Mayhem that lurks in the shadows

Labour's left and many Tories assume a Blair government would be bland. Really, they needn't worry
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Tomorrow, when the Government faces the Commons to display yet again the weeping wounds of its European policy, it will face the Shadow Government. And John Major will swipe and jab at those shadow ministers, with their shadow policies and their shadow splits. But on past form, he will swing desperately into the void - mere shadow boxing.

For Tony Blair, smiling vaguely back, is not only the Shadow Prime Minister, but also the Opaque Prime Minister, the Glimmering Prime Minister. His New Labour is truly a Shadow Government, a place of dark murmurings and inexplicable rustles, where policies are only occasionally half-glimpsed, darting nervously through the umbrageous hush.

All of which, quite naturally, vexes the real Prime Minister. He doesn't much like Blair - he doesn't get on with him as he did with Smith and Kinnock - and he thinks Labour is successfully pretending that it would face no hard choices, either on Europe or anything else. Blair, in short, is getting away with political murder. Labour's shadowy blandness is neither a novel political event nor a surprising one. The pre-1979 Tories "travelled light'' and gave few clues about what they would really do in government. Nigel Lawson, taunted by Labour ministers about the policies of a future Tory administration, apparently used to reply: "Wait and see.'' But this shadowiness has created a near-consensus among both Conservative and socialist critics that Labour in power would also be blurry, directionless and uninspiring.

For Conservatives, the cheerful analogy is with Bill Clinton, a great campaigner whose vacuous blandness was cruelly exposed in office, leading to one of the most disastrous presidencies of post-war America. For the Labour left, the analogy is rather with Harold Wilson, but the message is much the same. You can be brilliant at winning elections and appealing to a vague feeling for patriotism and reform; but if you don't have a hard agenda, then you are fated to be ruined in office.

This unease about Blair, despite his huge popularity, was crystallised last week by the two main political magazines. On the left, the New Statesman carried an article by the political philosopher Anthony Giddens, who asked of the Blairite programme: "Is it internally coherent? It isn't. Is it inspiring? Hardly.''

Then there was a piece by Leo McKinstry, who used to work for the Labour Party but defected, Gordievsky-like, to the Other Side - in this case, the Spectator. Rather than giving him a pension, the magazine did even better and made him an associate editor. From there he assails his former chums, to their fury. Rather break wind than say "McKinstry'' in earshot of a Blairite.

McKinstry argues that behind Labour's faade of bland unity, it is at least as deeply split over European policy as the Tories are - just the sort of tosh a defector would say and right-wing troublemakers would delight in printing.

Except that ... McKinstry is absolutely right. The divisions over the single currency in particular are deep, serious and hardly likely to disappear. The Shadow Cabinet does include old anti-marketeers, as well as born-again Europeans. Monetary union closes off devaluation as an economic tool and is fundamentally anti-inflationary, so it is hardly surprising that many on the left go grey at the very thought.

Some on the left are bound to cause trouble over Europe. If, the argument goes, Blair embraces the single currency, then he is locked into orthodox economics to the point where the socialist project is dead. If that happens, then the rest of his programme is beside the point, mere tinkering.

There is a parallel with the Tories here. Just as the Tory leader struggles to manage events against the assaults of a right wing who believe that he is surrendering national sovereignty, without which nothing matters, so the Labour leader faces a left who believe that he intends to surrender economic levers - without which nothing matters.

It is, I believe, a fundamentally misconceived point. All leaders of any stripe now have to work within the global economy; those old socialist tools of macroeconomics are useless, except, possibly, on the European level. Had Labour won in 1992, it would probably have devalued. But it would also have been unable to fund the deficit and would have faced a financial crisis that might well have destroyed it.

So the first choice for a Blair government would be to separate out those things it can't change from those things it can, and then focus on the latter. If it failed to come to terms with the macroeconomic system that exists, then it would be condemned to fail in every other way, too. It will have to show that it understands the current realities - for which reason Gordon Brown may well go for an independent Bank of England.

There will be an argument over all this, but it is one that Blair has to win, and will win. The groundwork is being done now, with a rolling system of policy forums and commissions that gives him remarkably strong personal control over the development of Labour's manifesto. (It also, by the way, leads one to ask just what role Labour's National Executive Committee is supposed to have in the new party structure. Senior Labour figures have been asking themselves just the same question, and it would not be surprising if they moved to abolish the NEC either shortly before, or shortly after, the general election.)

In government, though, the dynamics will be very different. There will be no shadows on the Labour benches then. The left is likely to have a greater leverage against Blair - just the same parliamentary leverage that the Tory right now uses against Major. And Blair will have to develop a broader and more open style of leadership in response.

In addition, there is a whole countryful of political diversity that Labour's policies on political reform, devolution and local government are likely to unleash. A Blair Cabinet would be unable to control a Scottish Parliament once it was set up - which is partly why it would be such a good thing. Labour's policies virtually require a confrontation with the House of Lords. And so on.

Faced with the obscurity of the Shadow Government, Labour's dissident left and many Conservatives make the same mistake. They assume that Labour in power wouldn't make a difference to the country - that the tight pre- electoral grip that Blair has on his party thus far would be followed by a disciplined but unadventurous regime.

Really, they needn't worry. The bottled-up need for real reform is too great to be repressed and the agenda to which Labour has committed itself is incompatible with chilly centralism. There will be moments of mayhem, certainly, but only control freaks should be frightened by the thought, for not all mayhem is bad. There is the merry sort, too.