It's socialism Tony, but not as you know it

The public is in revolt against unfettered market forces. Is this the moment to abandon Clause IV?
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The Independent Online
The tide of history is flowing his way; or so Tony thinks. Quite a lot of his analysis about the state of British politics is shared by Tories. Traditionalist Conservatives no longer seem to fear him, though. Indeed, they rather approve of him. Is he embarrassed? Not our Tony.

Beyond the small world of politics, too, Tony is trendy. Tony's grin is everywhere. Tony is voted on to lists of sexy men by women's magazines. His self-confident, southern voice echoes from the airwaves. More than that, Tony's views are, it seems, increasingly in tune with those of a disenchanted and worried electorate. On the evils of privatisation, for instance, Tony has a lot of backing from the polls.

And, as Tony told his party yesterday, the British people "are now ahead of the Labour leadership ... they don't want to see capital running this country because they have woken up to the fact that it is unfair ... and that it leads to major human tragedies and that it leads to war.'' For that reason, Tony is bitterly sad about the death of Clause IV. Eh? Not very New Labour?

Indeed not. As you have perhaps guessed, all the above refers to Tony Benn, not Tony Blair. In these chancy times, Benn is a rock of moral consistency and steadfastness. He is respected for this by everybody, including the Tories. And his analysis of what is wrong with Blairite Labour leadership - blurred, inconsistent, lacking in socialist ideals - accords exactly with the criticisms of the other Tony now coming almost daily from the Conservative Party. At the weekend Douglas Hurd accused Blair of "trying to board the Conservative ship'', and Benn broadly seems to agree.

It follows that if he is right, ditching Clause IV just at the moment when the public mood is flowing in a socialist direction is a historic and terrible error. But he isn't right. The reason that the Conservative establishment bathes Benn and his ilk in a rosy glow of patronising approval is that they recognise he poses absolutely no threat to them at all, and hasn't done for at least 15 years.

They can afford to praise his consistency and dedication to principle because they are sure that neither will ever threaten them. The same thing happened in the Thirties to the Red Clydesider Jimmy Maxton, who received the same kind of condescending praise from the same sort of people for the same reasons. Once the Independent Labour Party was no threat, he became a quirkily reassuring figure, almost a political pet: Churchill, the old enemy of Glasgow Bolshevism, thought him "the greatest gentleman in the House of Commons''.

And the Tories are right to be nostalgic for Old Labour: a left-of-centre party pledged to wide-scale renationalisation, much higher taxation and so on, would be unlikely to win the next election, whatever the protest polls suggest. Conservative strategists think their fellow citizens are inconstant and hypocritical, and far more interested in income-tax cuts than they pretend. And if today's Labour were Bennite, they'd be a whole lot happier.

For the other Tony, Tony Blair, is a serious threat, and yesterday's statement of aims and values is a threateningly sensible document. The tolerant grins and chuckles of "well, you have to hand it to him'' that one hears when Benn is under discussion vanish when Conservatives scrutinise Blair. A note of real dislike comes into the conversation. He is "cold''. He is "conceited and unscrupulous''. He is "lacking in principle''. Even, he has "a horrid voice''.

In other words he is, or may be, a winner. Blair also sees the polls, and exults in the public revulsion from unfettered market forces. But he knows, as his critics seem not to, that the mood of 1995 doesn't clinch the next election; the fear of higher taxes on stretched middle-class budgets is a formidable one. To anyone who thinks that Labour no longer needs to keep changing and selling itself to win power, the modernisers need only give a brief, five-syllable retort: 1992.

The great failure of socialists in the past has been to make graven images of mechanisms for changing society, and so to stick with them long after they are either possible or popular. People may hate the excesses caused by financial deregulation, but how many want to go back to exchange controls and mortgage rationing? People may regard rail as a privatisation too far, but how many of us would like taxpayers' money spent on the renationalisation of British Airways or even British Steel? Well, there's Sid and Doris Lenin of 41 Adorno Gardens, Shadwell ...

The death of Clause IV has been an attack on dead mechanisms. Now they are gone, what remains? Left-wingers were asking yesterday what, after all the comforting new words about community and tolerance, all the stuff about rigorous competition and a thriving private sector, Labour really stands for. Where is the radicalism?

That seems to be a question that could be asked only by people who regard winning elections as a betrayal of the working classes. Yes, the words of the new aims and values statement could be signed up to by millions who are neither Labour members nor even Labour voters. Yes, in place of the semi-biblical cadences of the post-First World War compromise Labour now has words which a majority of voters are likely to recognise and even (pause for theatrical shudder) agree with. And in a democracy, trying to get the assent of a majority of voters is not, comrades, a wholly disreputable thing.

What then, comes the final querulous complaint, are the hard policies that stand behind the nice words? Counting out just a few of the better- known policies the party is already committed to, I find: reform of the Lords, greater regulation of the utilities (and a lot of other things); a Bill of Rights; an assault on quangos; the end of the commercialisation of the National Health Service; a minimum wage; a Scottish parliament; the rebuilding of local government ... oh yes, and it is inconceivable that the highest-paid earners won't be taxed more heavily to pay for social programmes.

This is a formidable programme, ambitious to the point of excess. It would require a more disciplined parliamentary party than Labour, even now, appears to be. It would require unflinching leadership, great nerve and a groundswell of popular support that lasted rather longer than Clinton's in America.

You can say these plans are not properly thought-out, even reckless. But it's hard to argue that, because they don't include mass renationalisation and the abolition of capitalism, they are somehow negligible - even piffling.

There is a curious alliance building between Labour leftists and the Government to persuade the public that, in the end, Blair isn't quite real - that he is the candy-floss leader of a candy-floss party. To believe that Labour stands for nothing requires a quite remarkable mind. Tony Blair, it seems, is not blessed with a mind like that. He struggles on with the kind of humdrum mental equipment the rest of us make do with. And that, of course, makes him a far more dangerous leftie than the other one.