Glad to be a thinker? Beware Blair's whipping boys will stalk

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WITH THE attempt to prevent Mr Ken Livingstone from becoming mayor of London and the less successful one to stop Mr Rhodri Morgan from contesting the leadership of the Welsh Assembly, with worry about the Scottish Parliament and the European elections, and with the National Executive compelled to join the Trappist order, this has been a vintage week for what are now called control freaks and I prefer to remember as party discipline. The Labour Party is no stranger to the latter. For 30 years, from the end of the war to the mid-1970s, the party combined what was theoretically a high degree of internal discipline with, in practice, a state of affairs that often verged on anarchy. In the late 1970s order broke down completely.

The cause of this collapse was not, as has so often been claimed, the abolition of the "proscribed list". This was a list of organisations, such as the British-Soviet Friendship Society and Housewives for Peace, which were Communist fronts. Ever since 1918 keeping out the Communists had been one of the party's laudable objects (which Mr Peter Mandelson's grandfather, Herbert Morrison, had played a leading part in securing). By 1973 the men with snow on their boots had gone home. The danger came from young people who had had their heads stuffed with all kinds of Marxist nonsense in the 1960s; were now in underpaid jobs in the public sector; and were members of Trotskyist organisations of one kind or another.

Mr Neil Kinnock then led the party backwards into something approaching its old self, which I intend as a compliment. The one member, one vote reforms were the work of John Smith; though it is worth remembering that at the party conference the block vote still operates, even if in attenuated form, and that the party leader is still chosen by an electoral college in which individual members have only a third share.

In 1994 Mr Tony Blair took over a party which, owing to the efforts of his two immediate predecessors, was in reasonable working order. It is, of course, possible that Mr Kinnock would still have lost in 1997, because people simply did not want him as prime minister. They seem to feel the same about Mr William Hague today. It is also possible that they would, as Mr Philip Gould speculates in his book, have rejected Smith likewise because - these are my reasons rather than Mr Gould's - he was a Scot (the Scotch being only marginally less unpopular than the Welsh), had an owl-like appearance and, not least, believed in redistributive taxation.

In the recent entertaining play Jackie, dismissed by our brutish and ignorant critics, Jack Kennedy has the line that he is the first politician to be elected because of the way he looks. Mr Blair can say the same. He is not as handsome as Kennedy, though he is certainly an improvement as a human being. Instead of Kennedy's sham-sonorous rhetoric, he goes in for a kind of psychobabble, with lots of "ers" and "y'knows", which also comes from the United States.

Mr Blair's appeal rests not merely on his relatively good-looking appearance and a manner of speech which is in tune with the sentimental and credulous spirit of the age. It rests also on his views about policy, such as his opposition to the redistributive taxation espoused by Smith and, before him, by Anthony Crosland. He has also got it into his head - or others have drummed it into his head - that Labour lost elections because it was a disunited party. This neglects the truth that, in the post-war period before the advent of Lady Thatcher, Labour was in power for 17 years, precisely half the span.

At all events, the level of discipline is not only more stringent than any imposed in the past, even by such sergeant-majors of orthodoxy as Sara Barker and Ray Gunter. It is also different in kind. The crime used to be saying unacceptable things, almost always of a left-inclined variety. Woodrow Wyatt survived; Konni Zilliacus and D N Pritt (the latter a Communist, the former not) were cast out.

But Tom Driberg was an honoured figure. He was a fellow-traveller, a High Churchman and a promiscuous homosexual whose preferred activity was fellatio, the Monica Lewinsky of the People's Party. I could never understand what he got out of it. He was also probably a double, a triple or even a quadruple agent, for he was always short of cash. I knew him reasonably well but was one of the few journalists around Westminster at whom he never made a pass, the subject for an H M Bateman cartoon: "The young reporter who was not propositioned by Tom." Would he, I wonder, have been a similarly honoured figure in Mr Blair's party? Perhaps he would. Who can tell?

Today the crime seems to be not only to think unsuitable thoughts but to possess any thoughts at all. I am delighted that the Lords have lighted one small torch for freedom by rejecting, for the third time, the clauses in the Government's Bill for a closed-list system in the European elections. This means that you vote for a party list which has already been placed in order of preference by the apparatchiks.

The Parliament Act provides that the Commons can over-ride the Lords after the passage, for practical purposes, of a year. Even if the Act were of use in this case, the European elections are scheduled for next summer.

Happily, or alas, it does not apply, because the Bill was first introduced in the Lords rather than in the Commons. This was an aspect of the Parliament Act little noticed until this year, when the Government, for the same reason, could not guarantee the passage of the Criminal Justice Bill, where the matter in dispute was the equalisation of the age of consent.

Unless there is a compromise before prorogation on Thursday, the European Bill will fall. I hope it does. It played no part in Labour's manifesto. Closed lists go unmentioned. There can be no question of invoking the Salisbury Doctrine that in these circumstances the Government must be allowed its way. Nor is the measure a genuine reflection of Labour backbench opinion, most of which continues to have doubts.

This is more than Mr Paddy Ashdown has. In reality he does have doubts, as do the members of his party. But even before last week's extension of Lib-Lab co-operation beyond the constitutional area, he had agreed to support the Government over the closed list. If Mr Ashdown were a girl, he would be called "easy"; or he would have been in the unreconstructed 1950s, as in: "That Paddy Ashdown, I tell you, she's easy ... cor!" Certainly it is not obvious what Mr Ashdown is getting out of his fling with Mr Blair. He has not even received the promise of a referendum before the election on the Jenkins proposals for electoral reform.

Mr Livingstone, by contrast, is not easy at all - quite the reverse - any more than Mr Morgan is. Mr Livingstone has form as long as your arm, much of it admirable, of giving to widows and orphans. It is easy to see why Mr Blair objects to him. Mr Morgan, however, has hardly any form at all. He is a thoroughly respectable citizen with whom I sometimes enjoy advanced conversations about rugby. The Welsh are adept at machine politics, perhaps too much so for their own good. But they dislike disciplinarians. I trust my fellow-countrymen now give Mr Blair a bloody nose.

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