Nauseated by Labour's silly little argument

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CAN YOU imagine a small, failed leftish party from Europe that looks across at President-elect Bill Clinton's triumph - and then promptly has an argument about the dangers of trying to learn anything from it? Why should anyone think those dozy, provincial Democrats have anything to teach Her Majesty's Imperial and Ancient Labour (and Manual Trades) Party? Hah] Next thing you know, some clever Dick will be saying that John Smith's job is to win a general election.

The argument between Labour's 'Clinton kids', Gordon Brown and Tony Blair, and their back-to-our-roots opponents, led by John Prescott, is both depressing and unintentionally funny. It is not only an antiseptic little argument about political strategy. It is a dirty, stumbling blood feud, too. The safest starting point is to remember that the Brown-Blair team thinks Mr Prescott is a chippy, working- class oaf; and he and his friends on the left think they are a pair of narcissistic, unprincipled smarms.

If Mssrs Brown and Blair get their way, pushing ahead with internal reforms and a more social democratic, European policy agenda, then Mr Prescott and other dissidents, such as Clare Short and David Blunkett, have probably reached and passed their (not very) high point of influence. If, however, Labour under John Smith shifts away from the Kinnock years and emphasises the condition of the poor, the need to raise taxes, and so on, then those rougher diamonds may eclipse the 'beautiful people' (let's call them Gordon Blair, for short). There is no such thing as a John Smith camp, as there was once a Kinnock camp. So, inevitably, factions are forming, hardening, and testing one another's support.

Both sides overdramatise the differences between them. Northerners against southerners? Both Mr Blair and Mr Brown hold constituencies well to the north of Mr Prescott. Left and right? But where on that spectrum comes support for a mass membership party? Class is a better divide. In Labour terms, Gordon Blair is clearly a toff. The rivals, including people such as Clare Short and David Blunkett, clearly are not.

But even here, things are more complicated: Bryan Gould, an opponent of Gordon Blair on a range of issues, keeps no coal in his bath (it's probably a Jacuzzi, anyway). Mr Prescott himself says: 'If you have a cloth cap, it doesn't mean that you have cloth brains. Let's go back to being proud of our roots.' But Mr Prescott is far too authentic a product of the upwardly mobile working class to wear a cloth cap. He probably wouldn't give such a garment houseroom. He is a flash, dapper dresser and behaves (nice car, nice house) like the self-made success he is. He is always far smarter than Mr Brown. Well, sartorially, anyway. Mr Brown in the flesh is as rumpled as any other middle- class intellectual.

Nor is it true that the reforming twins are high-minded thinkers. Ruthless in their quiet way, they both want the top job, one day. They are hungry for power - and quite right, too. And their policy concerns are sometimes as down-to-earth as Mr Prescott's. It is Mr Blair who is keenest about a key issue for working- class voters, the rise in violent crime. What is at issue here is not the Americanisation of Labour but a faction fight that only partly involves the thoughts of the US President-elect. He, after all, has either few, or no, views on the union block vote, the ratification of the Maastricht treaty or proportional representation.

The Clinton campaign did have a message for Labour, though, when it straddled the various Democratic factions, and then tried to reach out to the uncommitted middle classes. Labour, and indeed the Democrats, will always get a big swathe of the poor and angry. Mr Clinton's achievement was to find policies and words that took his appeal to Americans who were worried about the economy and crime but thought they paid enough taxes. If Labour's argument is about whether or not it needs to keep trying to reach beyond its old self, there really is no argument at all.

Mr Clinton's success has two subsidiary messages for Labour, which that party may or may not be capable of learning. First, his team was open to outsiders - to businessmen, to the previously apolitical and to Democrats from rival or hostile factions. He is a great bringer-together, a natural convener. Mr Smith's Social Justice Commission was, in that best sense, Clintonesque. Second, he made the Democrats fun, even hip. His campaign swept up a generation. There was style, enthusiasm and a swaggering informality that dour, foggy Labour is still a million miles from. A party that argues about cloth caps cannot, by definition, be hip.

A Labour Party that does not keep at the front of its mind, always, images of those alien people it needs to win round, is a useless organisation. Who are these people who tell pollsters one thing and then do another in the polling booths? Who maintain that they are still dubious about Labour under Mr Smith?

They are us, or at least our neighbours. They are the majority who couldn't give a deep-fried ferret for Labour's roots; who find its faction-fighting nauseating; and who are desperate to hear something, anything, fresh or thought-provoking from non-Conservative politicians. They can be swayed - even captivated, as Mr Clinton showed. But every day that Labour spends talking about Labour, rather than about the rest of us, is a day nearer its fifth and maybe final defeat.