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29 September 2003

Regime change or climate change, Tony?

Labour party conference - Opponents of the true way may find it harder than ever to get a hearing at

By Anne Perkins

Now is the season of remorse. Late September has become the time of contrition, when the government confesses it has not listened enough, swears everything will be different in the future, and demands one last chance for political rebirth. The No 10 welcome mat comes out for an airing.

At the same time, one of new Labour’s sustaining myths – that to challenge it is an act of betrayal to the “movement” – also comes out for an airing. That message, now nearly ten years old, is still the default response to unease among party members. As recently as the eve of the Brent East by-election debacle, Tony Blair told his MPs it would be “suicide” to change direction. The myth creates, as it is intended to, an obstacle to constructive dissent.

Few are prepared to brazen out the charge of treachery. Foremost among those that are is Real Labour, the amorphous grouping of Blair refuseniks, which persists in demanding that its arguments for an alternative direction be heard. Real Labour has been in opposition to new Labour since it came to power.

Real Labour sounds damagingly like a society of nostalgic lathe operators whose treasured regalia includes a cloth cap. “Real” goes with “ale”, often a pleasing contrast to fizzy stuff in bottles, but occasionally a thick and nasty brew. In fact, backed by the trade-union-funded think-tank Catalyst, Real Labour has steadily advanced policies arguing for modernisation rather than a rejection of the achievements of former Labour administrations. After the challenges of the past two weeks, Real Labourites are inclined to believe that Bournemouth will see the first steps to a lasting shift of policy and a rediscovery of the Labour Party. If it happens, they will take the credit. Theirs has been a long, stubborn struggle.

In the bad old days of strife and fratricide, it used to be said that a Labour conspiracy had to be made up of at least three of the following: a sympathetic columnist on a national newspaper, a presence in the constituencies, a band of rebels at Westminster and a slate for the elections to the national executive (NEC).

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Real Labour appears to fulfil all but the last. For columnists, look no further than Roy Hattersley (the Guardian) and Nick Cohen (the Observer and the New Statesman) who set out the intellectual arguments and the strategic objectives of the Real Labour cause. In the House of Commons, Robin Cook is at the head of a swelling band of ex-ministers happy enough to be identified with the Real Labour cause as the taste for revolt against the more controversial precepts of Blairism spreads. In the constituencies, a new organisation to “save the party” has been launched; and the only reason there is no slate for the national executive is that the national executive has become meaningless.

But this illustrates the second great obstacle faced by those demanding a change of direction. Tony Blair has largely cut the wiring that used to connect the party in the country to the party in government. The usefully mistitled “Partnership in Power” reforms of the mid-Nineties in effect robbed dissidents of a standing place from which to bring about change.

Whatever ritual obeisance is paid to the old tribe this month, no one believes any longer that the party conference makes policy. The old anvil on which party policies – and not a few political leaders – were beaten out each year has become little more than a festival of rhetoric. Because the national executive, before which cabinet ministers once trembled, has little power, constituency activists have no channel through which to change policy. Many have abandoned party work.

There has been a further barrier to legitimate dissent: Blair has defined himself and his leadership by his opposition to his party. Each time he tells his backbenchers he will not retreat on public sector reform, he reminds the voters that he is not old Labour, and that old Labour is a negative idea.

Those around Blair are even more explicit: critics of the Blairite agenda of public-private partnerships, foundation hospitals and tuition fees are branded not as participants in a reasonable debate about the direction of policy but relics of the party’s dark ages, mad lefties jeopardising the government’s future. The idea of party is itself declared anachronistic. Those with another point of view are elbowed off the platform. MPs, who used to have much the same opportunities at Westminster as mods and rockers had on Brighton seafront on a bank holiday weekend, are now treated as peripheral.

Because policy formulation, once a capricious product of alliances and trade-offs, is now concentrated in Downing Street, the think-tank has emerged as a source of influence. A government hungry for policies untainted by sectional interest is more open to the thoughts of intellectuals than to pressure from its core support. Catalyst, initially seen as dangerously close to the big four trade unions – Amicus, the GMB, Unison and the T&G provide the bulk of its income – links academic endeavour with a sympathetic understanding of the frustrations and ambitions of the Labour movement.

With an eclectic national council (Roy Hattersley and Michael Meacher, veterans of the Croslandite and Bennite struggles, in improbable joint harness), it has kept alight the Keynesian flame. The two main speakers at its fringe meeting at the party conference will be Rhodri Morgan and the cabinet office minister Douglas Alexander, youthful protege of Gordon Brown, who has already persuaded No 10 to set up a policy forum to involve trade unions in developing ideas for a third term.

Nor, perhaps, was it accidental that Compass, the new grouping of think-tanks that launched a fortnight ago with a call to the government to rediscover its traditional values, had to remove the names of two major backers after they were recruited to the top of government: Michael Jacobs of the Fabians is now at the Treasury; Matthew Taylor of IPPR has taken the top policy job at No 10.

Compass and Catalyst overlap in ambition and personnel. Martin McIvor, director of Catalyst, is a founder member of Compass. Several of Catalyst’s council contributed to the Compass pamphlet. But the smoothies from Compass, people such as Neal Lawson, see Real Labour as wedded to an essentially centralist and tribalist golden past. Compass, by contrast, is the old soft left, seeking – says Lawson – to match egalitarianism with pluralism.

In a post-Blair world such distinctions will matter. For now, they are lost in the shared will to re-route Labour. Both acknowledge that the thinkocracy is not enough. The restoration of channels of influence within the party is a high priority. After the conference, Catalyst will launch an audit of party structures, the first since the “Partnership in Power” reforms. Compass talks of organisation, of the “legitimacy that comes from numbers”. It hopes that supporters will emerge from the cabinet (Peter Hain, Patricia Hewitt, perhaps Charles Clarke), through the ranks of younger ministers (Douglas Alexander is so far the boldest) to the back benches and the trade unions.

The trade unions are also planning: the big four will use Bournemouth to launch a campaign to put Labour back into the party. The days of direct union sponsorship are over but the big four claim roughly 300 MPs as members, a channel of communication that might fruitfully be dusted down.

The most important strategic decision has yet to be publicly addressed: the argument that renewal depends on regime change within the party, something the party cannot easily achieve for itself. But privately, many of those demanding a change of direction suspect that Tony Blair has staked too much on constancy to his own vision of the future to be capable of realignment. And, after Brent East, the old article of faith that only he can win elections for Labour is beginning to look a little tatty. Roy Hattersley, enjoying a sustained revival, has come close to arguing in public that it is not worth clinging to power merely for another round of Blairite modernisation.

Others take heart from the history of Thatcherism which, after hesitations in its second term, discovered its true radicalism as it entered its third term. Climate change or regime change? The conference should move one or the other a little closer.