Labour holds its horses over racing

Mark Howe seeks out policies towards the turf from a party in pursuit of power
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The spectre of Marx has been haunting Tony Blair's New Labour this week, but in the guise of the brothers rather than the stern apostle of brotherhood.

While Lammtarra was taking the Turf's Bastille by storm, the party was taking control of the commanding heights of Brighton's cliff-top course to stage a day at the races.

The meeting was the culmination of Labour's Rolling Rose programme of events around the country, to take the gospel according to Blair to the masses.

The sun shone and they turned up in their thousands to give the course its biggest attendance for decades at Sunday's fixture, moving the course's marketing director, Roger Easterby, to enthuse that it was the best thing to happen to the Kemptown track since Graham Greene wrote Brighton Rock. What the old fellow traveller would have made of New Labour's travelling road show is anybody's guess.

But while the party has embraced the politics of the pantechnicon, it could not escape an element of pantomime, as a stage centaur stood sentry outside the members' entrance.

Inside, the political message was muted, although an extremist note was struck by the Channel 4 personality and free-marketeer John McCririck, a Damascene convert to Labour's chances of forming the next government.

McCririck got into the rosy spirit of the occasion by advising the multitudes to back Lord Huntingdon's Red Light, while reminding his audience: "Some members of the Labour Party want to abolish the House of Lords." A sentiment with which that radical scion of the Huntingdon family, Jack Hastings, whose mural depicting workers' solidarity adorns the Marx Memorial Library in London, would have agreed.

John Prescott had no more luck with his tips than McCririck. Labour's all-action deputy leader declared that he would not be backing Naval Gazer in the opener. The David Loder-trained hotpot bolted in.

The modernising mariner is more willing to pronounce on form than the content of policy. The albatross of commitment weighs as heavily on the party when it comes to racing as it does in deliberations on other issues.

Alan Meale, the MP who was the prime mover behind Labour's involvement with the Brighton meeting, expounds the party's good intentions toward racing energetically.

The sport already has a high priority and has been "discussed at leadership level", as the fifth biggest industry in the country, turning over pounds 11 billion a year and employing 150,000 people.

"We took a gamble on holding the meeting, because we believe in racing," Meale says, adding in the flush of Sunday's success, "we would have filled Epsom."

Labour has been talking earnestly to the British Horseracing Board and the Tote, Meale explains: "We have opened the door to racing before we got into government. We want to help in any way we can."

The assistance will not extend to providing the Tote panacea some in racing wish to see. Meale envisages a "public-private partnership developing, in which the Tote will play a leading role." But, he insists, "you can't separate bookmakers from the industry. We're not into sectionalism. We're not pro-bookmaker or anti-bookmaker. We're pro-racing.

"Nobody should be fearful about Labour in racing," is Meale's refrain.

But while, come the next election, the Maktoums may not have to quit the country before the last person turns out the light, the Tote chairman, Woodrow Wyatt, should start packing his bags now.

The Labour home affairs spokesman on the betting industry, George Howarth, says: "The Tote has been badly led for some time. Lord Wyatt, in particular, has failed to develop the potential of pool betting."

But the party has no definite proposals, even on betting tax, merely seeking "a more level playing field between different forms of betting because of the effect of the lottery," Howarth states.

It is a playing field, however, from which the monopoly bookmakers show every sign of wanting to take their ball home, unless they get their way.

Amid the tensions besetting racing, Labour chose the racegoer-friendly path in staging Sunday's meeting. If it continues along it in government, the party may have to be prepared to resist the pressures of the corporate razor gangs who want to carve the sport up on their terms.