Leading article: The unpopular thing is not always right

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The Independent Culture
THERE MUST be no return to the Seventies: that has been the mantra of Labour Party modernisation. We can have bell-bottoms and disco, but we cannot have the National Executive of the people's party turned into a citadel occupied by those determined to accuse the Labour Government of betrayal.

This is all very sensible, but Labour's image managers make a mistake if they rely purely on institutional fixes for political problems. The conditions that produced Tony Benn's ascendancy do not exist today, although there are a surprising number of unreconstructed Bennites standing for election to the National Executive this year. What matters is that they do not declare their fundamentalist views openly, because they know they would not win the votes of the mass of party members if they did - one- member, one-vote democracy has made the difference.

However, the grass-roots members of the party are not all Blair clones, eager to express their support for the choices made by the present Government. As we report today, the party's new consultative mechanisms have thrown up the same sort of doubts about their party's record that might have been sent to Blackpool in old-fashioned conference resolutions. Members are unhappy about student fees, education action zones (which they see as backdoor privatisation), public sector pay and a foreign policy which seems to put closeness to President Clinton above ethics.

What is striking about this list, though, is how far removed it is from the lunacies of the far left. They are, indeed, all issues on which this newspaper has sounded a cautionary note.

Tony Blair would be making a historic mistake if he sought to stifle these concerns, or if he attributed them to the remnants of Seventies structures in Labour's constitution. He would be falling into the same sort of trap as Margaret Thatcher, who seemed to believe: "It's unpopular, therefore it's right." In fact, she seemed to think: "The more unpopular it is, the more right it is." Her disdain was reserved for public opinion, whereas Mr Blair distrusts opinion in his own party. It is true that his internal reforms seem to have run out of steam. But he should have the confidence to recognise that his changes have been more successful than expected in making Labour more representative of public opinion.

Too much of what passes for consultation in Mr Blair's new model party is a sham designed to soothe irritations after the event. He should not treat the views of his troops so lightly - he may need them one day.