NS Essay - 'The importance of loyalty to an idea is not just a matter of personal conscience. It is a requirement of genuine democracy'

When Tony Blair accused him of disloyalty, Roy Hattersley was inclined to let it go. Then he saw tha

At first I thought it best to let the Prime Minister's rebuke pass without comment. I had been so persistent a critic of the Third Way (or whatever his theory of government is now called) that he was entitled to one cheap shot. And, at the end of an election campaign in which he had been regarded as a liability rather than an asset, it was not surprising that he had turned on his tormentors. Anyway, "Roy Hattersley gave me my first job. I was very loyal throughout three defeats. All I would ask is a bit of loyalty throughout our three victories" was hardly a brutal condemnation. I told journalists who asked for a comment that I had nothing to say.

My lofty reaction was not motivated by generosity of spirit. I was determined that the Downing Street acolytes should not be given cause to believe - or, more likely, to say without believing - that I had been wounded by the reproof. A few days later Andy McSmith, in the Independent on Sunday, vindicated my immediate reaction by reminding his readers that I had "retired from front-line politics 13 years ago". How strange that, with so many critics to choose from, the Prime Minister should take exception to the comments of an obvious has-been. However, it was McSmith's unflattering though accurate observation which made me realise the significance of the Prime Minister's grand remonstrance. I am on the margins of politics, so what he said about me was of no consequence, but what he revealed about himself, at the centre of power, was crucially important.

The first revelation was the Prime Minister's preoccupation with success. Victory in three elections - not character, convictions or conduct - entitled him to unquestioning fealty. Having spent ten years helping Neil Kinnock drag Labour back into the mainstream of politics, I do not need to be convinced that power is important. But it is not an end in itself. One of the most dispiriting features of Blair's leadership has been his habit of trying to rally his followers with a vision, not of a better society, but of a bigger majority. In so doing, he demanded in effect that they abandon a politician's primary loyalty: loyalty to an idea.

The most significant aspect of the Prime Minister's philosophy, however, was revealed by a single word in his indictment of me. It is immortalised in Emperor Franz Josef's response to the assurance that Alfred Redl, a controversial officer in the Austro-Hungarian army, was a true patriot. "But is he," the emperor asked, "a patriot for me?" The loyalty Tony Blair demands is to him. At least the distinction between nation and head of state was inherent in Franz Josef's question. Tony Blair finds it difficult to distinguish between the Labour Party and its leader. Perhaps that makes him more king of France than emperor of Austria. The state, or, in Tony Blair's case, the party, "c'est moi".

On the rare occasions when he acknowledges that the party exists, he insists that his view must take precedence over the collective will of the membership. The ultimate justification for the war in Iraq - when it was no longer possible to pretend that weapons of mass destruction were only 45 minutes away - was that Blair's conscience allowed no other course of action. Other consciences were discounted - explicitly by government whips. The notion of accepting a view other than his own has never entered his head.

That attitude may provide political advantage when the going is good. Blair was right to say, during his leadership acceptance speech in 1994, that he knew that some people had voted for him only because they thought of him as a winner. That was once his great strength. Now people vote for him only because he is part of the Labour package deal.

People today are more likely to regard Blair as a reason for leaving the Labour Party than as a stimulus for joining it. The resignations of which we hear each day are almost always the result of an inability to distinguish between what Blair is doing and what the Labour Party could do. An overwhelming majority of the people who worked for Labour in the general election would not have worked for Blair. Their loyalty was not to him. It was to the party and to the idea for which they believed the party should stand and would, one day, stand again.

Blair's highly personal view of his destiny has certainly enabled him to make his lasting mark on political history. He has done far more than move the party to the right. He has dismantled it piece by piece and rebuilt it in his own image. That, whatever the merits of the result, is a stunning achievement which, ten years ago, nobody but Blair himself would have thought possible. The courage, ruthlessness and determination were all the product of the same conviction: destiny had called Tony Blair to change the world and given him the party as his instrument.

Blair's success in changing Labour was in part the achievement of a man who safely negotiates a minefield because he does not know that the mines are there. Yet his attitude towards the party - at best, detachment; at worst, contempt - is also the result of late political development. As a young man he was not attracted by politics, and he has never developed a taste for political ideas. The power of his mind, like his talent for communication, is beyond question. Intellect, however, comes in all shapes and sizes, and the Blair variety has no time for philosophical speculation. The story of his meeting with a group of sympathetic political scientists has become a classic joke, but it is true. He told them: "We believe in the Third Way. We must decide what it is."

Blair's demand for personal loyalty, combined with his antagonism to ideology, puts party members in an impossible position. His commitment to "doing what works" - unaware that the cliche is meaningless, as different policies work differently for different people - often amounts to plucking initiatives out of the air. Surely, the party is not supposed to support whatever is the position of the moment, irrespective of what the position was last year. In the 1970s, some Labour MPs refused to make the annual volte-face on Europe. Now their successors are expected to endorse the government's decision to break its promise of "no selection by examination or interview". That requires the betrayal of the idea of a more equal society on which the party is, or was, based.

