Why is Blair so worried by Labour's hard left?

Given that Blair is in such command and the Left relatively weak, what's going on?
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The Independent Culture
THESE DAYS the pre-conference season is often more exciting than the conference season itself. Signs of revolt surface briefly in August and early September only to peter out when the time to head for Blackpool, Bournemouth or Brighton finally comes round.

In their conference submissions, local Labour parties complain about a range of government policies, but the Government is still too young and its direction too unclear for there to be serious spats on the conference floor. As we will not be allowed into the question-and-answer sessions at this year's Labour conference, let us imagine the exchanges instead.

"I am worried a single currency will kill jobs," a delegate may declare. Gordon Brown and Robin cook will no doubt harmoniously reply: "There is a possibility, which is why we will only join when it is in Britain's economic interests".

"We are worried about pensions," another delegate may declaim. "So are we," Alastair Darling may reply, "which is why we are reviewing them to ensure that everybody has a decent living in retirement." These are hardly the sort of exchanges that will arouse passions. Party officials can only be banning journalists for fear of being criticised for blandness.

However, when policies become less blurred over the next few years, there will be real tensions that will be impossible to suppress. The Tory conferences were models of centralised control. Even so, when divisions emerged they became the scene for some of the most electric political theatre in recent years.

No one at the Conservative conference in 1992 remembers the bland motion congratulating the Government on its policy towards Europe that was virtually unanimously "passed", but no one will forget Lord Tebbit's denunciation of Major's policies and the near orgasmic ovation he received from a third of the floor. When large numbers of party members gather together for a week and an issue is troubling them, we will get to know about it however many sessions are held behind closed doors.

For now though, Blair remains a charmed leader, facing no coherent dissent. The so-called hard Left - as represented by the Campaign Group of MPs - is small and divided, especially over Europe.

Compare the views of its two most prominent members. Ken Livingstone is a supporter of a single currency while Alan Simpson, secretary of the Campaign Group, will publish a book on the future of the Left this autumn in which he expresses unbending opposition to EMU.

Livingstone claims to be an admirer of Blair, regarding him as a genuinely radical figure, but, as readers of his column in The Independent will know, he has an almost irrational dislike of Gordon Brown. Most on the Left see Brown as the more radical figure.

The so-called soft Left, which looks to Robin Cook as its natural leader, has also been neutered. Cook is licking his wounds after a turbulent year and is in no position, yet, to be anything other than utterly loyal. Some of his allies are junior ministers and speak privately of their concerns to journalists and to each other, but this hardly amounts to very much. Anyway, Brown's statement on his public spending plans last month so tickled their Keynesian instincts that some of them are wearing smiles that, believe it or not, are genuine.

However, unease about the gap between Labour's leadership and its members, rather than over precise policy issues, is likely to be reflected in the results of the National Executive Committee elections. The Left could easily perform well at the expense of the Blairites.

Belatedly, the Blairites have started to worry that the likes of Liz Davies (banned from standing as a candidate at the last election because of her left-wing past) could be elected, while loyal modernisers could face defeat.

They have drafted in the council leader Lord Bassam, and one or two others with good grass-roots contacts, to ensure that the nightmare headline "The Left routs Blairites" does not appear after the NEC elections. Bassam has warned them that, lacking time and resources, he may not be able to deliver.

The same forces are at play that enabled Ken Livingstone to beat Peter Mandelson last year (a result of underestimated significance). The consensus was that Livingstone's win over Mandelson was a warning shot across the bows of a triumphant, all-conquering Blair.

As John Prescott warned Tony Blair before the summer break, this has now become a serious problem for the leadership. And the defining issue could be the "Livingstone Question". The leadership believes there is a stronger possibility than ever that, given the chance, the London Labour party would select Ken Livingstone to be its candidate for Mayor.

Not so long ago, Tony Blair was adamant: the London Labour party would not be given such a chance. He told allies privately that he would act to prevent Livingstone from standing, probably by allowing the party's National Executive to veto his candidacy. But the growing unease over perceptions of "control freakery" and Livingstone's increasing popularity mean that such a move would now be explosive.

Consider the stories that have most damaged the Government in recent weeks: complaints about the number of planted questions asked by robotic New Labour MPs in the Commons; off-the-record briefings against the former minister, Frank Field; the row over the recent Commons' Committee report on the role of Alastair Campbell; the "Drapergate" affair. All have a common theme: concern over excessive centralised control.

Compare these centralising sins to the parallel renaissance of Livingstone. He moves from stereotype to stereotype with unruffled charm. The "Cuddly Ken" of the mid-1980's, when his most politically daring act was to jump into a liquid sludge tank on Noel Edmonds' TV show, has acquired a new political cutting edge.

He writes for this newspaper and has recently had favourable editorials in the highly influential Evening Standard, where he also writes (this is the cuddly bit) restaurant reviews. If Blair acts to block Livingstone in these changed political circumstances, the details will go unnoticed within such an explosive and symbolic conflict between the Centraliser and the Party.

Blair's dilemma is acute, as he could be seriously damaged over a sustained period of time if Livingstone becomes the face and voice of London. I have a solution. He should make Livingstone a minister in the Government in his next reshuffle.

Livingstone told me last autumn that he wanted to be one and would abide by collective responsibility. He would be a perfectly good minister, but from Blair's point of view would have a much smaller platform than he would as a London Mayor. No doubt Blair would prefer to consign him permanently to Noel Edmonds' liquid sludge tank, but he should choose instead to smother Ken with kindness.

Steve Richards is Political Editor of the `New Statesman'

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