Mark Seddon: So farewell, Labour, and hello al-Jazeera

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The Independent Online

I'm shortly off to New York to begin a new life as UN correspondent for the new English-language channel al-Jazeera International, which launches early next year. A dissident journalist's life on the inside of "new" Labour, I like to think, has given me all the training I need for what is to come. But for conflict, I think I prefer diplomacy. And al-Jazeera International may be better placed to do that than the religious fundamentalists who snipe at it and each other across the East-West divide.

Ironically, "New" Labour was set up to do away with all of the conflicts of the past: class, wealth, you name it. Tony Blair and the Third Way were to provide a new way of conducting politics. This was a new meritocratic establishment, impatient with the old Tories and determined to forge a new, technocratic, modern Britain without the political baggage of the past.

What the Third Way-ers instinctively bought into was Harold Wilson's "white heat of technology" revolution - and it is something they have in common with the Chinese "new" Communists. This past decade has been remarkable both for the speed of change and the manner in which "new" Labour and the "new" Chinese Communists not only worship the "Third Way" but maintain a similar iron discipline over their followers.

When I look back, I am still amazed at the apparent ease with which former left-wing standard bearers committed such staggering apostasy and became market fundamentalists, and how disciples of old Labour democrats and liberals, such as Michael Foot and Tony Benn, turned on civil liberties, free higher education and much else. Above all, I am still staggered at how the party of peace and internationalism became the party of war.

What I have tried to avoid is the culture of malevolence, the cat calls of "betrayal" and all round glumness that seem to affect those who take things too seriously. Dennis Skinner advised me: "Never question the motives of your opponents." This was at my first meeting of the NEC at the Imperial Hotel in Blackpool, where the leadership had assumed the chairs in front of the big, sash windows, the sun streaming in behind them, nearly blinding us on the other side of the table. John Prescott as Don Corleone? Never! He was winking at me!

For the record, Tony Blair has always been courteous to those of us who took issue with him. I'm sure he thinks he isn't shown enough gratitude for presiding over three election wins, for the Northern Ireland peace process and the record spend on public services that began with a trickle and ended with a flood. In that respect he is probably right. But then I think that if he had listened to some of us on occasion he might have avoided a few of the domestic own goals, not forgetting the disaster that is Iraq.

Modern political parties are shaped by the media, increasingly dependent on big business, and hostage to the handful of marginal seats, with their few hundred thousand voters, that make the difference between winning and losing at election time. The media lives for "rows"; ergo "debate" becomes "division" - and Labour's conference becomes a fixed rally.

The nadir for me, some years ago, was to stumble across the "Speech Writing Unit", a bunch of bright youngsters turning out identikit speeches of impenetrable doggerel for identikit delegates fresh from central casting. It is this "control freakery", coupled with an obsession with the foibles of wherever the pollsters have located "Middle England" at any given time, that has shorn Labour of its membership. If our political parties are to be anything but shell operations, they need to allow a thousand flowers to bloom.

And bloom they will. Over the years, those columnists who used to scorn the unions, the scruffy delegates and the regional accents, have changed their tune. Now they have tired of the serried suits, the management-consultancy gobbledegook and the on-message acolytes. Yet Labour, the party they have written off at various times, is still alive and kicking.

For my part I leave happy, having just discovered that last time round, 60 per cent of Labour members in Sedgefield voted for me in the NEC elections. Sssh! Don't tell Tony!