Most men and women who become active in politics are first attracted by the ideas on which the party of their choice is built. They are ideologues even if they have never heard of the word and would be frightened of it if they had. The idea may be no more than a class interest - what, for the Labour Party, G D H Cole called "being on the side of the underdog". Or it may represent a genuine philosophy that can be defined and defended. My first allegiance to Labour was tribal - no bad thing in times of disenchantment. Some time between my 16th and 18th birthdays, however, I read R H Tawney's Equality. The case it set out seemed beyond dispute. Since then, Tony Crosland's Future of Socialism and (to an extent) John Rawls's Theory of Justice have confirmed, to my satisfaction, the necessity of creating a more equal society. My first loyalty is to that idea. My second is to the one party likely to make it a reality. My third is to a leader, an essentially temporary figure. If the first and third are in conflict, it is not hard for me to decide how I should behave.

I cannot see how it is possible to defend a politician whose loyalties follow a different order of priority. Perhaps pride as well as principle is involved in an inability to pretend that ideas are easily changed, but pride is one of the pressures that keeps politicians honest. I spent 20 years, in government and opposition, promising to close the gap between rich and poor. I can recall saying (in the days when Tony Blair was loyal to me) that Margaret Thatcher had been the most redistributive prime minister in British history. Unfortunately she had redistributed from poor to rich. Labour, I promised, would do more than end that process. In government, we would reverse it. Does loyalty to Blair require me to say that it seemed a good idea at the time, but I have now learned better? I am certainly required to support and applaud those items of policy - minimum wage, Jobseekers' Allowance and the much-maligned though hugely beneficial family credit guarantee - which help the working poor. But when, during eight years of Labour government, the gap between rich and poor widens, yet the Prime Minister cannot even bring himself to express regret, loyalty to the idea of equality (and to the party which should espouse it) entitles me to complain.

And many of the "loyalists" who complain about the complaints know it. That is why they mount such a humiliatingly spurious defence of the Prime Minister's apostasy. The idea that only Blairism could win elections was exploded in May when Labour won despite Blair. The notion that greater equality is incompatible with the global economy, and that "old Labour" refuses to accept reality, is based on a confusion (genuine or counterfeit) between two different objectives. Genuine egalitarians - unlike some of the most devoted Blairites - have never regarded state ownership and a central regulation and economy with protected boundaries as being even desirable. That none of those barriers to prosperity can now be erected is a cause for rejoicing, not regret. But, within the constraints that the reality imposes, a Labour government should do all it can to redistribute power and wealth. The distance that it is possible to go - without causing economic damage to the people most in need of help - is set out in Rawls's difference principle. Does loyalty to the Prime Minister require the pretence that Rawls was wrong? We might as well accept that the sun rotates round the earth.

That does not mean the politicians should, in Ernest Bevin's phrase, hawk their conscience through every detail of policy. Party discipline is necessary to give meaning to the manifesto and the mandate, essential features of our form of government. During 33 years in parliament, I regularly voted for policies with which I disagreed, but there is only one vote that I regret. I should have resigned from the government rather than support the Commonwealth Immigration Act 1968. Public objection, whatever the cost, becomes necessary when a politician is asked to support a policy contrary to the fundamental idea on which his party was founded. Loyalty to the idea is the first obligation.

The obligation publicly to rebel becomes greater when the opportunities for private disagreement - and the hope of arguing successfully for a more acceptable alternative - have been removed. God knows, Neil Kinnock and I often cursed the irrationality and intransigence of the annual conference and the party in the country. But we had the sense to know, and enough respect for the membership to understand, that it would be madness to emasculate the one and castrate the other. Half the men and women who resign from the party say they have done so because they no longer have a chance to change policies with which they disagree. They have become a reflection of legitimate rebellion as defined by John Locke. Denied formal opportunities to remedy their grievances, they must express their dissent in whatever way is open to them. Not to rebel would be to betray the idea.

Loyalty to an idea is not just a matter of personal conscience. It is a requirement of genuine democracy. People who vote on the basis of personality are virtually offering the politician who benefits from that support a free hand. "Trust me" is not an acceptable manifesto - whether or not the beneficiary is, as Blair once claimed, "a pretty straight sort of guy". Votes should not be cast on blind faith but on the evidence of the record and a judgement about future behaviour. That judgement should be based in part on the published promises. But there always are, within a four- or five-year parliament, events that cannot be anticipated and are not subject to examination in the rival policy statements. The war in Iraq was the obvious instance in the 2001 parliament. The oil-price rise was the example in the 1970s. The only way that voters can anticipate how a party will face the unknown is if they have a clear picture of "which side it is on" - in the cases quoted, the instinct for peace or war, the protection of public services or the reduction in public expenditure. Unless a party cleaves to a clear and consistent idea, votes are cast in the dark.

Voters do not make up their minds on the basis of a careful examination of the rival manifestos. Pledge cards have barely more impact. If, in 1997, John Prescott could not remember Labour's five pledges, it is unreasonable to expect people who are less preoccupied with politics even to know such pledges exist. The typical voter gives support to a party because of its perceived attitude towards emotive issues: poverty, patriotism, prosperity and property. That perception - based on identification of the idea that characterises a party - cannot be changed overnight. The last 60 seats won in the Labour landslide of 1997 may well have been to the personal credit of Tony Blair. The first 300 were won because, despite all the talk of new Labour and an end to the old Clause Four of the constitution, the vast majority of the electorate was voting for a party that Blair has since sought to disband.

The need to remain true to the idea, which embodies what Labour stands for, has increased with erosion of the class base on which the party was built. In the years before the National Health Service and universal pensions, when there were slums to be cleared and colonies to be liberated, Labour's identity was clear enough. Now, in a more complicated world, it is essential to make plain the purpose of the party's existence. It can only be the creation of a more equal society. I propose to remain loyal to that aspiration.

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