Blair battles for Labour's soul

As the party leader travels Britain trying to rally opposition to Clause IV, Donald Macintyre witnesses a small miracle in a drab St Helens hotel
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In the closing minutes of the question and answer session at the private reception in St Helens for some 300 of Labour's movers and shakers in the North-west, Judith Jackson, a local councillor and activist in the Rail, Maritime and Transport Union, unintentionally delivers Tony Blair a real gift. She says she thinks it is "pretty sad" that the party has chosen to open up the whole subject of Clause IV when it was doing so well against the Tories. What's more, she adds, "I don't think a debate about the party's constitution is really a matter for public consumption."

That was a "very interesting point", says the leader, shirt-sleeved on the platform. "You see, I think our constitution should be a matter for public consumption. This is what we believe in. This is what we're asking the country to vote for. When we started this, people said to me: `What are you on about? Clause IV is never raised on the doorstep'. Of course it isn't. We never raise it on the doorstep. Why don't we raise it on the doorstep? Because if you knock on a door and they say: `Why should I vote Labour?' you don't say: `Because we can guarantee the common ownership of the means of production, distribution and exchange'." (Laughter here, even from some of those who have already expressed doubts about the change.)

"If you did, I think the answer would be: `Thanks very much, I've got something on the cooker'. The fact is we should have a constitution that is raised on the doorstep. And we should be raising it because we believe in it. You see, I sometimes feel that we think there is a tension between what we really believe as some little sect that is the Labour Party and what we have to say to the outside world in order to win their support. But I want the two to be the same.

"I want any member of the public to walk into a Labour Party meeting and come out of it more likely to vote Labour than before." (A real, self- deprecating belly laugh from some of the audience at this point, as they absorb what has for so long been the hilarious improbability of that proposition.)

But they know what he means. This demolition by Blair of the model of Labour as secret society goes down particularly well on Merseyside, where the party had as dark an Eighties as any region in the country. It has finally shed the incubus of Militant and has seen its membership grow in constituencies like St Helens by 25 per cent in the past year. But, superficially at least, it is also scarcely the most obvious bastion of modernising "new Labour".

Dave Watts, leader of the local council and one of the meeting's main organisers, recoils from the word "moderniser" - at least in what he calls the "yuppie" sense. And he won't finally commit himself personally on a new Clause IV until he sees its wording and is satisfied that it retains a commitment to public ownership.

But something extraordinary is stirring here none the less. It must be for so many people to put on frocks and suits, drive up to 40 miles on a wet Friday evening in February, stand for two hours in an overheated and soulless conference suite (cash bar only) in the Chalon Court Hotel and re-examine aloud their core political beliefs. When Louise Ellman, the regional chairman (you don't hear the word "chair" much here), finally concludes the meeting there are still a dozen or more people who want to ask questions.

And this is only a bigger version of what is rippling through ward meetings in front rooms and scruffy party offices up and down the country. According to John Fletcher, a local would-be parliamentary candidate: "Since the Clause IV debate started we have had some of the best party meetings we have had for years."

These are the party opinion formers in the region, and it is critically important for Blair to see them in person. He has a killing schedule of such meetings - another 25 or so before the special conference - most of which end up with seemingly interminable individual photo sessions with candidates for May's local elections. But there is much more to this than just winning the vote at the special conference on 29 April.

For Blair is trying to make two vital and complementary connections here. One is to link the party with the people, to give Labour a sense that it really can be the party of the majority, and in the process shed the tribalism that the internalisation of four election defeats has reinforced. This is vividly underlined when one stalwart asks: "Tony, are you just doing this to win?" Well, actually, that is not a bad aspiration for a leader, says Blair. (Another laugh.) "I do want people to come over to us and I do want to win. But it's not the only reason. Indeed, it's not even the primary reason, because I don't believe that we're going to win through doing things we don't believe in."

This is central to Blair's message: that running through Labour activism for a generation has been the myth that there is a permanent divergence between what Labour believes, its "principles", and what it has to do to win power. The task Blair has set himself is to rejoin the two.

