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In the heartlands, Europe is the problem, not New Labour

  • @ianherbs
THERE ARE few more potent symbols of Blackburn's alliance with the working man than the Brewery Tap pub. It is set in the walls of the town's Thwaites brewery on Barbara Castle Way, a road which will never let Blackburn forget the grandest ally of its working class.

Breweries and the Royal Ordnance factory employed much of the workforce here 15 years ago. Now it's the council and several hypermarkets. The old-style working man has gone and (judging by the European elections) so has theLabour vote - even though Jack Straw is the MP. The Euro turn- out was an embarrassing 17.18 per cent and the swing from Labour to Conservative 14.1 per cent.

"We are no longer a part of Millbank's kind of politics, even though Tony Blair is a North MP," said John Arnold, tucking into a jacket potato in The Brewery Tap, yesterday. "They didn't come out to talk to us about the elections so everyone still thinks Europe's a joke about the size of bananas."

The town's former MP, Baroness Castle, 88, would agree. "We have watched New Labour jettison the achievements of past years as ideological baggage which must be dumped in the name of modernisation," she said recently.

Even Phil Riley, secretary of Blackburn's constituency Labour Party struggles to resist the suggestion that Millbank is remote now. "I suspect the answer to that is slightly yes," he said. It was delicate phraseology considering Mr Blair, in documents obtained by The Independent, had said some constituency parties are akin to Trotter's Independent Traders from the BBC's Only Fools and Horses.

Since even Mr Riley struggled to get his party activists interested in the European elections, it would be wrong to depict the low Blackburn turn-out as the working classes deserting Blair. It's simply disinterest in Europe.

Neither are Blackburn's Labour activists flat-cap socialist-union members who feel philosophically betrayed - the decline of the industrial base put paid to all that. While the "old Labour" brigade number just six out of 100 in the local party, there are many white collar professionals and a relatively high ethnic presence - all reflective of the town's make- up. Of the "Del Boy Trotter" tag, Mr Riley mused: "We recruit who we recruit."

But even the modernists feel marginalised. Some, it seems, don't recognise the value of Government policies because of its habit of "acting left and talking right". "There have been two good, redistributive budgets but when things are being presented by stealth, the message tends not to come across," said Mr Riley.

In Millbank's defence, he concedes that after 18 years out of power too many constituency parties have become unreasonably "oppositionist". They expect to see their MP often and feel frustrated to find him too busy running the country.

But in the Brewery Tap, that is little comfort to John Arnold. "They talk about the Labour `brand'," he says. "They need to talk a Labour language again."