Tony Blair tries to go straight

A strange psychology is evident in MPs who defect. Leaving aside the "Gang of Four" who left Labour to form the Social Democratic Party in the 1980s, most defectors never appear truly comfortable in their new party. They seem to trade five minutes of fame for a lifetime of obscurity. In all parties, the old hands continue to regard a defector with the greatest suspicion, while the leadership - so effusive at the moment of defection - quickly forgets.

In the case of Paul Marsden, the Labour MP who defected to the Lib Dems on 10 December, it is clear that he was never much wanted in the first place. Lib Dem MPs are accusing their leader, Charles Kennedy, of almost Blairesque control-freakery in agreeing to accept Marsden when many of them were against it.

If Lib Dem MPs have doubts about him, Labour MPs are quite clear. He is, to an assorted group of Labour ministers and backbenchers, a maverick, a "plonker", out of his depth, out of his box and out to lunch. It is difficult to find a single one of his colleagues who has a good word to say about him, even in private. Hardly surprising, you might say. They are tribalists in the Commons, after all.

Maybe so. What is more interesting, however, is that almost everyone you talk to about Marsden goes on to anguish over his outburst about new Labour's alleged culture of spin and bullying, and the party's failure to deliver change. Why? Because they know it rings all the bells in the street. They may despise the messenger, but they know the message is genuinely scary. They are asking themselves whether Marsden's defection is symptomatic of a change in politics that will last way beyond any memory of who Paul Marsden is.

As the year ends, with this first ever defection from Tony Blair's MPs, with the Treasury championing higher taxes, and with the first belated moves for parliamentary reform, it is not a daft question to ask whether new Labour is finally dying on its feet.

It is certainly changing. For a start, the cabinet is slowly relearning the art of political debate. Sure, differences of opinion between, say, Gordon Brown and Alan Milburn will always be portrayed in some parts of the media as damaging splits.

But there is more open discussion about the general direction of the administration. A Downing Street insider talks of "ultra-Blairites" to the Prime Minister's right, as well as "Brownites" to his left. Yes, there are real tensions, and they should be debated. Ministers speak more for themselves and look over their shoulders less.

Then take parliament. Admittedly, the proposed reform of the House of Lords is a disgraceful anti-democratic stitch-up. But Robin Cook's ideas for giving MPs more independence and authority are more than a sop. He and others seem genuinely committed to stronger select committees, more sensible and family-friendly hours, and a bit more openness.

Next, what about the dreary "on-message" burble for which new Labour became notorious in its first incarnation? Well, that is beginning to dry up, too. The government announces the end of spin, saying it will stop leaking stories to the press and tell parliament instead. (It is the season of goodwill - let us believe they are at least trying.)

Even the ubiquitous pagers will be used less, after MPs complained that they were being overwhelmed with messages. And as for being "on-message", you can't deny that cabinet ministers such as David Blunkett and Charles Clarke - whether you agree with them or not - are speaking out in plain English, saying unpredictable things. Remember Clarke admitting that the health service was "going backwards". Ministers who never really say anything fresh are being squeezed off the telly and radio, and those who are speaking out are getting on.

Let's move on to what matters more: the substance of policies. There is the renationalisation, in effect, of Railtrack, and fascinating rumours of a major change of heart on the partial privatisation of the London Underground. There is the Treasury's now famous declaration that taxing to rebuild the NHS was back in fashion. And instead of a stubborn insistence that the private sector must be involved in the public services, there is talk of a thorough-going devolution of power when it comes to individual NHS hospitals and even local councils.

Certainly, the strutting arrogance of new Labour in its early years is not nearly so obvious now. Ministers know very well that the public is disaffected with politics and politicians, disinclined to believe what they say, and suspicious of their motives. And, however slowly, they are trying to mend their ways. This is, in short, not a government that is dying, but one that is trying to reform itself.

The Jo Moore affair and the Scottish sleaze stories show how far it still has to go. But there are signs of change. Labour isn't returning to its old days, but it is beginning to stumble into the world in which the rest of us live.

So why has the government not trumpeted this change? Because it's not something the government dares say out loud. Imagine if Blair had stood up and said that he'd realised the spin, bullying and cynicism of his first administration had been a terrible mistake; that he'd learnt from that and was making an attempt to go straight.

There would have been hoots of laughter, and the first expenses fiddle by the next junior Scottish MP would have boomeranged on Blair like "back to basics" did on John Major. So, naturally, he doesn't want to admit that he got it wrong in some very important ways. Had he done so, he might have kept Paul Marsden in the party.

But then, as every minister will tell you, Marsden is no great loss anyway.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2001 issue of the New Statesman, The ignorance of the Islamophobes