The worst insult you can bellow across the House is `U-turn'

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The Independent Online
AGAINST the wall of sound that is politics, the quiet moments are the most eloquent. It was the sudden silence of the Labour backbenchers during Gordon Brown's announcement of the garage sale of pounds 12 bn of state assets that hung in the mind. They could not heckle a popular Chancellor, but neither could they bring themselves to cheer the down-sizing of the public sector.

It is not so long ago that the automaton tendency, exemplified by the lugubrious Andrew Smith (now employment minister) was castigating the Tories' "crazy scheme to privatise the air". And flouncing, "Our air is not for sale".

This is the language that has always come so easily to Labour. It is about not doing things, about resisting change, about digging your heels in against the wickedness of others. Old Brown used to be rather fluent in this kind of talk himself. New Brown, pepped up by a kind of political Viagra, is altogether more adventurous and apt to embark on previously unthinkable liaisons.

New Labour has become the party which is not afraid to change its mind. This amounts to a major shift in Westminster's tribal culture. It is the view of politics as a secular religion. "Every boy and every gal/That's born into this world alive/Is either a little Liberal/or else a little Conservative," trilled Gilbert and Sullivan and that, largely substituting Labour for Liberal, is the way things stayed until the mixed blessings of Thatcherism stopped us buying our polities off the peg.

In the 1980s, Labour was the victim of this new eclecticism because it could not see that her boundless - and in the end reckless - appetite for challenging the status quo demanded alterations in the opposition. She was a catalyst, bringing the centre-left we have today into being by showing how far the socialist left had diverged from the hopes and beliefs of voters. What sort of politician would Mr Brown be today without the legacy of Margaret Thatcher to both inspire and irritate him? A dull dog, I think. Hanif Kureishi's new novel, Intimacy, makes a sharp observation on his generation's myopia: "We were dismissive and contemptuous of Thatcherism, but so captivated by our own ideological onions that we could not see its appeal. We were left enervated and confused. Soon we didn't know what we believed in. We were the kind of people who held the Labour Party back."

That is a rather good summary of the Labour state of mind in the Thatcher reign and it also suggests underlying reasons for the subsequent uncertainty about whether or not to welcome the continuation of many of her ideas, albeit in the less strident, less divisive guise of Mr Blair. It is a shame that none of those veterans of that period who are now in the Prime Minister's penumbra can find the courage to engage in such self-criticism. Newsnight last week yielded the bizarre spectacle of Margaret Hodge, leader of Islington Council at its most deranged and prodigal, now chair of the Commons' education select committee, accusing Ken Livingstone for his excesses at the GLC of the same period. Do they remove the memory chips from these people before they become born-again Blairites? Mrs Hodge's ideological peregrinations themselves don't worry me, but it would be nice if politicians who do 180-degree pirouettes would tell us what prompted them to do so. When I asked another cabinet member what he thought marked old from new Labour, he told me it wasn't a "Manichean dichotomy". So now you know.

But Labour is right to embrace change, because that is what people do. We no longer expect to sail through life with our expectations, desires, likes and dislikes unaltered from the nursery to the nursing home. Politicians, on the other hand, conventionally see any alteration in their beliefs and prejudices as a weakness. The worst insult you can shout across the floor of the House is "U-turn", despite the fact that this is a sound manoeuvre for anyone who is heading towards a dead end or a cliff edge.

So the Tory benches erupted into exaggerated hoots of laughter at Mr Brown's announcement of the great sale, intended to convey cynicism at the alignment of New Labour with Tory belief in private investment. I suppose it makes them feel better, but their mirth is hollow. Most of us couldn't care less whether Labour changes its strategy on ownership as long as the resulting services are good. The Tories conducted a thoughtless and maniacally ideological privatisation of the railways which will not be forgotten. In privatisation as so much else, it is not what you do but the way that you do it.

New Labour has not yet decided what lesson to learn from this. It is a dynamic, but still tentative force. Its Chancellor emphasises the kind of fiscal probity which would have made Ma Thatcher weep with pride and then promises the improved public services which swells traditional Labour's heart. But beyond the comforting blend, there is a steady unravelling in Labour's approach to the state and private sector. Mr Brown's summer sale reminded me of those canny panhandlers who tell you that this is absolutely the best deal in the market, a never-to-be-repeated offer, but omit to tell you whether the gadget will actually work when you get it home.

His beloved partnerships raise more problems than they solve.They combine two clashing cultures of entrepreneurship and state management into one unwieldy whole. If it makes sense to solicit pounds 500m from private-sector investors towards modernising air traffic control, and a slice of the Tote can fetch the same again, why not sell them off, appoint a tough regulator and be done with it?

Was it not Mr Blair who said unto us rather wisely, "What is right is what works"? Public-private partnerships do not follow this principle. They duck the stubborn question of why the state should remain involved in the services in question, while limiting the accountability and the flexibility of the private sector. The not-quite-privatisation planned for London Underground in which the service is run by London Transport but private investors compete to service the tracks, trains and signals, sounds like hell on earth. It will enrich the consultants brought in to run the voodoo arts of internal transfer markets and vertical separations. But we will still have a lousy, unintegrated Underground - on that you can rely.

Today's fashionable mixed marriages will turn into full-scale privatisations because the Government will be keen to get rid of 49 per cent stake in the problems these hybrids will produce.

This is just the easy bit. The Chancellor's new-found enthusiasm for the private sector stops short of deploying it where it is needed most - in that insatiable area of public spending, health.

Mr Brown and Mr Blair must surely be aware of the contradiction between their merry readiness to introduce private capital and services to some public services while shying away from doing the same to an under-funded, over-stretched and patchily competent NHS. This really is an area crying out for more public-private partnership. The alternatives are higher taxes or a steady impoverishment in the quality of our hospitals. It is also the most politically sensitive change to manage. When it comes - as I believe it must at some time in New Labour's reign - even this lot of backbenchers will recover their powers of speech.