Whatever happened to putting the consumer first, Mr Blair?

Genetic modification is planet-changing technology, and there is good reason to pause and examine it
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FOR A large part of the post-war period, much of the debate within the Labour Party was between "producer" and "consumer" interests - with the producer interests usually winning. Many of the arguments over the big issues were really ones between unions: energy policy, to take one example, was a power struggle between the slowly dwindling miners' union and the unions represented in electricity supply, and by extension, the nuclear industry.

In a sense it didn't matter; after all the Conservative Party was a producer party too, only it represented, instead of workers, the companies which employed them. What made the modernisation of Labour liberating was that it eroded producer (union) influence on the party; it made it easier to draw up programmes which were not so driven by the balance of vested interests which funded and drove the party.

Of course this is an over-simplification so wilful that it borders on caricature. But it will do as a background to the peculiarities of the present row over genetic modification. Principal among these strangenesses is the spectacle of John Redwood, a right wing Tory Trade and Industry spokesman, getting together with Friends of the Earth to put ministers on the defensive over the perceived dangers of genetic engineering to food production.

The Conservative Party projects itself, exploiting arguably the biggest chance of advantage it has enjoyed since the general election, as the champion of the consumers. Labour begins to look once again like the party of the producers, though not this time of the trade unions, but the big multinationals.

Again this is no doubt over-simple. The Conservative Party has not suddenly freed itself from its susceptibility from the interests of big business, as its performance on issues of food safety alone demonstrated when it was in government. Nor can a Labour government, more finely tuned to the popular will than any of its predecessors, be impervious to the dangers posed to it by the anxieties over GM Food which are beginning to register sharply in MP's post bags.

It's possible, of course, to see the whole row as one of those media frenzies which any self-respecting prime minister ought to show his mettle by standing up to. When you see the endlessly repeated phrase "Frankenstein foods" and "health time bomb" it is time to inject some scepticism into the debate.

Given the divisions between scientists on the issue, it would be a brave layman who presumed to come down dogmatically on one side or the other. Just because Monsanto faces the highly embarrassing prospect of pleading guilty to charges of damaging the environment this week, it does not mean that it may not, in the long run, be proved right, and that the new techniques will go a long way to ending world famine.

Nor is there the remotest cause for believing that Lord Sainsbury, the DTI minister who deals with the subject, is even slightly motivated by profit in his present job. Scarcely a man who needs to worry about where his next cup of coffee is coming from, Lord Sainsbury is not, it can confidently be said, in government to increase the profits of the companies with which he was associated before he became a minister, including two, Innotech and Diatech, specifically engaged in developing GM products.

And yes, the fact that talented and knowledgeable businessmen like Sainsbury or Lord Simon are attracted to the Labour Party is a reasonable cause for quiet celebration.

But these won't quite do as reasons for toughing out the present argument. For the politics are beginning to look distinctly difficult.

Forget about the fact that the Green Party may have been handed the one issue which could be the motor of a modest electoral recovery in the coming European elections. More significant is the fact that the Government is itself showing distinct signs of disunity on the issue.

Behind the scenes, Michael Meacher, the environment minister, for one, is conducting an effective, if fairly lonely, campaign on the Cabinet sub-committee on genetic modification, for an at least partial moratorium of the development of GM technology until there has been time for fuller research and reflection. Meacher is not, even within Whitehall, apocalyptic on the topic; he is no more convinced that GM food is catastrophe on a global scale, than that it is the answer to world famine.

But he is known to be sceptical about the latter claim, not least on the grounds that the so-called "terminator gene" in modified seeds are designed to require third world farmers continually to purchase and re- purchase costly seeds from the biotechnology companies.

Meacher is sufficiently concerned about the independence of one of the key regulatory bodies, the Advisory Committee on Releases into the Environment, to be planning to use the Nolan/Neill guidelines on increasing the turnover in official bodies of experts to plan the replacement this year of most of its members. Instead, the membership will be less tied to the biotech industry; and he is proposing, rather sensibly, that a high-powered Government enquiry into genetic modification be set up, on the model established when Margaret Thatcher set up Mary Warnock's human embryology committee in 1982. Finally, while he would never presume to criticise a colleague, it is unlikely that he would declare, as Jack Cunningham has done, that GM Food is "safe".

Michael Meacher has been written off many times before; but he is one of the Labour Party's great survivors. And I suspect the reason that he has made little secret of his concern - he gave forthright evidence to the House of Lords Select Committee enquiry on the subject last autumn - is that he is going with grain of opinion within much of the Parliamentary Labour Party - and, if William Hague has read it right, the mood of much of Middle England as well

A good deal of attention has been devoted to what looks like a cosy relationship between the biotech giants and the Government: some generous grants here, a Labour Party donation there, a total of 81 visits by such companies to government departments. But this is not a corrupt government. Could it be that the problem is not guilt but innocence - innocence, that is, about the claims made by powerful multinationals that anyone who stands in their way is simply standing in the way of progress?

Tony Blair's distaste for the nanny state is commendable. On GM ingredients in food, much can be done by strict enforcement of a forthcoming EU directive on labelling. But this is also planet-changing technology, and there is nothing discreditable about pausing for its full impact is examined. There are many occasions on which it is heroic to refuse to play the populist card. This does not look like one of them.

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