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

Share
Related Topics
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.

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistant - Accounts Payable - St. Albans

£26000 - £28000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: Senior Accounts Assistan...

Ashdown Group: Treasury Assistant - Accounts Assistant - London, Old Street

£24000 - £26000 per annum + benefits : Ashdown Group: A highly successful, glo...

Recruitment Genius: Installation and Service / Security Engineer

£22000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This company is part of a Group...

Recruitment Genius: Service Charge Accounts Assistant

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you a a young, dynamic pers...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A Gold Ferrari sits outside Chanel on Sloane Street  

Sunday Times Rich List: We are no longer in thrall to very rich people

Terence Blacker
David Cameron was openly emotional at the prospect of Scotland leaving the union before the referendum  

Remember when David Cameron almost cried over Scotland because he loved it so much?

Matthew Norman
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

Marginal Streets project documents voters

Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

The real-life kingdom of Westeros

Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

How to survive a Twitter mauling

Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

At dawn, the young remember the young

A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

Follow the money as never before

Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

Samuel West interview

The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence
Public relations as 'art'? Surely not

Confessions of a former PR man

The 'art' of public relations is being celebrated by the V&A museum, triggering some happy memories for DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef succumbs to his sugar cravings with super-luxurious sweet treats

Bill Granger's luxurious sweet treats

Our chef loves to stop for 30 minutes to catch up on the day's gossip, while nibbling on something sweet
London Marathon 2015: Paula Radcliffe and the mother of all goodbyes

The mother of all goodbyes

Paula Radcliffe's farewell to the London Marathon will be a family affair
Everton vs Manchester United: Steven Naismith demands 'better' if Toffees are to upset the odds against United

Steven Naismith: 'We know we must do better'

The Everton forward explains the reasons behind club's decline this season
Arsenal vs Chelsea: Praise to Arsene Wenger for having the courage of his convictions

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Praise to Wenger for having the courage of his convictions