Party stalwarts concerned over drift from socialism: Merseyside activists fear that moves to widen Labour's political appeal could alienate working class supporters

Ken Murphy is a senior shop steward at Vauxhall Motors and has been in the party 10 years 'on and off'. He said: 'The party's adrift, a bit like a slow moving avalanche. You don't notice it until you're trapped.

'It's the attitude of John Smith's new Labour Party that firms like Vauxhall will take us into the next century with automatic production. What they won't address is the fact that making plants more efficient puts more people on the dole with fewer workers doing more work.

'The party's lost its nerve because it made a conscious decision to do certain things to make itself electable. I think they've made a massive mistake. There's got to be a more dynamic approach but I don't think this leadership is capable of it. They've turned the party into a job club and that concerns me deeply. John Smith's made no impression on me whatsoever. I neither like nor dislike him. He's just not the right person.

'We worked hard for 12 years in Wallasey and turned a 20,000 Tory majority into a Labour victory. I just can't understand why the party hasn't been knocking on our doors saying 'How the hell did you do it?'

'What's actually happened here is that people are frightened of being branded a left-winger. As soon as you put your head over the parapet someone in Walworth Road is going to swipe it off.

'Peter Mandelson (creator of the red rose image for the Labour Party, now MP for Hartlepool) thought to get away from the red flag and anything that looked socialist, but I thought his approach was totally wrong. The party doesn't belong to him; it belongs to all of us and that's what this leadership can't understand. They've totally accepted they can win elections with American-style circuses like that rally in Sheffield . . . but they're not going to do it like that. Even long-standing Kinnock supporters were horrified by Sheffield.'

Edward Byrne, a Merchant Navy officer, who has been in the party for 30 years, said: 'I'm not as active in the party as I used to be. It does seem to have changed. It's not as far to the left as it was, shall we say . . . It may well have gone from one extreme to the other.

'I think at the end of the day, the party's got to care more about its grass roots. I can see why they aren't interested in the working class and trying to concentrate more on the middle class. But if the leadership were to distance themselves too far, there could be the formation of another left-wing party. It's my gut feeling about it. An inevitable result.'

Paul Davies is Wirral party chairman and regional organiser of the Transport and General Workers' Union. A long, bitter local campaign to select him as Birkenhead MP in place of Frank Field still rumbles on.

He said: 'There's no problem with middle-class people in the party so far as I'm concerned. There's nothing wrong with a more professional approach. Some of the glitzy show business stuff during the election was not very appealing, but OK . . .

'It's all become so abstract. I'm not sure there's a plan to what they're doing. It's got out of control.

'People are asked to take pay cuts in NHS Trust hospitals and they turn on the telly and it's some peculiar argument about Maastricht that the leadership's worried about. At the moment, the Labour Party's irrelevant to the work I'm doing. I look at the Wirral and all its problems and wonder why the party never seemed to ask why people joined Militant or what was this vacuum.

'Thinking about it, it's quite extraordinary but I've never heard a comment, good or bad, passed about John Smith . . . What I have heard is the general view of Labour politicians as the middle-class people in suits who don't seem to have any relationship with the people I tend to deal with on a day-to-day basis - the low paid and unemployed. They're so busy appealing to the middle class, which they've got to do to some extent, they've taken for granted the traditional supporter and that's a very, very big mistake.'

Jack Gersham, 78, a retired official with Usdaw, the shop workers' union, joined the party 54 years ago. He said: 'The party's gone off the rails because there's been this effort to wean to our fold the middle-class element. I don't think it's worked because principles are principles and if you stick by them ultimately people will appreciate what you're after and what we're after is a socialist Britain.

'I think Mr Smith is a very highly intelligent person who certainly believes in what he's saying. He doesn't appear to be making the grade, if one can put it so crudely. The problem, which has existed in the party a long time, is when you have people at the top from the intelligentsia, like the present leader. It's not the easiest job for them to put over philosophies which, historically, are bound up with working-class aspirations.

'Kinnock was a very fine leader at his best who unfortunately assuaged his natural views to suit what he believed was a winning ticket, which didn't prove popular. I think people like Peter Mandelson precluded us from winning the last election and may well do so in the next one if they carry on the way they have been. They should go back to the '45 style, go forward and don't be afraid to say what you stand for.'

Pat Moylan, 45, a hospital domestic and local union leader for cleaners, said: 'I've always lived in the dock area of Birkenhead so the whole family's never voted anything alse but Labour. I'd vote Labour the rest of my life and that's purely out of principle. I think the party's lost its roots. Young kids are getting ripped off something terrible but all they're worried about is their middle-class votes. My son's on pounds 2.50 an hour, eight-and-a-half hours a day on a temporary contract, cleaning. So he gets no holiday pay and they can sack him when they want. I'm frightened for my members' jobs. A lot of the women I represent are one-parent families, or they're the only ones working in the house.

'I live on a housing estate where it's the survival of the fittest and people work on the side, under false names and the people who own the cleaning companies are getting fat, ripping them off because they can't put their cards in with false names.

'Labour ought to be in there, fighting and stamping their feet about it and shouting, but they're not. John Smith? The man's got nothing. Like John Major, he's just bland. They all talk about housing estates but none of them live on them.

'I wouldn't like to see another Labour Party, but people can see into the future and some will think there's got to be a break away. It would be a terrible thing if the party disappeared because the working class are getting crucified now and it would be even worse without them.

'I think, sometimes, if only we had a strong leader because that's everything isn't it? Can I think of anyone? No, I can't . . . Me]'

(Photograph omitted)

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