Blair is a dictator, Labour MP says

John Rentoul@JohnRentoul
Wednesday 28 August 1996 23:02

Tony Blair's modernisation of the Labour Party comes under withering attack today from a leading backbench MP, who describes himself as a "squashed hedgehog on the road to the manifesto".

As the Labour leader today sets out to sell his message to the country, Austin Mitchell, the Euro-sceptic MP for Grimsby, said Mr Blair was paying "lip service" to the idea that ordinary party members have any power. He says Labour has no answer to "how our policy processes differ from Kim Il Sung's".

This latest broadside against Mr Blair's leadership follows similar criticism by John Prescott, the deputy leader, in an interview with The Independent, and from frontbench spokeswoman Clare Short.

Mr Blair, with Mr Prescott in tow, today begins a nationwide tour to sell the New Labour draft manifesto "street by street" in order to bypass the London media and its obsession with "Westminster gossip".

But Mr Mitchell, writing in tomorrow's New Statesman, gives the tour a sour send-off, saying: "We pretend our work is important. Tony pretends to listen. Then he gets on with his real job of putting forward what he wants, in our name."

Writing of his experience of selling the manifesto, New Life for Britain, to party members, Mr Mitchell says: "The new document isn't intended for you as party members. Your role is to endorse it, preferably with acclamation. This isn't the Labour Party as we know it. Our leaders are playing a different game from us. It's a power game in which different rules apply."

After the Advertising Standards Authority broke new ground yesterday by banning a political advertisement - ruling that the Tories should not use the controversial image of Tony Blair with "demon eyes" again - Mr Mitchell echoes the Tories' demonic imagery. He says the party has struck a "Faustian compact" with Mr Blair. "Tony'll win for us. In return we've put our souls, our party and our dreams in his hands. They're not Labour hands. His instincts aren't ours," he writes.

But he goes on: "Yet he is in better tune with the new Britain than we are, and he's a winner. It's a pretty good bargain for a party that blew it a decade ago."

The Labour leader vigorously defended his changes to the party in his first interview since returning from holiday. Speaking on Channel 4 News, Mr Blair said: "Whenever you embark on a process of change and modernisation, of course there will always be dissent from that."

And he dismissed the criticisms about the influence of the party's "spin doctors", saying they were ignoring the real issues. "One of the things that I think is absolutely essential is that we go beyond all this trivia and the flotsam and jetsam of little internal party disputes and we focus on the fundamentals, the issues that actually matter of the British people."

Meanwhile, the Advertising Standards Authority, despite deciding that "most readers" would not see the Tory "demon" image of Mr Blair as "satanic", said it breached a new rule brought in last year because it depicted the Labour leader as "sinister and dishonest".

Michael Trend, the deputy Tory chairman, said that the party had already decided not to use the image again.

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