Leading Article: Blair can't march in two directions

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The Independent Online
"BACKWARDS into a more democratic and pluralist future." It is not much of a rallying cry, but it seems to be the Prime Minister's way. The Government is about to publish a White Paper on the government of London which will muffle plans which are destined to revolutionise local government throughout the country with mundane and confusing detail. This is typical of Tony Blair's approach to constitutional reform: the most extraordinary and radical changes are being proposed as if they were merely tidying-up measures, and their far-reaching consequences played down, despite the huge potential gains for the quality of our democracy.

There is another paradox, in that Mr Blair's message to local government is all about leadership. His enthusiasm for directly elected mayors, not just for London but for all our big cities, suggests that the best way to get things done is to vest strong executive power in one accountable individual. In a pamphlet published rather unusually under his own name by the Institute for Public Policy Research last week, the Prime Minister urged existing councillors to show leadership. He advocated local referendums, citizens' juries and opinion polls as "part and parcel of a council's tool kit to help it exercise its leadership function".

Which tells us a lot about Mr Blair's particular concept of leadership. It is very different from the intoxicating substance which Margaret Thatcher drank in the middle of the night. However much Mr Blair wants to be compared to her in her conviction and resolution, his practice of the art of leadership comes close to what she once scathingly dismissed as "followership". His is a Confucian style, finding the centre of gravity of public opinion and then tilting it, ever so gently, in the direction of enlightenment rather than reaction. There is nothing wrong with that. It was the so- called "strong" leadership style of Mrs Thatcher which gave us the poll tax. Mr Blair is often derided for listening to focus groups or governing by referendum. He should, instead, be congratulated.

It is, after all, one of the entertainments of the moment to observe the Conservatives in full flight before public opinion, as the party slowly mobilises behind radical change in the way we are governed. After a sulky response to the Scottish and Welsh votes for change, the Tories want to vote Yes to the restoration of a London-wide authority, Yes to an elected House of Lords and Yes to one member, one vote democracy for themselves.

But all that is a sideshow compared to the amusement provided by the Government as it wrestles with a fundamental contradiction of Blairism. On the one hand, the Prime Minister wants to share his power with other levels of government and with the people themselves. On the other, he seems to operate a form of democratic centralism in the institutions of both his party and the state which militates against any meaningful pluralism.

How this contradication is balanced will be the key to judging the White Paper on London. Look out for further contortions designed to thwart Ken Livingstone. Mr Blair does not seem to be confident that he can persuade Labour members in London of the obvious truth that Mr Livingstone would be the wrong candidate, and so has resorted to the usual device of leadership veto through the National Executive.

This newspaper welcomed the idea of a directly elected mayor last year, saying its greatest attraction was that it "will tempt into local government a dynamic personality who will inject life into a sphere where too often grey has been the predominant colour". So far, the front runners are Glenda Jackson and Jeffrey Archer. Oh well, we cannot be right all the time or straight away. Lord Archer may be colourful, but that was not quite what we meant. Ms Jackson would cut a remarkable figure as mayor, but her politics are dull. Never mind. The simple fact of giving Londoners back their democratic say will start something. And the effect on political parties of having to run "primaries" to choose their candidates will also help change their culture in time. The tension between mayor and the "streamlined" elected authority will generate democratic debate. If the mayoralty works well, other cities will follow. If local councils do not want it, they will have to appeal to public opinion through referendums and surveys.

Yes, there is a touch of pig-in-pokery about the Government's programme. That is in the nature of radical reform. What matters is that it is change in the direction of greater accountability, pluralism and meritocracy. Beyond that, if we believe in democracy, we must trust the people.