Blair instils gulag discipline

Paul Routledge counts the casualties of Labour's `new Stalinism'
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The Independent Online
New Labour, new gulag. Tony Blair's merciless way with shadow ministers who stray from the policy path is earning his regime the dubious soubriquet of "new Stalinism".

Last week it was Clare Short's turn to be given the treatment. Again. Silencing the shadow transport secretary may be the political equivalent of squaring the circle, but that does not prevent the Labour leader trying. Her mini-gaffe over tax - suggesting that she herself might be able to pay more - prompted a ban on radio appearances by her on the very day Railtrack's prospectus was published.

According to her camp, Labour's Uncle Joe could not even wait for Ms Short to return home from the studio before bleeping her. She had a problem (not him, you understand), he said. She is "principled, honest and fair". And the world is not. The Blair camp insists he did not read her the riot act until Monday. Furthermore, it is claimed, he doesn't know how to operate a bleep, which is either untrue or the country is about to get a prime minister who cannot dial 01459.

However he goes about it, the awkward squad certainly get the message. Ron Davies, shadow Welsh secretary, was forced to retract his remarks about the Prince of Wales not being king material - and apologise. Ms Short was previously handbagged for echoing several chief constables that cannabis should be legalised. Mark Fisher, the arts spokesman, was carpeted for suggesting that the Elgin Marbles might one day go back to the Parthenon (until then, nobody knew what the Blair line on statues was). Kevin McNamara, shadow Northern Ireland secretary, had to go because he was unacceptable to the Unionists. And so on, and so on.

This rebirth of democratic centralism goes down well in some quarters. Jamie Cann, MP for the marginal seat of Ipswich, enthuses: "Tony Blair is the toughest leader the Labour party has had in my lifetime. That is precisely what the party needs. Members may not agree with every decision. Neverthless, he is imposing a unity on the party that is awesome. You may call it Stalinism. I call it leadership." A fellow MP well to the right of the party rejoined heartily: "Quite right too!"

In fact, Blair's Law is a refinement of the doctrine of collective responsibility. In real terms, the collective agrees with the boss. Tony Benn argues that this should apply when the party is in power, but not until then. Mr Blair believes it applies here and now, and his lieutenants are vigilant in getting that message across. A "senior Blair aide" was quoted as saying that Ms Short "accepted she has screwed up big time". Indeed, the leader's press secretary, Alastair Campbell, told lobby correspondents: "She gave herself a bollocking."

Really? The anecdotal evidence suggests that voters actually like her honesty, and find it a refreshing change from the unrelenting fibbery they get from many politicians. The same goes for the deputy leader, John Prescott. But new Labour has only so much patience with what it calls "character politicians". Discipline comes before freedom of expression.

But Mr Blair did not invent hard-line party management. The Gaitskellites, according to veteran commentator John Cole, anticipated Lady Thatcher by many years with the attitude that "those are not with us are against us". Harold Wilson famously allowed every dog one bark, knowing he issued the dog licences. Neil Kinnock was tough with wayward MPs and not even the late John Smith was squeamish about putting down dissent.

The new element in the equation is the prospect of power. "What you have to remember," said one old Westminster hand, "is that in their minds' eye, some Labour frontbenchers are already leaning back in their ministerial limousines, fingering their red despatch boxes. They are so hungry for power it's surprising they don't occasionally bite a lump out of passers- by.