Young Blairites defy the control freaks

No one predicted it would be like this. They win a huge second-term majority - and they seem nervous, unsure. Instead of an image of crushing, self-confident power, Tony Blair's regime seems all too mortal. While most of the political world is staring one way, at the Tory leadership contest, the pre-election order of Labour is changing in very unexpected ways.

Take, most obviously, the major personnel. Alastair Campbell may still be there behind the scenes, but he is playing a far less prominent role in press briefings - which the hacks already complain are much duller. He wanted out back in February - indeed, his job was offered to a senior broadcasting journalist (not in the BBC) as part of a remoulding of No 10 into a pseudo-White House operation. In the end, the right offer from outside didn't come along for Campbell, and Blair persuaded him to stay. But he is not the frontman he was.

Philip Gould - the marketing man who put Blair in touch with Middle Britain - has also decided that it is time to take a back seat. This is not to say that he won't still be an influential figure in Downing Street, but the sheer terror of offending the Daily Mail and, with it, the crucial voters of Middle Britain, has evaporated. One amazed insider has reported hearing two Blair blasts against the Daily Mail since the election - something that would never have happened a few years ago.

Beyond Downing Street, the mood across government is equally new. Ministers are walking upright again. The government is under pressure on private involvement in the public services, on support for President Bush's Son of Star Wars project, on new tests for invalidity benefit. I had to have it repeated twice, to be sure I wasn't mishearing, but one usually super-loyal cabinet minister assures me that the government is "in entirely the wrong place" over reform of the public services. Others round the cabinet table are not afraid of saying so, too.

Given the stream of unfavourable comment in the "thinking" press about new Labour losing its way, running out of steam before it started, having no clear vision of where it is going and picking fights it didn't need to pick, there is a danger that the control freaks will soon march back to their old desks. Surely, once the major strategists around the Prime Minister have had a decent holiday, this unlikely sense of drift will vanish.

But even then, it won't be business as usual. Last week, I wrote about the ghastly experience of a friend's son and his dreadful treatment on the NHS, which included being led through a corridor piled with corpses. And I argued for much greater devolution of power. I wondered at the time if this was lonely, wishful thinking. Well, good news. It isn't.

Take an article that is to appear in Renewal (a quarterly that describes itself as "a critical friend to new Labour") in a few weeks' time. It is written by nine Labour MPs - John Healey, Hilary Benn, Karen Buck, Paul Goggins, Ruth Kelly, Ivan Lewis, Fiona Mactaggart, Bill Rammell and Alan Whitehead - bright young loyalists all, who have been meeting as an informal group over the past year. Significantly, four of them have just been made ministers, and a fifth - Karen Buck - turned down a job in the whips' office. Yet the gang are going ahead with publishing their article, which calls for an approach to reforming the public services radically different from the one promised by Blair.

They are hardly ultra-left rebels, yet they have homed in on a central problem: instead of finding out from focus groups what people want and then directing it from Whitehall, they have been looking at the impact of government policies in real life - in their constituencies where the schools have leaking roofs, the hospitals have filthy toilets and the local train station is rarely staffed.

Their conclusion? "Centrally determined policies will impact in lumpy or patchy ways." Overuse of central target-setting can "demoralise and create a culture of mere compliance". There should be a commitment to "devolve ever more responsibility and power" from central government. The aim should be "not simply to deliver change, but to build the capacity of other agencies - particularly local government - to drive change themselves".

This is the hardest critique of what has gone on with new Labour that you are likely to read - and it is by people who know. The best focus group is in the constituencies, where real people use real public services that have real problems.

The MPs' call for decentralisation is not dogmatic about the role of the private sector - they say specifically that they don't want to return to a model in which the local authorities have a monopoly over local services. Yet they wisely argue that problems often have more to do with bad practice than with the principle of public delivery. What matters, as Blair says repeatedly, is what works.

Well, here it is: John Healey and his friends suggest ministers should have "more regular contact with front-line staff and MPs who can be first with feedback on what works and what doesn't across the policy range". Sensible; and proposing a new role for MPs, too - as monitors of delivery in the constituencies, rather than humiliated lobby fodder.

The real test of the "new mood" will be how suggestions like this go down. In the bad, old, overspun, control-freak days of new Labour, you could expect to see pieces appearing in the press about how Ruth Kelly, Hilary Benn and Alan Whitehead were actually not all they were cracked up to be and were proving to be disappointments as ministers. This time, let us hope, it might be different. For it is no good bringing in bright new blood if, when it energises politics, you spill it all over the press.

This article first appeared in How long have we got?

2001-07-16