Leading Article: Voters want a clear message, not debate

Click to follow
The Independent Online
It's becoming a pattern. Paul Flynn, Clare Short, now Austen Mitchell. Labour dissidents lash out. All hell breaks loose. First Peter Mephistopheles Campbell berates them mercilessly in private for rocking the boat, then he or his anointed representative takes to Newsnight to label them as cranks and lone wolves. The slap of the ruler on outstretched palm stings the dissident into back-tracking, usually on the airwaves, making everyone look silly in the process. Thus Mr Mitchell yesterday took to justifying his analogy between Tony Blair and the late Kim Il Sung as a votive to Labour leadership. Such nonsense is a godsend to the spin-doctorate. On Mr Blair's behalf (witness Robin Cook yesterday) they chorus: he is a maverick, the kind of MP who used to complain about Clement Attlee and would still be complaining if the Blessed Keir Hardie returned to lead the party.

This won't do at this point in the electoral calendar. Whether right or wrong, there is genuine dismay among many Labour MPs and activists at the direction the party is taking: paradoxically, the tactics of pretending it does not matter only serve to amplify the fact that it does. Mephistopheles et al are left looking even shiftier than usual. So yesterday Labour deserved every drop of delighted schadenfreude that dropped from Michael Heseltine's lips as he slavered over this latest bout of indiscipline. Mark that word. No party could or should attempt to silence its oddballs. But a party preparing itself for power, as Labour is, should be able to distinguish a one-off rant from a sustained internal party complaint.

Let us give Mr Mitchell the credit of his original contribution, rather than his embarrassed glosses. He is right in saying that there is widespread resentment in the Labour movement about the style of Tony Blair's leadership. It is a cowardly kind of resentment, admittedly, that gets more vocal when Labour is 21 points ahead in the polls. It would be a lot harder for newspaper and magazine editors to get Labour MPs to pipe up if the Tories' wish-fulfilling claims about the return to them of Middle England were true. But the rumbling goes on, in the ranks of the unions, in the constituencies, on the backbenches. It's there for anyone with ears to hear, even though for most dissidents party spirit still entails public silence.

Criticism of party style has become personified in the figure of Peter Mandelson, the shadow minister for the civil service, aka spin-doctor in chief, and useful target for most dissident contumely. It is not usually honest criticism. What the dissidents really object to is not party centralisation, or the assertion of authority by the leader, but the kind of policies a Blair government would or would not enact. There can be no pretending that Labour's rank and file have been converted, woman and man, to Brownism in fiscal policy or Harmanism in education. Many cling to a world view in which, mysteriously, socialism is still attainable; though they would never dream of signing up with Arthur Scargill, they harbour thoughts of social and economic transformation. How many there are who might be described as old Labour still is a matter of guesswork. The fact is, there is a significant slice of the Labour Party that does not believe in new Labourism. If Labour is elected to form the next government it will be in spite of rather than because of them.

This fact, the two strands of Labour, is not a side issue - it matters. The admixture of populism, liberalism, realism - whatever set of isms adequately captures Tony Blair's offer to the nation - is a necessary if not sufficient condition of Labour's success. To that extent the dissidents are wrong, unless they admit they would rather maintain their policy purity in Opposition. Second, in an ideal world old Labourites would be encouraged to shout their views from the roof tops and engage on all fronts, in the interests of wider public debate. What makes for interest in politics is argument: the sharper the dialogue, the more clearly contested the political terrain, the better. Who would not ask for more party pluralism - in an ideal world?

But the real world, particularly right now, after 17 years of Conservative government, is intolerant of dissent. The constitution of the press, its political biases, mean that debate becomes conflict, disagreement becomes subversion. In these circumstances the Labour leader has no choice but to seek to present his cohorts as a united band, singing with the exquisite harmony of a Welsh choir. And when he hears a bum note, it requires more than a gentle tap with the baton.

Tony Blair should re-read the riot act. Dissidence is bad media politics. Dissidents are harming election chances: they are enemies of the Labour Party. In the short run, behaving like the aforementioned Kim Il Sung is precisely what Mr Blair should do.

But (it is easy to forget) political parties are voluntary organisations. Mr Blair and his praetorian guard are not lording it over imperial legions. They will have to live with a certain volume of internal complaint. What he needs to do is continue what he began yesterday, in seeking to address the people of this country directly over the heads of the dissidents. The public do not really want to plug into an autistic debate about Labour's ideological heritage. What they are more likely to respond to is something - minus the trains and the hoopla of Chicago - more like the figure President Clinton has been cutting. He has identified a small number of themes on which there are clear differences between the Democrats and the Republicans (and this despite his having moved sharply rightwards in recent months). People here also want to hear about those Labour themes that will really make a difference. And the dissidents who muddy that message will only ever deplete Labour's prospects of making that difference.

Comments