NEW LABOUR VERSUS OLD LABOUR: Modernisation is a long road

In the third in our series on the battle for the Labour Party, Donald M acintyre assess the state of its parliamentary wing
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Indy Politics
Whatever his own agenda, Ken Livingstone was probably right on Sunday to say that most of the members of the Parliamentary Labour Party would prefer not to be thinking about Clause IV at the moment. Even among those who regard that as an obsolete text, there are plenty of MPs with little enthusiasm for the fight to replace it.

Old Labour has a right wing as well as a left, and Gaitskell's humiliation in failing to replace the clause in the winter of 1959-60 is as deeply embedded in the folklore of those who have never believed in it as in those who do. According to an off-the-cuff estimate by one of Blair's allies, the PLP consists of 40 per cent modernisers and "fellow travellers", 40 per cent of no fixed political abode, and 20 per cent either old left or old right; and both the latter factions are deeply attached to the party's history.

The great debate over Clause IV coincides with the mandatory reselection season. If you are worried about fundamentalists in your constituency party, the last thing you want to do at present is to put your head above the parapet and denounce Clause IV. So it would be surprising if the PLP had suddenly turned into a well-oiled fighting machine perfectly programmed to boldly go wherever Tony Blair wants to take it. Forty per cent of the MPs and MEPS didn't even vote for him. Old Labour culture is evident in the voting deals and trade-offs which remain a feature of Shadow Cabinet elections.

True, there were tentative signs last October that the ice may be beginning to melt. Robin Cook's place at the top of the poll owes a great deal to his outstanding success as a parliamentary performer. Increases in the votes for Donald Dewar and for George Robertson, who for so long toiled outside the Shadow Cabinet, along with highly respectable runner-up votes for Brian Wilson and Alun Michael, suggest that the party is ready to reward both merit and modernisation. But the process has a long way to go.

Mr Blair is, by all accounts, confident in his ability to mobilise a largely united party behind him. And not without reason. The first point is that the divisions on policy between the differing wings of the party are much narrower than has historicallybeen the case. To take the topical example, the debate on public ownership is now virtually confined to the railways. No serious Labour politician is arguing that the other utilities should be renationalised .

The old Labour schisms - Europe, unlilateralism and the mixed economy - have now largely been resolved in the revisionists' favour. And even on the EU, on which up to a maximum of 60 revolted against the leadership line during the Maastricht debates, thetoughest anti-marketeers like Tony Benn, Peter Shore and Nigel Spearing are nearing the end of their careers. The tiny nationalist wing, moreover, is ageing and diminishing.

Secondly, there isn't an Aneurin Bevan inside the Shadow Cabinet or a new Tony Benn outside it to lead a serious anti-leadership faction within the party. Within the Shadow Cabinet, Old Labour is best represented by Ron Davies and Joan Lestor, and neither is likely to spearhead a revolt against the leadership.

Robin Cook, David Blunkett and John Prescott may have far more of the old Adam in them than Blair ever did, but all the key members of Blair's circle now insist that, whatever politicial differences may surface from time time, they are essential, allies in the task of redefining Labour's culture.

Similarly, while many of the post-1990 intake of MPs were nurtured by Labour's old culture to a far greater extent than Blair, they had experience of practical politics on local councils or in unions, and had shared in some of Neil Kinnock's struggle to stamp out Militant and undo the havoc of the early 1980s, and now identify enthusiastically with Blair.

The conventional wisdom is that once Labour wins, the old troubles within the PLP will return. Those around Blair insist not; that the mere prospect of letting in a Conservative government again will be as powerful a constraint then as it is now - and that even the most articulate potential dissidents on economic policy like Roger Berry and Peter Hain will in the end be more attracted by a job in government than by the prospect of languishing as backbench dissenters.

Finally, there is a question of leadership style. Tony Blair's decision to break precedent and appoint half a dozen junior whips of his choice is just one example. Blair's attack on the MEPs in Brussels last week, which went down well with the PLP because they don't like their Strasbourg counterparts, is another. Blair seems to believe he can achieve anything. "There is always opposition to change," as Blair put it in Brussels. "But leaders have to lead."

Tomorrow: John Arlidge on Blair and his Scottish problem.

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