We all have a stake in how they vote

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HERE IS a caricature which may enter the country's mythology: the next Labour leader is being chosen, most undemocratically, by outsiders - by Tory newspaper editors, by glib television pundits, by pollsters. Tony Blair's problem is that he is in danger of seeming to be the enemy's candidate, the Labour Party leader for people who don't like the Labour Party. The backlash has started already.

So it is important to remind ourselves that the people who will choose the next Labour leader are the party members, including the MPs, and the political levy-paying trade unionists. No one else has a vote. Everyone else has a voice, and rightly so, given the importance of the choice for the future shape of British politics. Since we may be talking about a future prime minister, it is fatuous to say this is purely an internal party matter.

But the confusion between what is properly internal, and what external, goes to the core of Labour's choice. The members have the final choice but they are all open to influences. Once, perhaps, they might have been influenced most by what the executive of their trade union said, or by what their local MP thought, or by the performance of rival politicians at a packed local meeting. These things matter; but the bigger influences today are television, polling and papers.

This can be useful. Television is the dominant medium and politicians who perform badly there are failing to recruit millions of potential supporters. In the modern world, failure on television is not an endearing personal flaw but an act of lethal political incompetence. To say that this is 'unfair' to people who happen to look untrustworthy, or who have a habit of rambling, is like saying that the age of outdoor oratory was unfair to politicians with reedy voices: true, but so what?

If, for the first time, 250,000 party members and 4.5 million levy-paying trade unionists are able to vote secretly for a Labour leader having been influenced by what they see on television, that should be welcomed. They will be judging in a way not so dissimilar to the way millions of uncommitted voters will judge the same person later.

The conclusions of pollsters and of newspapers are in a different category, just part of a mass of indirect information which Labour members are able to assess and perhaps reject. After facing a false dawn just before the last general election, they are perhaps more alert than most to the fallibility of polls. It is hard to see why people who have spent their adult lives rejecting with scorn the editorial views of the Daily Express or Sunday Times should be vulnerable to them now.

But fears of a media-inspired blitzkrieg on Mr Blair's behalf are potent because he is supposed to embody the more individualist brand of social democracy that Labour people dislike. This is a serious misreading of his politics, which are Christian socialist and, if anything, romantic about community values, just as John Smith's were. Yet the very enthusiasm of non-Labour folk for him confirms the worst suspicions of the tribe: if he was truly 'one of us', then all of 'them' would be hostile. They ain't. So he must be an alien.

Such thinking is the trap for Labour. The point of Mr Blair is that he can reach beyond the tribe, deep into parts of Britain which are far harder for any other candidate. He is not an alien, but he is not indelibly marinated in Labour culture, and has the remarkable ability for a politician of being able to sound as if he isn't one. This will not necessarily endear him to the electorate: to ask Labour people to elevate him precisely because he is not like them is to ask something hard. It is good politics, but it goes against human nature.

If that is hard for ordinary Labour Party members, how much harder must it be for other potential candidates? Gordon Brown is in the worst position of all, the intellectual driving force behind his wing of the party, an essential ingredient to any conceivable Labour administration, recently hailed as a master of parliamentary debate, in many ways a chip off the Smith block. For much of his life he has been tipped as a future prime minister. And now? Suddenly, he is being asked to throw away the ultimate prize, to make a brutal judgement about his capacity to reach middle Britain.

In politics, timing is all. Economic jobs during a recession are a political graveyard. Just as Kenneth Clarke found his shares suddenly falling a few weeks ago in the Tory leadership stakes, and just as Denis Healey, when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer, found himself overtaken by Jim Callaghan in the post-Wilson race, so Mr Brown was caught in the wrong place when the music suddenly, sadly, stopped. He has always said that only one of Brown-Blair should stand, and now he finds his friend is ahead.

There have been long and intense conversations between the two men, and nothing is yet settled. Mr Brown has support in Scotland and the unions that London underestimates. There is no hurry and he may decide, after Mr Smith's funeral on Friday, to stand; if he does, he will get a fair run here. Yet I find enough senior Labour people who hope he won't, for me to guess that Mr Blair will be, in the end, the 'modernising candidate'. If he is, he will probably win. If he does, then probably he will win the big one, too. That is the Blair case. It is so simple that not even the clammy, embarrassing embrace of the Murdoch press - or even the Whittam Smith press - can obscure it.