was elected. The votes are divided in equal thirds between MPs (and Welsh Assembly candidates), party members and Labour-supporting trade unionists. But trade union leaders have been allowed to cast block votes on behalf of their unions, and to decide for themselves how to do so.

Yesterday, the GMB general union announced the result of a "branch consultation ballot" in favour of Alun Michael, the establishment candidate, against Rhodri Morgan, the troublemaker. We are back in the worst dark days of Bennism, only this time Mr Blair and the GMB are the Bennites.

The GMB bosses "consulted" their branches and then added up the membership of each branch to produce figures for their spurious "ballot". In every secret vote that has been held in Wales, whether of Labour members or of trade unionists, Mr Morgan has beaten Mr Michael hands down.

This may not reflect fairly the merits of the two candidates: Mr Morgan is a disorganised joker, while Mr Michael is dull but efficient. But it fairly reflects the resentment that Labour members and supporters feel at Mr Blair's attempt to fix the outcome of a decision they thought had been devolved to them. What is the point of handing power from Westminster to Cardiff if the Labour Party is going to act as though the UK is a one- party state? "If we can't actually trust Labour Party members with decision- making within the Labour Party, how on earth are we going to go out and try to win support for the Labour Party in the broader community?" As one Mr Blair said in 1992.

Of course, that same Mr Blair learnt another lesson from Labour's civil war in the early Eighties: that a democratic party that is serious about winning must be united. But, as he argued, that unity cannot be fixed or imposed by bureaucratic means. He has to win the argument in his own party that Mr Morgan would be an electoral liability - or, for that matter, that Ken Livingstone would use the mayoralty of London as a power base from which to undermine the Labour Government. That he has not even attempted to make either case suggests that neither is true, and that the attempt to block Mr Morgan and Mr Livingstone will in the end be a much greater liability for the party.