LETTER FROM THE EDITOR

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The great kerfuffle over whether or not a Labour front-bencher told some journalists in a Blackpool restaurant that if a Labour government faced a sudden wave of industrial action, it might cut its links with the unions, is a classic example of the danger of ''spin". I don't know the truth of what happened when the MP, Stephen Byers, went to dine but I just don't believe four reporters left the meal and agreed to invent a story. One can see how it happens, though. The MP knows he is talking, via these papers, to a right-wing-leaning audience. So, while demolishing the scallops, he insists on Blair's toughness towards the unions.

Then the second course appears and the hacks, doing their job, persist. So the MP bends backwards over large plates of sole (a tricky and mildly insanitary manoeuvre, this) to reassure them about Labour's determination not to be in the unions' pockets. ''What ifs?'' are thrown about. Thinking of those minatory Daily Telegraph eyes gleaming in the Home Counties, he toys with the tiramisu and edges a little further. No one takes notes because it is, after all, a restaurant. Thus a blazing headline is created which spins Labour thinking in the ''right'' direction for suspicious conservatives... but which utterly infuriates another audience, Labour and trade unionist, which the party leadership wanted to address differently - and which wasn't at the restaurant table. The dangers of speaking with forked tongue, or rather, with forked sole?

Except that this has clearly not embarrassed Tony Blair a whit. The idea of a final union split has now been publicly aired and will be half-remembered by millions of voters. The official denial has been made, true. But if Labour should wish to cut its union link in the future, the idea will seem somehow staler and older, and therefore more plausible, than before. ''Oh yes,'' we'll think, ''but we knew that already.'' Not so stupid, Mr Byers?

One reader complains about the ''inconsequential meanderings'' of this letter. But it is meant to meander. It is not a working weekday column which should go (pace Laurence Sterne) like this:

This, of course, is different from the serious column which fails, and could be better represented thus:

In contrast to both, this is intended as a relaxed and informal ramble, pursuing its path in, ideally, the following manner:

Finally, a literary thought: I have just finished reading the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Richard Ford, Independence Day, which is rather good. The central character is what we would call an ''estate agent''. This is, when one thinks about it, an hilariously overblown description for terraced-house-salesmen, an early version of the employment euphemism which describes, for example, toilet cleaners as sanitary executives. But the American word for estate agent is ''realtor'', which is even odder. I recall the confusion when I first visited the US and saw all those impressive gilt Realtor signs... and the sense of disappointment on realising that this wasn't, however, a country with an epistemologist on every corner.

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