Focus: Fightback - Labour revives its past

After the Euro election disaster, the party hierarchy is hoping to rediscover the romance of the labour movement
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Indy Lifestyle Online
ast week hundreds of boxes were delivered to Labour's Millbank Tower headquarters. They contained the party's "secret weapon" for the next general election, a computer system linking the apparatchiks in London with activists around the country. This all-powerful network is already being nicknamed "Son of Excalibur", after the infamous media-monitoring machine that was used to rebut negative stories at the touch of a button in 1997. But its aim is very different - this system will allow Tony Blair to communicate not with the media but with his party members, e-mailing them with Labour's daily message. And this is symbolic of a shift in attitude.

The wipe-out in the European elections made the Millbank machine realise that it needs its "embarrassing elderly relatives" in the provinces as much as its glamorous Islington babes. On Monday, John Monks, the moderate TUC general secretary who lost his patience with the Government's attitude towards its loyal long-standing supporters last weekend, turned up at the Treasury to see Gordon Brown. It was a long-arranged meeting but it had a new significance following the union leader's remarks. The Chancellor did not miss the opportunity to emphasise how important Labour's loyal working-class voters were to the party. In return Monks stressed that he was not criticising Government policies - such as the minimum wage, the increase in child benefit or the working families tax credit, which have actually had a redistributive effect - but that he was concerned about the tendency to over-emphasise concessions to the business community.

The Prime Minister still talks of the importance of maintaining the "coalition" between old and new Labour voters but Downing Street now acknowledges that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of trying to please middle England. This week it intends to move back in the other direction.

The Government will still be "100 per cent proof" New Labour, as Blair said last week, but this week's "fightback", as Downing Street is all too happy to describe it, will include a cacophony of policy announcements covering everything from benefit reform to the Child Support Agency, from pensions to children's homes. The themes will be typically New Labour but there will be a subtle shift to emphasising the "core vote" agenda. Plans to ensure that the minimum wage is being properly implemented, by allowing the Inland Revenue to check people's income through their tax records, will be stressed rather than proposals to help the business community. Ideas for helping the inner cities will be promoted rather than initiatives to boost out-of-town supermarkets.

One aim is to put "clear red water" between Labour and the Conservatives in the public's mind. A slogan has been written for the summer months telling people that "Labour is delivering, the Tories are opposing". Ministers and special advisers have also been told to think of aggressive sound-bites that can be used to sum up their messages, as part of a concerted effort to repoliticise the Government. But there is also a desire to reinvolve the Labour activists who will be crucial in the run-up to the next election. Gordon Brown has come up with the idea of a summer campaign to highlight what the Government is doing to tackle child poverty - an issue close to traditional supporters' hearts. Labour members will be encouraged to tour the streets telling the public about policies such as the working families tax credit or the minimum income guarantee for pensioners and, if necessary, showing people how to fill in the relevant forms. This will be matched by a multi-million-pound advertising campaign in the autumn to drive the message home from the centre.

At last week's meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Tam Dalyell compared Tony Blair's autocratic leadership style to that of Napoleon. The veteran Labour MP had been to a seminar the day before, in which Professor Peter Hennessy, the contemporary historian, had said the current Prime Minister had "the most commanding style of premiership since 1945". He quoted not a left- winger but a Blairite who had boasted that the leader was "Napoleonic not feudal". Blair had dramatically strengthened the centre since getting to power, increasing the number of staff at Number 10 from 95 to 160, Professor Hennessy said. He tended to bypass Cabinet; the shift towards presidential government had, this Whitehall expert said, been "quite extraordinary" since Labour got to power.

It is a trend deeply resented in Labour heartlands, where it is seen not as strong leadership but the actions of a control freak. In the past few weeks Blair has begun to realise that the party needs its traditional supporters more than he originally thought. He recently invited Michael Foot and his wife, Jill Craigie, to lunch at Chequers to tell him about the "romance" of the labour movement. New Labour is beginning to see that its present and its future might just be dependent on its past.