... and why Labour is stumbling

Roy Hattersley tells Tony Blair where he has gone wrong
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The day after John Smith's funeral, I telephoned Tony Blair with a simple message: it was his duty to become the leader of the Labour Party and pilot us to victory at the next election. Were the time machine to go into reverse - and we were faced again with the same tragedy and the choice that followed - I would unhesitatingly make the same call.

During his acceptance speech, Tony spoke - in intentionally ambiguous terms - of the comrades and friends who supported him because he looked a winner. That was certainly one of my reasons for being a Blairite from the start. And I make no apology for being influenced by his appeal to the new electorate. For unless Labour wins next time, we may never win again.

So, Tony Blair's ability to make a likely Labour government certain was one of the reasons why I gave him my unequivocal support. But it was only the beginning of my enthusiasm. I had no doubt that he, more than any other of the potential candidates, represented the view of socialism - Arnold, Tawney and Crosland - in which I believed. That remains my view, but the time has come for him to make his ideological position clear.

Tony is, I know, impatient with the idea of ideology - a strange position for a religious man to take, for it is no more than the body of basic belief on which great faiths are founded. But unless he makes his true position clear, the little local difficulties he experienced last week are going to multiply.

The party in the country is certainly desperate to win, but it needs to be reassured about the purpose of winning. Mindless loyalists will write to me with the demand to know how I dare imply that winning has become an object in itself. But the events of the last seven days confirm that the anxiety exists. The anxiety is about policy.

As always, the complaints have been directed at a series of surrogate targets - the arrogance of the young men and women in the leader's office, the increasing detachment from the trade unions, and the most wizened of old chestnuts, "the lack of democracy in policy- making". The criticism would evaporate overnight if there were not a deeper and more general concern about policy. The fear is not modernisation. Only a handful of Luddites want to vindicate Labour's past rather than secure its future success.

I am a passionate believer in New Labour, a long time opponent of old Clause IV and a heretic who wants completely to sever Labour's formal links with the trade unions. But I nevertheless understand why party members worry that we have become so preoccupied with the problems of the middle classes that we have begun to overlook the needs of the disadvantaged and the dispossessed.

For a year, the issues we have articulated most clearly have been the subjects that worry the suburbs. Negative equity is, no doubt, a traumatic experience for owner occupiers. But in my constituency, there are families whose housing problems are rather different. They simply need somewhere to live that is not a couple of rooms in a dilapidated Victorian villa. A speech that promised a massive building programme would do wonders for the party's morale and, as a by-product, end many of the complaints about the role of Peter Mandelson.

Of course, it is hideously painful to be forced into selling a pounds 50,000 house in order to afford residential care in old age. But it is much worse to live on pounds 50 a week. Although I can recall the speeches on the need to protect elderly property owners, I do not know how we propose to improve the basic pension. Setting out our plans for an attack on poverty would put an end, there and then, to the silly attacks on the way in which the leaders' speeches are prepared.

There is, of course, a risible lack of logic in distinguishing between pounds 50,000 in the bank (which should be spent on nursing home fees) and pounds 50,000 in bricks and mortar, which should not. That sort of intellectual confusion is, in part, the price we pay for holding ideology in open contempt. Ideology is what keeps parties consistent and credible as well as honest. In the long term, the party's public esteem would be protected by a robust statement of fundamental intention.

Socialism - which is proclaimed in New Clause IV - requires the bedrock of principle to be the redistribution of power and wealth. If that objective were reasserted, many of the problems would disappear. And those members of the Shadow Cabinet who whisper that they would do better were it not for the leader's heavy hand would be forced into private as well as public loyalty.

Last week, I was assured by a senior trade union leader that he realised the economic illiteracy of deciding a figure for a minimum wage that would be implemented in two years' time. "We simply want to make sure they do it," he said. A little uninhibited ideology would quieten that sort of fear.

A policy debate within the party is now unavoidable - desirable or not. And the media, being what it is, will try to draw a distinction between Tony Blair the moderniser and the backward-looking extremist party he leads.

Neither Labour nor its leader has anything to gain from the idea that such a schism exists. The notion that Tony will look moderate and up-to- date if he battles it out with ancient apparatchiks is a public relations fallacy. Divided parties do not win elections. And it will be foolish to promote the suspicion that divisions exist. For Tony has much in common with the grassroots. Heaven knows, we need him. But he needs us as well.

Tony has never deluded himself into believing that he would have an easy ride to No 10. When the going gets rough, it is not the new recruits from the SDP who will stay at his side. They will jump ship as soon as they realise that he is not the reincarnation of David Owen. The necessary support will come from members of the real Labour Party who, rightly in my view, think that he shares their basic beliefs. He ought to confirm their optimism now and bring to an end the nonsense of the last week.