The Frank and Brian Show

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The Independent Online
One of the summer's least entertaining spectacles is that of the Tory party chairman, Brian Mawhinney, and Labour's environment spokesperson, Frank Dobson, knocking five kinds of ordure out of one another. New Labour be damned, cries Brian, look ye at Real Labour - Labour in the town halls - it makes your blood curdle. Poppycock, retorts Frank, Labour councils do a great job, but what about Westminster?

Brian's advantage in this tedious battle is that his party controls virtually no councils at all any more, so there is not much scope for Tory embarrassment. Frank's secret weapon, however, levels things out. Whenever a group of Labour people fall foul of a newspaper, or look a bit flaky and Brian's machine at Tory Central Office homes in on them, Frank gets there first.

Take Walsall. "All power to the Soviets" is not official Labour policy nationally. But the Labour group, who took control of Walsall Council in May, say that they had a version of it in their manifesto for the elections. Now they intend to sack their top managers and devolve powers to neighbourhood committees. Workers, peasants, soldiers and tenants will come together and decide on roads, parks and social services.

Unsurprisingly, this has caused a kerfuffle. Nasty things have been written in the press, and Walsall gleefully added to the Mawhinney loony-left list. And then, just as Brian sets off for a morale-lowering tour of the West Midlands (including Walsall), wallop! Frank announces that the whole of Walsall District Labour Party has been suspended, because of "worrying reports" from Labour Party members about the conduct of party business. The local Labour MP, the highly undistinguished Bruce George, describes the suspension as a warning from Tony Blair to the council leadership to toe the line.

This tough approach will always win the leadership of New Labour applause in sections of the media. It furnishes tangible evidence that Mr Blair can go where his predecessors could not. They found themselves hampered by the party's complex tangle of unions, activists and interest groups from appealing directly to the voter. Tony Blair, by contrast, has cut free from all that. So instead of having to negotiate policies and approaches with sections of the party, the Labour leader can communicate directly with the electorate.

Which means that the constituency he now has to satisfy is not the TGWU or party conference - it is only the media, press, TV and radio, through which his contact with the voters is mediated and shaped, that must be propitiated. In this sense, he is a modern European Socialist leader who - like Francois Mitterrand in France, Felipe Gonzalez in Spain and Bettino Craxi in Italy - can construct the left-of-centre party to be the thing he wants it to be.

And this is his danger, too. For New Labour to be a vibrant political force, capable of renewing itself, it needs also to encompass political experimentation. But the media is very often highly resistant to innovation and radicalism. So, too, can be public opinion, as measured by opinion polls or focus groups. To counter this, the party itself must be responsive to different ideas and ways of doing things. Otherwise, as with the French socialists, it will end up floating, rootless, on the tides.

It follows from this that New Labour must think hard before clamping down too hard upon the Walsalls and other oddballs, simply because they are following a slightly different path. Losing a PR round in the interminable Frank and Brian battle would not really be so terrible.