LEADING ARTICLE : The mirror of Mandelson

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The Independent Online
In journalism, one swallow invariably makes a summer. Thus has Tony Blair been awoken from his beauty sleep by the deafening chorus of what is for the most part a collection of fairly predictable voices of concern. The unknown hard-left MP Ronnie Campbell - the Tony Marlow of the Labour Party - accuses Mr Blair (leader of a party that has been out of government for a generation) of being power mad. It must be the power that worries Ronnie - mad, he can cope with.

Only Roy Hattersley, now enjoying an esteem denied to him when mere deputy leader of the Labour Party, is really articulating a position with which Mr Blair should feel forced to engage in debate. Nevertheless, given the scope of the New Labour revolution, this is the small change of revolt. Or is it? In the short run, Mr Blair has little to fear, but these assorted voices are a sign of the extent to which he has manifestly not won the hearts and minds of the Labour Party.

But what has turned August really sour for the Labour leader has been the adroit manipulation of the public agenda by the Tories' bruiser of a new chairman, Brian Mawhinney. Mr Mawhinney spent a useful period sequestered with the necromancers of market research and polling. They discovered that whereas New Labour had the advantage of being free from any possible blame associated with the recent government of Britain, it could not escape responsibility for how power had been exercised in its council strongholds. This was Real Labour.

So Mr Mawhinney has taken to the train, armed with Central Office briefing documents and media engagements. Last week, it was in Walsall and yesterday, it was the turn of Tyneside. But wherever he goes, the message is the same - Real Labour is spendthrift, irresponsible, factional and unreformed. If you vote New Labour at the next election, you'll get Real Labour.

And the argument does resonate. So careful and deliberate has been the construction of New Labour that a grasp of its policies and attitudes still evades most of those outside Mr Blair's immediate circle. But whatever the temptation, we should still ask whether Mr Mawhinney's suggestion is actually fair.

It isn't. The true picture is very much more varied than how he presents it. Currently, Labour controls more than 200 councils, compared with a pitiful 13 for the Tories. Of these, only a handful appear in Mr M's dossier of dread. In a number of even these cases, the facts are under dispute. Most reporters accept that, in general, Labour in power means competently run services and an increasing appreciation of the need to provide value for money. Indeed, some councils, such as Reading, York and Plymouth, could teach the Conservatives a thing or two about citizen's charters, privatisation of services and tough action against fraud. This too is Real Labour - it is just not convenient for Mr Mawhinney to mention it.

The Tory chairman will not be troubled by this. He is not here engaged in high-minded political debate, such as that on the future of the welfare state, or the desirability of a single currency. This is not the season for alternative visions presented for a discerning electorate to make its choice. This is low politics, competing for soundbite victories. It is in the ignoble tradition of Jennifer's ear, Labour's tax bombshell and - most recently - the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election, which is why Labour cannot complain. When Peter Mandelson looks into the mirror, it is Mr Mawhinney's face he sees grinning back.