New parties, old politics

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The Independent Online
When New Labour's leader, Tony Blair, talks of the new politics grown columnists swoon, blind men throw off their crutches and tough women weep. His earnest promises of honesty, openness, fair debate and pluralism sound like the most attractive aspects of the old SDP, except now linked to the chance of power. Paddy Ashdown too always gives the impression that he understands the popular desire for a less confrontational, less tribal political discourse.

At Littleborough and Saddleworth next Thursday both New Labour and Newish Liberal Democrats face the voters in a by-election that both regard as vital. If Labour wins a seat where it was third at the last general election, it really is on the march. A Lib Dem victory would be a huge fillip for Mr Ashdown's party. Today's Independent poll in the constituency suggests that either could win. But are the voters of this Pennine seat having the issues before them clarified and fairly debated, as promised? Are they 'eck as like.

Consider first Mr Blair's man, the active Christian Phil Woolas. Mr Woolas, a former president of the National Union of Students, is one of those Labour men who seems capable of endless self-reinvention. He has never changed his mind about important things, never been wrong and yet - magically - advocates nothing that he advocated 10 years ago.

Let us be fair to Mr Woolas: the middle of a by-election campaign is not always the best place for lengthy confessions of error, especially when your campaign manager is Peter Mandelson. But what about open, fair debate? According to Mr Woolas, the Liberal Democrat candidate, Chris Davies, is not to be trusted because he keeps doing "silly" things - such as supporting a Royal Commission to look at decriminalising cannabis. He is soft on drugs. Hmmm ... one wagers that Mr Woolas did not campaign against cannabis in his NUS days. To call for a debate about its decriminalisation simply does not constitute tolerance for drug-taking. This is just name- calling.

And which aspect of the national debate is best served by Mr Woolas's slogan, "the strong choice"? What does this mean? At supermarkets "the strong choice" would denote a ripe Stilton or a germ-blasting loo-cleaner. Oswald Mosley was once "the strong choice". All one can safely say is that, at a tad over five feet, Mr Woolas is certainly the short choice.

Liberal Democrats, of course, are famous for their by-election tactics. But given that Mr Woolas abhors big spending, high taxes and lax laws, they are forced to fall back on the accusation that he now lives in Brentford, which, although he was born locally, makes him a carpet-bagger - a "comer- in". It is just as well he was not born in Trinidad or Dhaka, for then he would be beyond the pale. This is mindless parochialism, not liberalism.

The truth, of course, is that the two candidates agree on everything - except who should be the MP. They may be "new" parties, but they practise old politics.