"Tony has no concept of due process," a former minister wearily informed me last week. "One day it will be his undoing."
Of all the observations, over all of the years, I can't think of any that is more perceptive. As Tony Blair prepares to launch New Labour's election campaign at the party's spring conference this weekend in staunchly Old Labour Gateshead, the PM's disdain for "due process" will be encapsulated in his banal, oxymoron of a campaign slogan: "Britain Forward, not back".
"Due process" might have recommended that Tony had at least brought Labour's National Executive Committee in on the deliberations over the slogan - never mind the "unremittingly New Labour manifesto" that hangs like a Damocles sword. We met a fortnight ago and could have come up with something better - "Britain is better with Gordon" springs to mind, but no. I am still kicking myself. For at this meeting, in common with virtually all I have attended, Tony uttered his favourite banality, "We have to go forward, not back!" So perhaps Tony is not to blame, more an overzealous party staff anxious to please.
But an attention to history, or rather ancient history, might have stayed the hands of the colourless technocrats who thought it up. "Horatius" in Macaulay's Lays of Ancient Rome, has our hero standing at the gates of the city, defending a narrow bridge over the Tiber against the might of the Etruscan army. And so the cry went up; "Those behind cried 'forward', while those before cried 'back'."
"Forward, not back" is no battle cry. It's contemporary meaning is a warning of no return to the Tories - or the pre-1997 Labour Party. Shredded of any ideological content, it ranks alongside "blue-sky thinking", "roll out" and all the other meaningless management consultancy drivel that has kept some of us entertained and horrified at the same time during interminable meetings.
Any "due process" on Tony's part could have paid dividends. Both the campaign slogan and the promise of an "unremittingly New Labour manifesto" sends an immediate message to those who are not New Labour - still probably a majority in the party's hugely diminished ranks - that their services are not required. But what of the manifesto? Who will write it? And by what due process will it be given an imprimatur by the party? These are questions that I should know the answer to, but in common with my ex-cabinet minister friend, and possibly Gordon Brown, who we know will not be writing any of it, we don't. My guess is that it will be Tony himself, helped perhaps by David Miliband and that intellectual colossus Alan Milburn .
Another Tony favourite is to tell us we "can't have the Labour Government of our dreams", in other words we must all settle for what he is prepared to allow. Meagre fare indeed, but given what is on offer from Michael Howard, enough to get the recalcitrant troops in line. Except that Michael Howard hasn't an earthly and the fear factor may not work for much longer.
I recall being invited to meet Tony Blair in Number 10 during the Livingstone crisis. London Labour was clearly going to vote for Ken, so Tony and his lieutenants decided to gerrymander the electoral college and restore the union block vote they had so vigorously sought to disband only a year or so earlier. When I told Tony that many Labour Party members no longer thought they could make policy, he seemed incredulous. In fact, as I already knew, the perennially useful John Birt had come up with a "command and control" diagram for New Labour, similar to the one he foisted on the poor old BBC. This was euphemistically titled "Partnership in Power", and it marked the death of the Labour Party conference and much else besides.
In the years since, departing cabinet ministers, unbiddable commentators and senior mandarins have voiced their alarm at Tony's "sofa government". The checks and balances, necessary accountability, and yes "due process", they all seem to say, are in short supply. It has taken a war, and poorly thought-through legislation from reform of the gaming laws to 24-hour drinking to raise the alarm bells in these quarters, but for those of us who never took the New Labour shilling, it has been obvious from the start.
So what of Tony - and Alan's - unremittingly New Labour manifesto? My advice to Labour candidates is to take a leaf from their book, and produce their own, tailored to their constituencies. Nothing is stopping them from championing Labour achievements such as the minimum wage, near full employment, devolution and reform of the Lords. But why on earth would they want to commit to "welfare reform", without knowing what it might amount to, given that Tony won't be around for a full third term? Does the Labour Party support more privatisation of the NHS and education? It has never been asked. Does Labour support detention without trial and the suspension of habeas corpus? Does Labour support illegal wars? You already know the answer.
The writer is a member of the Labour Party's National Executive CommitteeReuse content