Let me tell you just why I can't stand old Labour

`To be brutal, though there have been good people, Labour has been for me a waste of space'
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EVERY FRIDAY morning in early 1975, it was my turn to sell the Morning Star on the steps of the Student's Union at Manchester University. At 9am I would pick up 10 copies of the six-page newspaper at the newsagents, pay for them myself, and then choose a good spot by the large doors. Joining me in the cold were the equally shabby figures of the Red Weekly seller, the Socialist Worker vendor, and the comparatively flash bloke with the enviably active sex life who sold Big Flame.

After about half an hour's competition, and with next to no papers sold, we would sell them to each other. I'd wind up with five Communist dailies, two Trotskyite rags, and an anarchist organ of agitprop. Meanwhile, four separate newspaper head offices would be led to believe that Manchester University was becoming a red base. Such co-operation did not prevent us, however - when the next week's general meeting came along - from knocking the ideological daylights out of each other on the basis of our doctrinal differences.

For today I'll draw two lessons from those tedious Fridays. The first is that all Utopias are substantially defined by who may not enter them, and Utopians guard the entrances jealously. And the second is that activists - most of them Utopians too - even from violently opposed traditions, have far more in common with each other than they do with those they wish to sell their papers to.

It struck me as wonderfully ironic to discover, in these pages yesterday, the arch right-wing Labour foe of my youth, Roy Hattersley, busily excluding Tony Blair from the ranks of social democratic Utopians. He argued, you may recall, that Blair is "the only Labour PM to dislike the party that he leads". Roy felt that this distaste had led Blair into an unreasoning dislike of activists, trade unions and Labour councils. So much so, that now he was planning to introduce PR for local elections - a system that would in fact reduce the numbers of Labour councillors. "Nothing more bizarre," complained Roy, "happened in Lilliput." But why should anyone who wants to improve life in Britain, like the Labour Party?

The politics of my adult life has been dominated by the abject failure of Labour: in government, in opposition, in councils, and in its connection with the trade unions. Roy's party was the party of Frank Chapple's machinations and Hughie Scanlon's lost card vote; of support for the Americans in Vietnam, and a refusal to impose sanctions on South Africa; of Doncaster council, and the rotten boroughs of Scotland and Wales. It was a party that distrusted intellectuals, fetishised ancient clauses, excluded those who were outside and conversed largely with itself. And after all that, it still managed to govern Britain for only 13 of my 45 years.

To be brutal about it, Labour has been for me - and for all that there have always been good people in the party - a waste of space.

Tony Blair's great attraction for the British people is precisely that he is seen as being not in that great, terrible Labour tradition. But that then raises the difficult question of what exactly he is. Is he a Gladstonian Liberal, as some claim? Or a Christian Democrat (as Roy believes)? Or simply an e.social@ democrat, as some of his defenders contend? He stands accused of attempting to creating a bland hegemony of co-opted opposites - from Hezza to Prezza - in which contradictions and difficulties are smoothed over by soft words.

Well, as the old Jewish joke says, Oedipus, Schmoedipus, who cares what he's got as long as he loves his mother? Despite all the tarantara, only the paper-sellers believe in socialism as a system. The rest of us are contending for versions of how capitalism should be modified and society managed.

To some, this lack of clear ideological battle feels like the denial of dialectics itself. But what do such critics offer? This week the "maverick" Labour MP Bob Marshall-Andrews wrote scathingly of the idea of the "radical centre", as represented in different ways by his own leader and the Liberal Democrats. "A penny on income tax may be a nice thought," said Bob, "but it is hardly the battle hymn of the new republic." What had to be understood was that "the ideals of the radical left... conflict and will always conflict with the precepts and dynamics of the capitalist world." Stirring stuff.

And what does Bob therefore advocate? A new world system? The abolition of private wealth? "We must employ our surpluses of income, together with modest increases in taxation to the eradication of poverty."

Modest increases in taxation! This is, to coin a phrase, hardly the battle hymn of the new republic! Even socialists, these days, do not believe in socialism. So it's hardly surprising that the rest of us are disinclined to buy our political philosophies off the peg. I do not wish to make a one-off, lifetime choice between social democracy and capitalism, or between liberalism and social solidarity, simply to fit in with Roy's and Bob's notions of how the world works. I believe in hybridity. My own better Britain is an extraordinary mix of nanny state, individual liberties, absence of deference, modernity, respect for heritage, anti-racism, meritocracy, environmentalism, and belief in the transcending power of education. I like Paddy Ashdown, Chris Patten, Gordon Brown, the Northern Ireland women's movement and Dafydd Wigley. I am a progressive, and there is no party that encompasses it all.

For us trendy progressives, nothing is quite as frustrating as the reiteration of old paradigms. Here we are, entering the third millennium, and some still want to locate the education debate in the old grammar versus comprehensive schools, or "let it all hang out" teaching versus learning by rote. Others measure commitment to social justice merely by looking at the rate of income tax, or by the top line in welfare expenditure. I think that Gordon Brown is much more persuasive on tax and spend than Charles Kennedy, but I'm rooting for Chuck when it comes to challenging Labour's insistence on a failed prohibition strategy to defeat drug dependence.

But refusing to embrace the proffered -isms doesn't let us off the hook; every decision that we take has a price. Nothing is more damaging to adult debate than the suggestion that there are cost-free strategies. And it's here that we could wish for more candour from Mr Blair. If we are going to protect the rights of those at work, insist on a meaningful minimum wage, encourage dads to take paternity leave, then we shall pay some cost in terms of economic dynamism. And we may also want to have a discussion about how large a disparity in incomes this country can accept without losing social cohesion.

The manner of these debates is all-important. They must not be conducted from behind the ramparts of party castles. So one objective that we chatterers and politicos should set ourselves (and I include the PM here) is to open politics up so that anyone can join in. Otherwise we end up on cold mornings selling papers to each other.