It's my party and I'll criticise it if I want to...

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TERROR AND farce - maybe even the end of civilisation as we know it - so occupy our minds this holiday weekend that it is easy to overlook the ordinary miseries of British party political life. These are, at any rate, unhappy times for dissenters and radicals in the Labour Party.

Of late, I have been waking up in cold sweats, with the ghastly thought that Tony Blair's proposed new anti-terror laws could just as easily be applied to "real" Labour supporters. In this recurring nightmare, I am thrown before the mercy of a jury of 12 unflinching apostles of the new orthodoxy: "We have it on good authority from the general secretary for customer relations," they intone, "that you have been conspiring with others to criticise the free market. On the basis of a written affidavit from the said official you are hereby stripped of your membership card and henceforth become a non-person."

For today, if you are not "on message", you are effectively off the reservation. Yet the overbearing party machine is not new. This much I discovered, after happening across a pamphlet written by Michael Foot in 1959, at the height of the left's battles with Hugh Gaitskell. The pamphlet, Parliament in Danger!, was directed against those who tried to gag debate in both the Tory and Labour parties, but most of Foot's anger was directed at the mind-numbing activities of the prototype control freaks in his own party.

Here he is in full rhetorical flow: "The idea that essential debate should be confined to the elite, that it should be kept within the smallest possible secret sanctuary, that majority decisions should be accepted as final while the minority is denied the right to seek invigoration by spreading the controversy outside, is not novel any more than it is democratic. It is the communist theory and it leads to dictatorship, or at least oligarchy."

This was real heresy "from Britain's foremost pamphleteer whose Guilty Men rocked a government" (to quote the frontispiece). Interestingly, the fiercest attack came from Peter Mandelson's grandfather, Herbert Morrison, who took exception to Foot's criticism of his iron rule as Leader of the House during the wartime coalition. "He paints me as a tyrant," Morrison exploded in a letter to the Observer.

Foot argued that cloying party machines served only to encourage cynicism and despondency in the country at large. Fewer people were voting because few people really knew what differences existed between the parties. Today, on some working-class estates in Manchester, barely 10 per cent of those eligible to vote in the recent local government elections did so. It seems that little has changed, except that there is now a surfeit of media-driven trivia which obscures the real lives and needs of the most disadvantaged.

Fortunately, some Labour backbenchers are increasingly prepared to speak out against this tyranny. On the Sunday that precedes Labour's autumn conference in Blackpool, under the aegis of the Labour backbencher Bob Marshall Andrews, similarly minded MPs, but largely from the new intake, will seek to put down a marker for the rights of backbenchers to speak out.

It is heresy to challenge the slogans of New Labour (some of which the party shares with the Tories and the Liberal Democrats). Here are just two: "An end to boom and bust", and "No return to tax and spend". Suggest that the former is a necessary corollary of capitalism or that the latter is simply what government has always existed to do, and you will immediately run foul of the sharp-elbowed, gimlet-eyed apparatchiks who currently have the Labour Party in their awesome grip. One reaction is of fazed disbelief at such heresies, which gives way to gibbering about the importance of sticking together and being "on message".

The other is more disturbing. In the worst traditions of the Cheka, the Millbank Suit will eye you suspiciously and make a mental note for later report. God help any Labour Party member foolish enough to mention the words, sotto voce, "public ownership". I recently met a New Labour supporter who informed me that she had wanted to come and speak to me at a previous function but, since I was from Tribune, "didn't know if I was supposed to".

The reason for all this goes far beyond the fear of division and rift stories in the press. The new intolerance is bound up with a distaste for ideology and belief, which is loosely lumped together as "dogma". And instead of the need for a good old-fashioned political party, we have the all-embracing desire for touch-button, plastic-wrapped "modernity". Hey presto, the party becomes redundant and, in the eerie words of Mr Mandelson, "It may be that the era of pure representative democracy is coming to an end".

It is one of the greatest ironies that many of those who once occupied the hardest of hard left-wing terrain have not only turned on their arid youthful fantasies of worldwide revolution, but now openly revile the mildest of socialists - and Roy Hattersley in particular. And as the West awakes to a contemporary domino theory of economic collapse - first Thailand and Indonesia, then Russia and next Brazil - many of the same people will be the last to appreciate that the winds of global economic crisis are fast becoming a gale. As yesterday's revolutionaries write mind-numbingly dull treatises about the need for an ethical capitalism in the 21st century, they cannot see that the ground is collapsing beneath their feet.

One of the keys to this obeisance is the concept of "Year Zero" and the writing off of a Labour Party that predates the birth of New Labour. Fortunately, not all left-wing modernisers are signed up to the project. In fact, some of those most closely associated with attempting to rejuvenate the left in the 1980s are not amused that their attempts to inject substance into some creaking shibboleths is now ignored. Those most original of trendsetters, who can lay a healthy claim to modernity - Martin Jacques and the Marxism Today crusaders - have got the hump. Now Jacques is gathering many of his former contributors and some new faces as well for a symposium next month on Blairism and an October one-off issue of his old magazine. Marxism Today, which folded in the early 1990s, was notorious for its original thinking and eclecticism, for it was once able to count on contributors that spanned Chris Patten, John Alderson, the progressive chief constable of Devon and Cornwall, and the Scottish Communist and miners' leader Mick McGahey.

Somehow, and despite Jacques' admirable desire not to overblow the planned events, I suspect that we will witness something more interesting than a thousand wonking sessions of the Nexus virtual reality think-tank. I also suspect that Jacques and his colleagues, with their long-held distaste for centralism, will have some uncomfortable advice for some in New Labour. Marxism Today, for sure, did for the old Stalinist Communist Party of Great Britain. But something far less welcome may have happened at the same time. Did Jacques and his friends, in their distaste for the old tribalism of the Labour Party, almost destroy Labour as well? In short, are they prepared to accept some blame for the emptying out of what has been - and will be again - a great radical party that believes in equality and redistribution?

When it is all over, I hope that the Marxism Today participants will have pondered the current democratic and intellectual deficit in British politics, and, if they have not done so, will join the Labour Party. Surely they cannot allow future historians to reach a verdict that 1990s New Labour was in shape and form simply a version of the old Communist Party, but without the politics?

Mark Seddon is editor of 'Tribune'.

Alan Watkins is away.

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