If only we all did as Alastair says

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The Independent Online
MEMBERS of this government, particularly the Prime Minister, loathe being called control freaks. Tony Blair made a point of denying the charge at a recent NEC meeting. His body language hardly suggests he is relaxed and confident, even when he appears on something as anodyne as the Richard and Judy morning TV show. A psychoanalyst friend of mine, who has been studying Mr Blair's demeanour on television, says he is growing more infantile, employing gestures which suggest he is unsure of himself and desperate to be liked.

The question I want to pose, however, arises not from Mr Blair's own performance but from a speech made by his press secretary, Alastair Campbell, at a Fabian Society seminar. Is the Prime Minister, encouraged by his closest advisers, suffering from delusions? Does he genuinely imagine that his mission to deliver pure, undiluted truth to an eager electorate is being obstructed by mad, bad print journalists? (I understand that the Independent on Sunday was pleased to print his piece opposite.) I ask because people under pressure have a tendency to accuse others of things they do not want to admit about themselves - a defence mechanism known as projection - and "self-delusion" was the charge laid against national newspapers by Downing Street last week.

It is not clear what we are supposed to be deluding ourselves about, apart from the splendour of Mr Blair and all his works. Mr Campbell mentioned "an evasion of the real state of Britain", but you do not have to look very far to find people who are disillusioned with New Labour. Single mothers and the disabled fret about losing benefits, teachers and nurses are disgruntled, and there are malcontents who think we should not be waging an undeclared war against Iraq. What the complaint really amounts to is that print journalists are difficult to control and intermittently off-message - two characteristics of which New Labour is notably intolerant.

If the leadership is as laid back as it would like us to think, why is it so hostile to Ken Livingstone's ambition to be Labour's candidate for mayor of London? Internal party processes are not gripping stuff for outsiders, but in this case the machinations of New Labour are revealing. The final decision about who is to stand will almost certainly be taken by a ballot of members of the London Labour party, but their choice will be limited to a shortlist drawn up by a sub-committee of the NEC - which is skewed against Livingstone. If the experience of off-message hopefuls in Scotland and Wales is anything to go by, I do not rate his chances very highly. Labour Party members who wanted to stand for the Scottish assembly, including sitting MPs, had to appear before a selection panel. The most high-profile casualty was Dennis Canavan, who was judged unsuitable even though he has represented a Scottish constituency in the House of Commons for many years. As recently as last week, at two meetings in South Wales to choose candidates for the Welsh assembly, delegates repeatedly rejected names recommended by the panel, only to discover that the original lists are to be forwarded to the NEC for ratification in spite of their objections.

It is hard to interpret these developments, or the manoeuvres against Mr Livingstone, as anything other than a trend towards centralising power in the party - a further example of New Labour's worrying authoritarian tendencies. Or am I deluding myself? Perhaps Mr Campbell is right in thinking all that's needed to get New Labour's message across is for the BBC to allow ministers to deliver mini party political broadcasts - I'm sorry, to allow politicians air-time to speak freely and unedited. But would we believe them?

NOT MANY people have heard of Dr Chee Soon Juan, secretary-general of the tiny Singapore Democratic Party. Dr Chee was released from prison last week, after serving a seven-day sentence for refusing to pay a fine for holding a political meeting on 29 December without a permit. He was immediately back in court, charged with holding another meeting on 5 January. Dr Chee's imprisonment is a timely reminder that Singapore's unappealing leaders make a habit of locking up opponents. A previous critic of the regime, Chia Tyhe Poh, was imprisoned without trial for 23 years.

This has not stopped Labour leaders visiting Singapore and praising aspects of its economy. Harold Wilson turned up there in 1963, a year before he won his first general election, and was photographed smiling happily with the then Prime Minister, Lee Kuan Yew. Three years ago, Mr Blair used a trip to Singapore to outline his ideas on the stakeholder economy, praising the island's compulsory savings scheme for employees. Of course these things are easier to manage in a state where the electorate is regularly intimidated into voting for the ruling People's Action Party. Even so, Singapore's tiger economy is now in recession. But leopards do not change their spots: the denial of basic freedoms continues.