The Labour Party has a massive majority, so why is its leadership so defensive?

Referendums are a risky business. Mr Blair made the pledge because he concluded that he was weaker than he really is
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The Independent Online

Behind the supremely self-confident façade, New Labour has been defined always by a nervy defensiveness. Tony Blair's decision to hold a referendum on Europe highlights the degree to which he continues to underestimate the strength of his political position and the weakness of his opponents.

Behind the supremely self-confident façade, New Labour has been defined always by a nervy defensiveness. Tony Blair's decision to hold a referendum on Europe highlights the degree to which he continues to underestimate the strength of his political position and the weakness of his opponents.

There were two very different ways of reaching a decision on a referendum. One was to conclude that, in spite of all that had gone wrong in Iraq, the Government was still ahead in most polls, the economy was strong, the Conservatives' recovery was limited and, in the Commons, Labour presided over a massive majority. In a position of such unprecedented strength, there was no need to give in to the screams for a referendum, made most forcefully by those who despise Britain's involvement in Europe.

The other way of looking at the situation was this: virtually everyone appears to hate us, in particular they think we are arrogant and do not listen, we will lose the next election if we alienate Rupert Murdoch's newspapers. We will give in and hold a referendum. As we all know, Mr Blair chose the second route.

Mr Blair and other leading figures in New Labour suffer from the wholly inaccurate perception that they are arrogant, indifferent to the views of voters and the media. They have never been arrogant enough. Even after this latest dramatic U-turn, some of Mr Blair's opponents accuse him of arrogance, claiming that he was convinced he was right to oppose a referendum and now he is equally confident he is right to hold one. This is nonsense.

I sense unease about this decision from Tony Blair downwards, nervousness about winning the argument over the timing of when a vote should be held and what this U-turn portends, not just for Britain but the whole of the European Union. They are nervous for good reasons. Referendums are a risky business, rarely delivering what they appear to offer. Mr Blair made the pledge because he concluded he was weaker than he really is.

After two landslide election victories and nearly seven years in power, the leading figures that formed New Labour are still pinching themselves. They served their political apprenticeships in the context of appalling political defeats. To some extent, they still feel impostors on power, disturbing the natural order of things in which the Conservatives rule effortlessly, cheered on by a self-confident right of centre establishment.

When these apparent New Labour impostors try to create their own establishment, it fails to take shape so smoothly. Look at what happened at the BBC under Gavyn Davies and Greg Dyke, New Labour supporters who fell out so dramatically with the Government. It was all too much. The natural order had been disrupted.

Leading Conservative supporters ran the BBC under Conservative governments without such volcanic disturbances. Furthermore, these leading New Labour figures read the self-assured right-wing newspapers and fear their readers share the same views, or will come to share them over time. Philip Gould's famous focus groups often deliver gloomy findings from their sitting rooms in Edgware or Watford.

Instead of being arrogant, the New Labour evangelists are burdened by introspective gloom a lot of the time. As one of its leading outriders said to me recently: "New Labour was an essentially defensive reaction to the 1980s and 1990s. It was more about what we were not rather than what we were for." The call for a referendum was another defensive reaction.

The defensiveness extends to the key players in the Government. It is not just a prime ministerial characteristic, but also a common feature of all those who played a part in urging a referendum. Gordon Brown became famous partly due to his stealthy taxes, fearful that the voters might discover what he was up to and disapprove to such an extent that Labour would be booted out of office.

Jack Straw once declared that he sees himself as the shop steward for Blackburn, representing the fears of his constituents rather than seeking to persuade them that their fears might be unjustified. John Prescott is tormented by insecurities, often misplaced. He has had some innovative ideas on transport, housing and regional policies, but has been too wary of persisting with them, placing loyalty above implementation of policy.

Of course, such alertness to their own potential weaknesses and their obsessive focus on opponents can be a great political strength. This is a government that has achieved much while retaining broad support. Indeed, by introducing change with care and guile, New Labour has forced the Conservatives to change their minds on issues varying from the minimum wage to devolution, a substantial and underestimated achievement. But crucially, these policies had been implemented before the Tories were won round.

If the revised EU constitution had been ratified by Parliament, the Conservative leadership would have accepted the verdict before very long. They no longer complain about the Amsterdam Treaty signed by Tony Blair in 1997, although at the time they were warning that it would mean the end of this country's independence.

While Mr Blair's perpetual war on complacency has an upside, it can lead to a neurotic paralysis. Before the 1997 general election, Mr Blair hemmed himself in with unnecessarily tight commitments on tax, spending and Europe, all pledged as if John Major was a political titan rather than a chronically insecure leader of a party that was falling apart.

In power, Mr Blair did not dare to reform the privatised railways in case he faced accusations of being old Labour. He kicked the euro into the long grass when he was 30 points ahead in the polls. It is almost as if Mr Blair and other leading New Labour lights are more at ease when things are going badly. The Prime Minister was calm during the fuel dispute in the autumn of 2000 and in the build up to the make-or-break vote on top-up fees this January. After 18 years of opposition, Labour tends to assume the worst when things are looking up and discovers an inner calm when things are genuinely awful.

The exchanges over the last few days between Mr Blair and Michael Howard have been illuminating. Mr Howard has been brilliant at tormenting Mr Blair over the U-turn, and the Prime Minister has looked uneasy. But on the key questions relating to the substance of the issue, Mr Blair was the victor by a large margin. As Mr Blair pointed out in the Commons yesterday, Mr Howard is against any kind of constitution. If the proposed constitution falls over the next 18 months, the other countries will seek to negotiate another constitution. Mr Howard would not. Britain's Conservative Party is alone among the major EU parties in being opposed to a constitution in any form. The logic of this isolation is a withdrawal from the EU.

Over time, Mr Blair would have won this argument with ease. Whether he will be able to do so in the unpredictably hysterical atmosphere of a referendum is more doubtful.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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