Remote Smith is accused of complacency: Party criticism of the Labour leader's cautious strategy is growing. Anthony Bevins and Patricia Wynn Davies report

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IN THE 10 months since John Smith was elected leader of the Labour Party, he has become even more remote than Margaret Thatcher in her years as Leader of Her Majesty's Opposition.

Every week, she would climb the winding stairs up to a garret room in the Commons to give an unattributable briefing to political reporters.

That tradition was maintained by Michael Foot and Neil Kinnock, who, after the Murdoch newspapers went to Wapping, put the whole affair on the record with full-scale weekly press conferences - before he eventually put everyone concerned out of their misery.

Mr Smith has not even bothered; Mr Major gives more set-piece newspaper interviews and the only time the media see the Labour leader is when he deigns to hold carefully staged press conferences or delivers a 'sound bite' on television or radio.

This month, his reaction to the Plant Report on electoral change was issued in a two-page statement, rather than a news conference. The media were also barred from the debates of Labour's first National Policy Forum, which, Mr Smith said, provided 'an invaluable second reading' consideration of policy before decisions were reached by the national executive and party conference. So much for Labour's commitment to open government.

The Labour movement does not much care for the media, because of its often well-founded suspicion that the party message is distorted by pro-Conservative bias. That cannot be said of the trade union leaders who believe that Mr Smith's proposals for one member, one vote democracy create too much of a gulf between the party and their organisations.

Nor can it apply to the Labour MPs who are currently protesting that Mr Smith's proposals could pave the way for manipulative 'godfathers' to 'buy' seats by swamping constituency parties with their own friends and supporters.

The message of both camps is that Mr Smith has become too remote from their concerns and interests.

But there is more to it than that. As the Fabian Review will show on Monday, there is increasing unease within the parliamentary party that Mr Smith is content to breeze along in much the same old way, relying on disaffection with John Major and his government's record to provide Labour with a Commons majority next time.

Although the Labour leader's office has protested that it is not true, it is a fact that Shadow Cabinet colleagues were staggered when they heard Mr Smith had told the National Policy Forum that, on the basis of the local election results, 'we would cruise home in Basildon with a majority of over 7,000'.

As Basildon is a general election indicator, the inference was drawn that Labour would have 'cruised home' in an election.

Such complacency would have to be built on the assumptions that the recession will continue, that welfare benefits - not taxes - will be cut over time, and that an increasingly unpopular Mr Major would remain leader of the Conservative Party.

As some Labour MPs complain, it is now much easier for the Conservatives to get rid of a leader than it is for Labour to challenge its incumbent.

All this might be less worrying if Mr Smith led a thriving mass party that could boast recent general election victories. He does not. Labour has been estimated to have just 200,000 paid-up individual members (as opposed to trade union affiliates), perhaps half that if late payers are excluded, and a large overdraft. It has lost four general elections in a row.

There are real doubts in some minds over whether it can claim to be the 'second' force in politics, or much of a force at all.

The Liberal Democrats, the 'third' force that Labour, especially, loves to discount, claims more than 100,000 paid-up members.

More people belong to, or support financially, pressure groups such as Friends of the Earth (240,000) and Greenpeace (400,000) than the Labour Party.

There is little hard evidence that Mr Smith is going to 'do a Basildon' at the next election. The most that can be said in his favour now is that he is strongly pressing his vision of internal party democracy. But he has, in effect, stamped on another idea, electoral reform, that might win more votes. He and his deputy, Margaret Beckett, thoroughly approve of laudable moves, for example by John Prescott, Labour's traditionalist transport spokesman, to build up individual membership and get back core Labour voters.

But little has been done to reconcile the circumstances and aspirations of this core - the people in the housing estate or on the dole - and the implications for public spending and taxation - with the party right's obsession with creating an image that appeals to the wavering middle classes.

Clause IV of the party's constitution is still blowing in the wind.

Labour has asked a commission to spend two years examining wholesale reform of the tax and benefits system - but has made no commitment to accepting its recommendations.

With the election increasingly likely to be called in 1995, many believe it is time Mr Smith came down from the mountain.