Mark Seddon: So many warning signals, but is anyone listening?

After Blair was cheered to the rafters, an MP told me he thought many of his colleagues were lemmings
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The Independent Online

In the "Westminster beltway" it's back to business. Labour's poll drubbing took place barely a week ago, but already it is a dim and distant memory for the progenitors of "the Project". Messrs Mandelson, Byers, Milburn and, we are led to believe, Tessa Jowell, are busy fashioning a new agenda of "choice" for consumers of the public services and for what many of them still presume will be the " third term". The battle over the Labour manifesto is being joined.

In the "Westminster beltway" it's back to business. Labour's poll drubbing took place barely a week ago, but already it is a dim and distant memory for the progenitors of "the Project". Messrs Mandelson, Byers, Milburn and, we are led to believe, Tessa Jowell, are busy fashioning a new agenda of "choice" for consumers of the public services and for what many of them still presume will be the " third term". The battle over the Labour manifesto is being joined.

Some of the more perspicacious are already wondering whether it may be possible to put a cigarette paper between the "Choices" manifesto of Michael Howard and that which may have Tony Blair's imprimatur on it. Others suspect that, once again, an attempt is being made to "triangulate" the Tories; to pinch their clothes cunningly and hope that no one will notice. Tell that to the hordes of Britons whose choice of dentist is now largely limited to expensive private practice. George Orwell would recognise the crooked, gap-toothed English, as I did a few weeks ago in a holiday resort in Spain, waiting to have their teeth drilled and filled more cheaply than back home.

Others are already making choices, stark choices. Take the firefighter who stood up at his union conference last week and announced that his members "hadn't been stabbed in the back - they have been stabbed in the heart". After 86 years' affiliation to Labour, the Fire Brigades' Union voted to get out.

Under Tony Blair, Labour's membership has halved. Out in the constituencies those who remain are older and less active. Many cite the Iraq war and Blair's affinity to President Bush as the reason for not "stopping in". The mass membership party was always a chimera. But never did I think I would meet a candidate for a West Country seat who was selected by only 11 members.

Labour's local government base has been weakened, yet it is still a far cry from the haemorrhage of Tory councillors under John Major. Perhaps this explains why an air of complacency hangs around 10 Downing Street. Super Thursday was bad for Labour, but it was equally bad for the Tories.

But the flight from the Government didn't take place in the depths of a recession, with cutbacks in public services and interest rate rises. The defection occurred despite the Stakhanovite achievements of Gordon Brown, a shoo-in for next leader if he can be persuaded from the market fundamentalism that drives the Right in America and which Tony Blair wants to export to the apparently sclerotic economies of France and Germany.

As Parliament reassembled following the Super Thursday drubbing and Blair was cheered to the rafters at a meeting of the PLP following a particularly deft speech, a veteran MP told me that he thought many of his colleagues were "lemmings". This is unfair; the Iraq and foundation hospital rebellions were substantial, and beyond the 70 or so absolute loyalists in the PLP, there are the intractably indisposed and the burgeoning ranks of those who are looking for a lead and for an alternative.

Their problem, and the problem for the diminished legions of Labour, is that their party has been largely fashioned in one man's image. Centralised and unresponsive to many of their wishes, the "Blair Project" has often defined itself by being against much of what Labour has traditionally stood for. Along with Tony Blair himself, this is one of the biggest obstacles to a substantive electoral recovery. It is not enough simply to hope that voters' dislike of Michael Howard or another divine intervention of the perma-tanned Robert Kilroy-Silk will usher in a third term. At this rate, we could even be heading for a hung parliament, or, given the electorate's volatility, something far worse.

In Leicester South, soon to become one of the most bitter by-elections to be fought in many years, none of the existing and former government advisers who were sounded to be candidate has dared to put their heads above the parapet. The best chance for the party comes from the local Labour candidate, a former council leader in the city who was against the war on Iraq. "Blairite" candidates are now the kiss of death for any future by-elections in traditional Labour heartland seats.

Warning signals abound, but who is listening? After Jim Callaghan's fall from power in 1979, I recall the now ex-Labour MP, Tom Litterick, striding to the conference podium. "They called him 'Sunny Jim'," said Litterick. "They said that Jim'll fix it. Aye he did. For me in particular." Now there's a little Old Labour history that some New Labour MPs need to get to grips with.

The writer is a member of Labour's National Executive Committee

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