And here's to you, Mr Robinson

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The Independent Online
A COUPLE of years ago, the Daily Mail accused me of being a "champagne feminist", prompting a phone call from a friend who said it sounded fun and could she be one too. I'm not fond of champagne, as it happens, but I do enjoy a nice bottle of Chateau Musar from Lebanon or a Pinot Noir from Alsace. I suppose this qualifies me as a champagne feminist, socialist, republican, you name it. So what? I've never understood why left-wingers are supposed to like fish and chips with mushy peas (which I do) but not risotto with zucchini flowers.

I do not see any reason why the Tories should have all the good dinners, clothes, gardens - or houses in Notting Hill. The whole point of socialism is to raise living standards for the greatest number of people, not reduce them to a grim Stalinist conformity. But if this sounds like the opening salvo in a defence of the former Trade and Industry Secretary, Peter Mandelson, you can relax. I would have more time for Mr Mandelson, and New Labour generally, if they really were open to the accusation of being champagne socialists - if they showed any serious intention of redistributing wealth, rather than being mesmerised by their friends in big business.

On Wednesday morning, Radio 4's Today programme carried a live interview with Richard Branson. Mr Branson, whose hot air balloon was drifting over China, thanked Tony Blair and Sir Edward Heath for their help in persuading the Chinese authorities not to shoot him down or whatever they do when foreign aircraft penetrate their air space without permission. I don't care what Sir Edward does in his spare time, but I do object to Mr Branson's assumption that the Prime Minister should be ready to break off from the crises in which his Government is embroiled to assist a rich buffoon in an infantile publicity stunt.

But doing Mr Branson's bidding is a quintessential New Labour act, just as it was when Mr Blair spoke to the then Italian Prime Minister, Romano Prodi, on Rupert Murdoch's behalf. For what we are discovering about Mr Blair's project, after 20 months in office, is that it has two major fault-lines. One was exposed last week, when Mr Blair's close relationship with the President of the United States resulted in four consecutive nights of pointless bombing in Iraq - an enterprise which was called off, for those of us with suspicious minds, around the time Mr Clinton realised he was going to be impeached by the House of Representatives after all.

The other is New Labour's troubling relationship with big business. When it emerged just over a year ago that the party had accepted a donation of pounds 1m from the Formula 1 boss, Bernie Ecclestone, Mr Blair evinced pained surprise that anyone should suspect him of being open to influence. I joked at the time that the Government had pinched so many policies from the Conservatives that they were now inheriting traditional Tory donors as well, but the episode was symptomatic of a malaise which goes right to the heart of New Labour.

There is nothing wrong with mixing with wealthy people, which the Prime Minister and some of his Cabinet colleagues like to do. But the interests of entrepreneurs like Mr Murdoch are not those of millions of people who voted Labour last year, on many issues, such as union rights and the minimum wage, they are fundamentally opposed. What makes the relationship even more fraught is that most labour politicians are at a disadvantage because their paths are not eased by inherited wealth or the directorships which accrue to Tory hopefuls. The trappings of office - the salons, the elegant drawing-rooms - remain tantalisingly out of reach. Or they turn out to be available, at a price.

What I am suggesting here is not old-fashioned corruption, accepting money for favours, but a more insidious process. It is clear from Mr Mandelson's decision to buy a house he could not possibly afford that he had come to identify with his rich, influential friends, so much so that he took an extremely foolish risk in order to replicate their lifestyle. The crux of the case against him is double standards, that he expected to live beyond his means while preparing to join a Government so anxious not to offend business interests that it set a minimum wage of only pounds 3.60 an hour.

This is just as much a form of cronyism as Mr Blair's slavish determination to do whatever Mr Clinton tells him. It exposes a crass insensitivity on the part of ministers who have consistently mocked the old socialists, champagne or otherwise, who urged them to increase taxation for the well- off in order to tackle scandalous inequalities of wealth. Now Mr Mandelson's Notting Hill house has become a symbol of a conflict Mr Blair and his colleagues have yet to resolve. I could not resist drinking a toast on Wednesday as news of the two ministerial resignations came through - and what better way to commemorate the occasion than with a glass of chilled champagne?