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2 July 2001

Look to the left and flinch

Is Roy Hattersley right? Will there be a counter-coup against Blair? Jackie Ashley

By Roy Hattersley

The left is on the march. A long hot summer, then a torrid autumn, threatens the new Labour elite who, in a coup d’etat, according to Roy Hattersley, seized power from the true party. At union conferences, deep inside local party branches and in dark, sunless corners of the Commons, the “counter-coup” is being plotted. Tony Blair, dressed in the authority of his second landslide victory, has gone too far. If the Tories are incapable of opposing him, his own party just might.

That, at least, is how it looks from a scattering of newspaper headlines. Hattersley’s eloquent and angry blast received a lot of media coverage. From Tony Blair’s point of view, there are ominous signals from Unison and other unions, deeply worried about the Prime Minister’s rhetoric on the public services.

At Westminster, the mood has changed. For four years now, the left in the party and the trade unions have been biting their collective tongues, waiting for Blair to secure his main objective: the second term. Now that second term is secure, with a majority as huge as ever – and what do the lads find? Not a hint of old or real Labourism. Quite the contrary: it has become every political columnist’s favourite cliche – this government is the best Conservative government we’ve ever had.

But how serious is any left challenge likely to be? Take the unions first. With membership up, particularly among white-collar public-sector workers, they are in a rare old fury, and are not afraid to show it. Clearly startled by the scale of the reaction to his plans for private involvement in the public services, Blair has made emollient noises. But it is all too little, too late. It’s not just the firefighters, the communications workers, Unison and the RMT who are under pressure from some of their members to cut the purse-strings between them and new Labour. The mood is spreading to other mainstream unions, as well.

Look at the mighty Transport and General Workers’ Union. Its general secretary, Bill Morris, has admitted to being surprised that his union’s conference next week will face calls for the historic link to be broken. He told the New Statesman that he still believes the link provides “good value for money”. But he is clearly alarmed at the speed with which new Labour is zooming down the private road. “Are we being well served by an alliance which is going down one track?” asks Morris, warning that Labour isn’t the only game in town: “Some of the Liberal Democrats’ policies are appealing to T&G members – for example, the abolition of tuition fees and their policies on taxation.”

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Morris quite clearly doesn’t want the unions to break with Labour, but fears that some of the rhetoric coming from the party’s high command suggests they want to pick a fight. To Morris, this is a huge mistake: “It would be a very big blunder – any party that turns its back on seven million people who give it a feeling for the grass roots is throwing away a huge asset.”

If Morris is worried, other union bosses are revelling in the fray. The defence of public services against creeping pri-vatisation has given them a cause where, at last, they think the public is on their side. Unison’s Dave Prentis is the main cheerleader for those who are sick and tired of being ignored, even traduced by the government. He has openly condemned the “Thatcherite obsession with privatisation” of those in power.

The anger, which has been rumbling through the individual union conferences throughout the summer, is bound to result in a loud thunderclap at the TUC and Labour conferences in September. But will it change the weather?

If ministers are shrewd enough to introduce reforms sensitively, alongside the extra money, and to show that services are really getting better, then users of those services – parents, patients, victims of crime, passengers – will side with the government. And union members are, after all, customers of public services, too. The main thing that Blair has to avoid is any more boasting about how pro-market he is.

Labour MPs and the party in the country may be more dangerous for Blair. There is now a much bigger pool of sacked ministers and passed-over MPs, who are in no mood to sit quiescently for the next five years. “If I don’t get something this time round, I’m not bloody sticking round the back benches being good for the next few years – I’m going to cause some trouble,” was what one ministerial hopeful said to me, just before the jobs were doled out. In the event, he did get a job, but there are plenty of others like him who feel they’ve got nothing to lose.

The immediate cause is the revival of the Commons, as the fledgling “Parliament First” group wants. This appeals widely on the Labour benches. The new Leader of the House, Robin Cook, either has to help the reformers or see his reputation in the party finally disappear. Beyond that, there is a growing swell of opinion within the parliamentary party that says the rightward drift has gone far enough. Roy Hattersley is not alone in wanting his party back.

Again, Cook is in an interesting position. Does he wish to become the standard-bearer for the left in parliament? Up until now, there hasn’t been a politician of sufficient calibre around whom the soft left could unite. Cook, if he wants the coat, would wear it well. He’s no natural Blairite, after all. Significantly, in his first speech to Labour MPs when they gathered at Westminster, Cook declared he wanted to ensure effective scrutiny of the executive “in a 21st-, not a 19th-century manner”, and spoke of driving through “the government’s agenda on social justice”. Not a word in that for Blair to disagree with, but might it just presage a Leader of the House who’s no poodle?

So, the left has a potential leader, and popular causes. But can the left do what in the past it has signally failed to do – rally together?

This is the aim behind a left-leaning conference organised by the magazine Progress, which is bringing together an impressive range of movers and shakers – among them Robin Cook, Patricia Hewitt, Ed Balls, Hilary Armstrong and Ken Livingstone, at a “second term” seminar next month. Such wickedly left-wing topics as “revitalising our democracy” and “promoting environmental sustainability” will be on the agenda. The conference will give soft-left thinkers the chance to remind themselves that social democracy, not meritocracy, remains the aim.

So perhaps Tony Blair really does have a fight on his hands. Rather oddly and unexpectedly, armed with his huge majority, he will find himself having to pay more attention to dissent in the party than at any time since his early days as leader. He cannot any longer wave the threat of Tory right-wing government at his internal critics – “It’s me or the Thatcherites”. And he needs the support and assent of public service workers if he is to deliver to the voters the promised improvements in just four or five years. Blair, however, is a superb tactician, with strong cards on his side of the table, too – above all that majority of 167, and the knowledge that this 2001-05 government may be the last chance to prove to the British that old-fashioned public services can be made to work.

There will be no counter-coup. Today’s “military leaders” who would have to walk into No 10 with their revolvers and moustaches have not the slightest intention of challenging Blair’s authority. One loyal, though frustrated, party member puts it like this: “You can keep pulling from the outside, but you’ve got to keep one foot inside the tent.” That way, you can work with people such as Peter Hain, Charles Clarke, Patricia Hewitt and Hilary Armstrong. All of them have deep roots inside the Labour Party and are not afraid to speak their minds, at least behind closed doors. They are in an altogether different mould from the more quiescent trio of Byers, Milburn and Hoon.

The unions, for now at least, are likely to prefer an unhappy relationship to whistling in the wilderness. Blair will trim – is already trimming – to avoid alienating them completely. I expect parliament to become much more interesting than it was during the past four years, though patronage remains a powerful bribe.

So what we will see is not a full party-wide revolt. But we will see protest, pressure, influence and growing self- confidence on the thinking left. We will see, I expect, a pretty rebellious and outspoken party conference this year, by the standards of the recent past. No counter-coup.

But for the first time in power, Blair will have to flinch when he looks left, perhaps more than when he looks to the right.

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