LEADING ARTICLE : Let the party speak its mind

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The Independent Online
The Labour Party may be losing its nerve. At a time when the public craves for the fresh thinking that the Tories no longer provide, Tony Blair shows signs of closing down debate. David Blunkett, the education spokesman, is doing penance for sayi ng thatLabour might impose VAT on privately funded schools. And Mr Blair is planning to read the Riot Act to Shadow Cabinet members, warning them not to speak out of order.

He is understandably worried about disunity. Mr Blair may have been in his pram when Nye Bevan stoked dissent against Hugh Gaitskell, but he can remember how those same divisions blighted Labour's prospects in the 1970s and 1980s. Voters took a dim view of party bickering. So Mr Blair is content to let the Conservatives be seen as the party of internal chaos.

But he should fret a little less. The general election is still perhaps two years away. That is ample time for Labour to make its chosen policies clear to the electorate. Meanwhile, the party and the public need vigorous debate. John Smith may have restored Labour's morale, but reform of party thinking was at best agonisingly slow. Policy debate was subcontracted to think tanks on the fringes of the party. There is a lot of lost time to catch up on.

A new openness has appeared recently that was lacking in last July's bland leadership contest. New ideas have been floated: a Scandinavian-style monarchy; a referendum on constitutional change in Europe; a graduate tax to pay for more university places; direct election of city mayors and a new authority for London; the targeting of state pensions and benefits; the use of strong regulation for the railways. None of these policies has yet been adopted, but discussion has offered welcome relief from the Euro-sceptic saga that now passes for debate in the Tory ranks.

Yet Labour's openness is now threatened by the pummelling that the VAT proposal received in the right-wing press. Mr Blunkett was mischievous to highlight an issue that was bound to provoke anxiety among middle-class Labour waverers. His coded message - that Labour should remain true to left-wing principles and that he should be included in policy decision-making - will not have been lost on the leadership. But regardless of Mr Blunkett's motivation, his intervention prompted healthy and overdue argument about privately funded schools.

There are many subjects that Labour is embarrassed to discuss, but which need airing. Tax, nuclear weapons and Europe spring to mind. On all these Mr Blair must impose strict discipline once the general election approaches. Until then, he should be braveand let his party speak.