There is an even better moment when Blair recounts how, at a previous meeting, one critic of his leadership said bitterly: "I don't agree with what you're doing at all ... I even know Tories who are starting to vote for us now." He gets a huge laugh, but there is also a sense of self-revelation among the audience. Some of those present recognise themselves in the joke.

The other connection is between Blair himself and the party, tackling what he explicitly refers to at one point - in the context of the Tories' strategy of trying to separate nice Tony Blair from the nasty Labour Party - as the "head and body" problem. Securing a huge mandate last July was one thing: what he is now trying to do with this extraordinary tour - unlike any carried out by a Labour leader in modern times - is to win the hearts as well as the minds, to make it his party.

The warmth of the prolonged applause he receives at the end of the meeting suggests that he is beginning to succeed. But it is no pushover. The questions come thick and fast: How do we answer the argument that we cannot deliver justice, freedom and equality, through the same economic system as the Tories? Do you really believe in public ownership? Will the international part of Clause IV contain a commitment to the "thoroughly undemocratic" Maastricht treaty?

Nobody, interestingly, explicitly defends the old Clause IV. Instead, the most tellingly expressed reservations come from Hazel Blears, a parliamentary candidate in the last election. Yes, she agrees with Blair about the alienation of many people, and particularly young people, from politics. No, she is not any longer interested in seeing the "nationalisation of Marks & Spencer". But Ms Blears, who will say - a little cautiously perhaps, after the meeting - that while she was unsure about the change at first, she now admires Blair's "courage", adds that she does want to be confident that: "as a Labour Party we are not simply about tinkering at the edges. We're about changing society quite dramatically, quite fundamentally, in favour of working people."

There is only one highly oblique reference to the disquiet felt among many activists over his decision to send his son Euan to the grant-maintained Oratory school, in a question that tries to test his commitment to LEA- run schools. But after the meeting a woman in late middle age is more direct as he circulates in a mostly enthusiastic crowd. "You've done two things which make me very nervous; one is about Clause IV and the other is about your son." She wants to be confident "that you won't do anything like this again". Politely but firmly disagreeing, he refuses to give the apology she obviously wants.

Indeed, he is pretty rigorous in avoiding warm promises about the future. No, he knows it is a lot to ask of the party, he tells James, a member of the RMT, but he is not going to commit himself in advance to buy back a privatised BR whatever the circumstances. Instead, Labour is going to concentrate all its firepower on exploiting the "very good chance" of mobilising public opinion to stop rail privatisation happening in the first place - as they did with the Post Office. And James is among those who clap. No, he is not going to commit Labour to pension equalisation between men and women at 60. If the party is serious about power, it has to distinguish between its long-term aspirations and what is achievable in the foreseeable future, and it cannot ignore the costs involved.

And despite all this, the audience warms to him. There are some signs at the meeting that Blair's most electric appeal is to the young, who have virtually no political baggage, and to those old enough to remember the Attlee government. There are students from Manchester and Liverpool University Labour Clubs. At the end of the meeting, an excited 19-year- old Lee Sutherland buttonholes him, tells him how difficult he found it to join Wigan Labour Party and urges him to do still more to recruit young members. It is Philip Bond, who boasts party membership of nearly 50 years, who presses him to order compulsory ballots on changing Clause IV in every constituency. And Ann Ward, 68, who actually says after the meeting: "I love all these changes in the Labour Party."

But if the St Helens meeting is anything like typical, then it looks as though this new confidence, this strange, slow process of self-discovery, is spreading through the middling age groups as well, the ones ground down by four election defeats and the party's own attempted self-destruction in the Eighties.

It is too early to be sure, but it may be that far from depending on the union barons to deliver the change to Clause IV, Blair will win much bigger support than expected in the constituencies. And if so, his conviction that the party will be strengthened by this traumatic but potentially liberating change could well prove better founded than even he dared to expect.