Is this a labour party, brother?: No, it's meant for everyone...

Click to follow
Is the Labour Party any longer a labour party?

This week, perhaps for the first time since the party was born in the early part of the century, the answer to that question seems to be an unequivocal No. Tony Blair's determination to stand by his junior spokesman Stephen Byers after he had briefed journalists that the party might ditch its union link, and then the public repudiation of the word socialism by another leading Blairite, Kim Howells - who was again backed by his leader - are unmissable signs.

We must assume that Mr Blair does indeed intend to lead a party that is not connected to organised labour and which defines itself without reference to socialist ideology. Even for a party which has been through such a torrent of change as Labour, this is a watershed.

How far can Blair go? He will face some irate traditionalists at the party' s own conference and he needs union funding until the election itself. But what he is doing seems to be popular with voters, and the parliamentary left is now a weak and elderly force. The real barriers to further shifts away from Labour's 20th-century history, to the point where that "project" simply disappears, are a few suspicious and very senior members of the Shadow Cabinet.

The loss of John Prescott, whose views on the formal repudiation of socialism are likely to be salty, to put it mildly, would be difficult to cope with. Trickier still would be any rift with Robin Cook, who sees himself in some ways as a keeper of the socialist faith. It is very useful for Blair to have the odd fight with the left, and beat them; but there may come a point when the perception of a split party worries him more.

Until then, however, the revolution continues. At the weekend Tony Benn said he could not believe that politics in the 21st century would revert to that of the 19th century when "you had two capitalist parties". But that, he added, was what "modernisation is all about". Mr Benn is on to something. The idea that Tony Blair's Labour Party might in time have at least as much in common with Gladstonian or Asquithian Liberalism as with the mid-20th century version of Labour is not outlandish.

Consider the Labour leader's article in the Observer on Sunday, and its extraordinary reappraisal of Labour's early history. Almost by accident, he seems to be saying, the influence of Marx tied Labour to "a particular form of economic doctrine". What's more this was "heightened" by the "division in radical politics . . . between Labour and the Liberals".

Blair is taking a liberty with history when he goes on to claim that the Trades Union Congress was created when some unions "disapproved of ... forming the Labour Party". The TUC was formed in 1868, the Labour Representation Committee in 1900. But that does not affect his complaint that "Lloyd George, Keynes and Beveridge became separated from Attlee, Bevin and Bevan, though in truth they had the same basic ideals." According to Mr Blair the forces that caused this split are spent. If this is not reclaiming the high ground of 19th- and early 20th-century Liberalism, what is?

The unease caused by all this among those senior Shadow Cabinet colleagues will not be reduced by Mr Blair's speech in the City last night. Again and again he made it clear that he was not trying to claim that every economic policy of previous Labour governments was good or every one taken by previous Tory governments bad.

It is shocking, certainly. But that does not make it wrong.And there is something more. It is fashionable to complain about the absence of deep difference between the two main parties. But a 19th-century radical would have been surprised at the idea that, because the two parties wanted to make capitalism work, in the Liberals' case in the interests of the largest number, there was no electoral choice. Gladstone, fiscally responsible but, as time wore on, more and more a reformer, is not an unworthy model.

It does not, of course, mean that Blair is seeking to abandon every triumph of Labour's history. But it does mean that his journey back to the future is much longer than any of us thought. Tony Benn is right. This is not Labour as we know it.