Callaghan condemns PM's spin doctors

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LORD CALLAGHAN of Cardiff, the former prime minister, yesterday urged Tony Blair to rein in the Government's army of "spin doctors" and warned him not to distance Labour from its trade union foundations.

Asked about the high-profile political aides who seek to secure favourable media coverage for their ministers, Lord Callaghan said: " I don't like it. I dislike being spun. I would certainly not carry a pager myself - but then I am so old-fashioned about these things."

Lord Callaghan admitted that, during his spell as prime minister from 1976-79, the government did try to influence the press and broadcasters. "Of course, there was a certain amount of spinning, but we were much more amateur about it. We regarded it as a bit of a laugh, frankly."

He joined the criticism that Parliament has been downgraded since Labour regained power last year. Mr Blair has reduced the two weekly sessions of Prime Minister's Questions to one and rarely takes part in Commons votes.

"I fear the House of Commons is less important today than it was. I very much regret it," he told BBC Radio 4. But Lord Callaghan appeared to defend Mr Blair against allegations that he is a "control freak." He said that was "a reflection of the extreme way the party went in the Eighties."

The former premier said he regarded the Blair administration as a true successor to his own government, citing the actions of Frank Dobson, the Secretary of State for Healthand David Blunkett, the Secretary of State for Education, as being "in the true traditions of the Labour Party."

Lord Callaghan supported Mr Blair's goal of forging a national consensus. for the Government's policies. But he said it should be done "whilst adhering to our history - by that I mean that trade unions should continue to play a prominent role in the Labour Party."

Lord Callaghan suggested that New Labour's spell in the political centre ground might not last, and that traditional left-right hostilities might resume.

He said British politics was "a kind of pendulum" in which parties went from one extreme to another and then rested in the middle. Although there was now "a period of calm", argument would return.

"What Tony Blair has to achieve - and I expect he will - is to ensure that despite the argument, the country gets a clear view of what is going on."

Mr Blair seems to have taken heed of one piece of Lord Callaghan's advice. Yesterday he attended his third meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party in recent weeks and stressed the need for dialogue between ministers, MPs and the party. Until recently Mr Blair had attended the weekly meeting only occasionally.

MPs were promised greater input into the Government's policy-making process yesterday, by David Miliband, head of the Downing Street Policy Unit, who spoke at the meeting.

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