David Clark: Tony Blair is still running scared of Robin Cook

When the Labour conference opens, the listening and learning will end
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The Independent Online

As one of the lead scouts of Labour's march back from the political wilderness, Robin never doubted the importance of collective responsibility and political discipline. He recognised that a party divided within itself would never be taken seriously as a unifier of the nation. Yet he also knew that there is fine line between discipline and control-freakery. It is a distinction lost on Labour's leadership.

Yesterday, Blair loyalists on the conference arrangements committee voted the resolution out of order, despite it having been submitted by 20 constituencies. Their arguments were threefold.

First, they claimed a more appropriate way to mark his contribution is via a video to be broadcast at conference's opening session. Robin would have appreciated this. He was seized on the need to make politics accessible to the MTV generation. But it is no substitute for a tribute in which friends and party members celebrate his life by discussing the values he cherished. Robin should not be wheeled out for a stage-managed rally. He signified living ideas and should be remembered as such.

The second argument was political. Officials did not see this as a commemoration, more an attempt to hijack his legacy and "embarrass Tony Blair about the upsurge of violence in Iraq". Sensitivity about Iraq is understandable, but to characterise a tribute to Robin as an assault on Blair's foreign policy is absurd. Iraq was not even mentioned. Yes, the motion reiterated Robin's commitment to an "ethical dimension" to foreign policy. Yes, it recalled a desire for "a world order governed by rules". What is controversial about that? I don't expect to see Tony Blair next Tuesday, outlining his vision of unethical foreign policy amid a world order governed by anarchy.

The leadership's final argument was worrying. It was that the motion would be "a distraction". That it will get in the way of discussion of "real issues". It is worth noting the issues that it seems are irrelevant to today's Labour hierarchy. A commitment to "a social Europe". A belief that "the market should be managed to meet people's needs rather than people harnessed to serve the market". An understanding that the way to recapture four million lost voters since 1997 is through "a serious process of renewal of Labour as the natural home for progressive voters and a party with a coherent value-based philosophy".

Does the Prime Minister really want to turn his back on our continental neighbours? Do leaders who follow in the footsteps of Keir Hardie, Clem Attlee, Neil Kinnock and John Smith believe the Labour Party should accept the market is our master? Does Labour think it can secure a fourth election victory by telling progressive voters that it doesn't care whether they vote for it?

Even if the Blairites do believe those things, their case should be openly debated. That is something they have always fought shy of. The contrast between the politics of openness that Robin represented and Tony Blair's resort to the grubby procedural fix is the most depressing aspect of this saga. It is, as Robin knew, the main cause of public disillusionment with the political process.

This motion was not a threat to Tony Blair. It was a chance for him to unite the party around a political vision accessible to both left and right and to demonstrate the "Big Tent" has space for progressive voices. That chance has been squandered.

Conferences come and go, but the issues remain. Social injustice. International turmoil. Political apathy. Robin Cook dedicated his life to these issues. He was a great parliamentarian. He had a towering intellect. But he had a greater strength. The courage to confront the issues of the day. His resignation was the most public manifestation of this.

It is a principle of Blairism that no one in the party should be allowed a political identity independent of the leader. Robin Cook was an individual strong enough to defy that edict and remain a recognised political figure. That is what supporters of the resolution wanted to celebrate and that is the real reason why the leadership had to stop it. The Labour Party today is increasingly colourless. It will not recover its popularity until it realises that it needs more Robin Cooks, not fewer. That is the real pity of this story.

David Clark was special adviser to the late Robin Cook