I HAVE heard some disturbing reports and seemingly well-sourced gossip that Tony Blair's considered response to Labour's disastrous European election results is to consider bringing Peter Mandelson back to run our election campaigns. As somebody who desperately wants to win a second full term - as desperately as Tony Blair does - I can't help feeling that bringing Peter Mandelson back into such a role would be akin to putting a vampire in charge of a blood bank.
Last week's election results are the direct result of the political strategy of Peter's wing of the party. From the moment Tony Blair became leader, Peter was the political figure most closely identified with the strategy of concentrating on Middle England. It has underpinned every campaign and policy since, not as a way of uniting low- and middle-income earners, but as a policy of pandering to the middle classes at the expense of Labour's heartlands. In private it was often said that it didn't matter if our traditional supporters were unhappy because "they have nowhere else to go".
Well, for a long time traditional Labour voters' self-discipline meant that they gritted their teeth and put up with this because they were so determined to get rid of the Tories. I well remember addressing a meeting of Labour Party members in Nottingham, a few weeks after Tony Blair had become leader of the Labour Party. I asked how many of those present who had voted for him had done so because they agreed with his policies rather than because he was the candidate most likely to defeat John Major. Only a few raised their hands.
In the years that followed, Labour Party members loyally suppressed their disquiet over policy changes on taxes and public spending because of the overriding need to elect a Labour government. But there were warning signs. The turnout in the 1997 general election was the lowest since 1935. Our much-derided party activists reported the worst turnouts in the most depressed working-class areas.
How can we expect staff in the NHS to march happily to the polling station when they are still earning insulting levels of pay? And how do we expect young working-class people to endorse us enthusiastically after our attacks on lone parent benefit and our exclusion of young people from the full minimum wage?
Peter Mandelson and Tony Blair's policy adviser Roger Liddle shied away from outlining the full project for realignment of British politics in their book The Blair Revolution, but hinted at what was to come: "For those who are stuck in the traditional confines of narrow party politics, this requires a lot of hard thought, inevitably including consideration of Labour's relations with the Liberal Democrats." Going further, Philip Gould complained in his book The Unfinished Revolution that Labour "split so fatally from the Liberals almost 100 years ago. It is time to heal the rift between the Liberal and Labourist traditions."
This group regard the existence of a vibrant democratic Labour Party as an obstacle to their project of permanent coalition politics with the Liberal Democrats. As a result, Labour is now in conflict with its own supporters and members. In the Welsh elections last month, the party's vote fell by 17.2 per cent compared to 1997. Our vote fell in every single constituency except Cardiff West, where our candidate was Rhodri Morgan, the leader everyone in Wales seemed to want but Millbank would not let them have.
In the European elections, party members were incensed to find that centralised lists of candidates had been imposed, with popular MEPs such as Carole Tongue ranked in losing positions. Local constituency parties are being actively discouraged from meeting monthly and Millbank made little effort during this election to run a campaign on the ground. Leaflets about how the leader of the Socialist Group of MEPs likes Dusty Springfield and Star Trek instead of explaining our actual policies for Europe was never going to work.
The morale of London activists has been damaged by the constant briefings that they will not be allowed to make a free choice of who they wish to have as Labour's candidate for mayor of London. Labour MPs are saying this week that a substantial proportion of London supporters registered their protest by voting for the Green Party. Caroline Lucas, now the Green MEP in the South East Region, was quoted yesterday as saying "I lost count of the many, many traditional Labour supporters who have come up to me in the past few weeks and said that they did not spend 20 years fighting Thatcherism, only to have the Labour Party perpetuate those things."
The European votes do not represent "complacency" or "contentment". The turnout was about 20 per cent in safe Labour seats and 30 per cent in Tory ones. On Thursday, New Labour presided over a share of the vote lower than at any nationwide election since the Twenties - lower than that of Old Labour's worst-ever performance in 1983: we scored 28.3 per cent under Michael Foot and 28.1 per cent last Thursday!
There was an early warning of party members' disquiet when Peter Mandelson's attempt to be elected to the NEC was firmly rejected by our party members in a one-man-one-vote ballot. Instead of learning this lesson the response was to ban MPs from standing for the constituency section of the NEC.
The dishonesty of this argument was revealed this year with the Millbank Tendency backing Tom (Lord) Sawyer and Michael Cashman. So it's OK to have European MPs and peers representing constituency members as long as we keep out MPs such as Dennis Skinner and Diane Abbott.
The next leader of the Lib Dems, if he or she has any sense, will look at the European results and recognise that millions of disaffected Labour voters are up for grabs. They will firmly position their party so that they can fight for this prize.
Last week's collapse of support for New Labour was surpassed only by the results for Gerhard Schroder's German Social Democrats, who have also tried to appeal to the "new middle". The contrast with Lionel Jospin's French Socialists, who have held their core support, is a lesson that should be drummed into those in Mr Blair's entourage who enjoy rubbishing our French sister party. Far from bringing back Peter Mandelson to produce more of the same, we should make it clear that we share the concerns of our traditional voters, without whom we have no chance of winning a second term. We have been warned.
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