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22 May 2006

Excuse me, is this ’the left’?

On the day Hugo Chávez hit London, Tony Blair launched his "Let's talk" initiative. John Kampfner li

By John Kampfner

In the morning it was the boss. At lunchtime it was his nem esis. Or was it the other way round? To spend some time in the company of Tony Blair and then slope off to dine with Hugo Chávez is to see, at first hand, the breadth and depth of the chasm that divides what was once called “the left”.

They do, it must be said, share certain characteristics: they are both good at working crowds, skilful on television, masters of the soundbite, and accomplished election-winners. They regard themselves as radicals. They express their frustration publicly at the difficulties of getting things done, seeking to neutralise the judiciary and other institutions they consider to be forces of resistance. And – here is the most intriguing curiosity – they define their politics through their relationship with the United States.

In a traditional hall around the corner from the Houses of Parliament, Blair spent a couple of hours on 15 May in the company of figures from the public, private and voluntary sectors, hearing their concerns about reforming the public services. Floating between the tables, he listened attentively to candid criticisms of government policy. Each discussion was chaired by a Labour MP; several of the current crop are not fans of the Prime Minister.

So far, so reasonable. But we have been here before. Back in November 2003, at another low point, when the folly of the Iraq war was engulfing his premiership, Blair launched his Big Conversation, a tour around the country in which the leader listened to carefully chosen citizens. The initiative was largely derided, but those around the PM insist it did some good. They suggest that he toughened his stance on a smoking ban as a result. They also claim that it gave him a better idea of the strength of feeling about antisocial behaviour.

Fine, I said, but adjustment of clearly defined policy is one thing; changing tack is quite another. What, I inquired of a Downing Street aide, would happen if Blair’s interlocutors suggested, for example, a ban on the building of nuclear power stations? The answer I received had the merit of candour, but testified to the extreme narrowness of Blair’s political horizons. In areas such as these, the aide said, it was best to hear from the experts. The views of ordinary voters, he added, are sought only where they are involved in the subject. In other words, nuclear is not a public issue. This has never been open to debate. Blair had decided long ago. The energy review had been fixed long ago. To prove the point, he later told the Confederation of British Industry that nuclear was “back on the agenda with a vengeance”.

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A few miles down the road, a different kind of politics is being conducted. Ken Livingstone’s political compass is pointing in an altogether different direction from Blair’s, but his parameters are no wider. Guests at a private luncheon in honour of His Excellency Hugo Chávez Frias, president of the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela, included sympathetic politicians, trade unionists, actors and journalists. One or two miscreants slipped in: a former Conservative MP now involved in bond issues and the odd executive from the oil giants. Their hope, and it is so far little more than a hope, is that they can achieve through charm what the Bush administration is failing to do by aggression, and turn Chávez into a more manageable figure such as Lula in Brazil. They look in horror at Bolivia, where Chávez’s comrade-in-arms, President Evo Morales, has ordered the nationalisation of his country’s oil and gas industries.

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The oilmen do not enjoy Chávez’s rhetoric, but people who are prepared to work with Vladimir Putin in Russia and Saparmurat Niyazov in Turkmenistan are nothing if not realists. “Whatever his rantings,” one oilman said to me within a few feet of Chávez’s table, “at least he does not chop people’s hands off like the Saudis.” They are keen to do business with him, and not surprisingly, given that he sits on the world’s fifth-largest oil reserves.

But is Chávez equally interested in doing business with us? During his last visit to London in 2001 he particularly enjoyed meeting the Queen – an invitation from the palace seems to titillate all comers, whatever their political hue. He also got on reasonably well with Blair. That was before Iraq, and before Chávez’s denunciations of the Prime Minister’s friendship with “Hitler”, a reference to George W Bush. According to the Venezuelans, however, it was only last summer that relations with Downing Street began to deteriorate, and at the behest of Blair. The Foreign Office decision to send a former British ambassador to meet the Venezuelan president on his arrival in London – when that is not necessary protocol for a private visit – suggests a flexible approach to Chávez-handling. Chávez, a media manager as deft as anyone new Labour has had to offer, turned his choice of host – Livingstone – into a story about snubbing Blair.

To be in the same room as Chávez, to hear him speak of poverty reduction, is to be cast back into a world that the so-called developed countries long ago left behind. Livingstone can match him for anti-Bush rhetoric, but it matters little, as the mayor’s is a post with little power. Chávez’s hold on world oil supplies is what has made him such a focus of adoration and opprobrium. He warned that if the Americans try to remove him, he will blow up Venezuela’s oil wells.

Over lunch, one of Chávez’s aides asked me why it was that a centre-left leader would be so keen to side with the Americans in an attempt to undermine a leader seeking to redistribute wealth. I suggested to the diplomat that his analysis was correct, except for the epithet he had used to describe Blair. My surprise was that, even now, ten years in to Blair’s rule, he was surprised.