Leading Article: New Labour, old tales

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The Independent Online
Suddenly, for the Labour Party, it's business as usual: tales of splits, divisions, raised voices, jealousies. It is the same business that distracted and demoralised Labour leaders back through Jim Callaghan to Hugh Gaitskell. "Tales" is, of course, the operative word. An attentive reader of the Sunday papers needed to make sense of flatly contradictory reports in adjacent columns of the state of Gordon Brown's and Peter Mandelson's relationship. Lobby journalism is enjoying a most unwelcome renaissance - using that phrase to encompass not just the formal and corrupting system of official briefings by government and Opposition spokespeople to writers and broadcasters sweating in the Westminster hothouse, but also the wider set of conventions, in which quotes are unattributed and the source of stories unacknowledged.

A first reaction to Labour's recent travails might easily be: about time. That the Labour Party should have transformed itself so far and so fast from the squabbling and ideologically riven party led by Neil Kinnock into a streamlined and univocal machine was always implausible. That the lines have held for as long as they have is partly attributable to the convolutions of the Conservatives. Labour divisions paled as the Conservative Party wailed and gnashed and rent its clothes. The Tory government has lain prone, like the John Hurt character in Alien, while the anti-Europeans burst forth like a monstrous extrusion to scuttle away into the bulkheads of nationalism and isolationism. Only this weekend one former Tory chancellor (Norman Lamont) all but called the political commitments of his successor (Kenneth Clarke) un-Conservative, and by implication convicted his predecessor in that office (John Major) of incompetence, recklessness and lack of patriotism.

Labour, however, is now in the firing line. It will not do to blame the Tory tabloids or other right-inclining media. Their appetite for stories of Labour division is a commonplace of modern British politics; the biases of the press may be a perennial problem for Labour and (given the often frankly reactionary form of their Toryism) a puzzle, but there is nothing new in them. Labour managers and Labour MPs all know the score. Even the most imaginative and aggressive anti-Labour political editor has eventually to be given ammunition if they are to write anything credible.

So why this new breaking of ranks, this relaxation of media discipline among Mr Blair's troops? The obvious answer is the imminence of power and consequent jostling for jobs and influence. It is hard to see much ideology at work here. On what political calculus is the retention of child benefit for 16- to 18-years-olds more "left-wing" than some radical reallocation of funds to support education and training after the ending of compulsory schooling?

Tony Blair has every justification this morning to read the riot act. Not for the sake of Labour unity, but because we, the public waiting for an opportunity to remake the political fortunes of the nation, deserve better. New Labour, the badge says. It ought among other things to mean some escape from the incestuousness and narcissism that underpin these tales from the Westminster riverbank. New Labour will only command support if it is seen to attend to the daily concerns of people out there, for whom personal differences between erstwhile comrades is stupefyingly irrelevant compared with the need for policy changes addressing real lives and real opportunities.