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banner Tuesday, 22 February, 2000, 13:34 GMT
Sacrifices in the scramble for power

Tony Blair will be looking to the future

By BBC News Online's political correspondent Nick Assinder

Tony Blair recently declared that Labour's first leader, Keir Hardie, would be dismayed to find how little of the 20th century had been dominated by his party.

But, as the prime minister leads the celebrations to mark Labour's centenary, many on his own side claim Hardie would be spinning in his grave if he could see what had been sacrificed in the scramble for power.

Some even go so far as to say New Labour is a betrayal of everything the party's founders stood for and that, to all intents and purposes, is a different party merely using the same name.

They often claim it represents Margaret Thatcher's greatest victory in wiping socialism off the British political map.

Under New Labour, the demand for "the common ownership of the means of production" has been dumped and the free market warmly embraced.

Tony Blair: for the many
Trades unions, who helped found the party, are now held at arms length.

Instead of seeking to advance the interests of working people, it now appears the party is obsessed by middle England - New Labour speak for the middle classes.

And most references to socialism have been purged from the party's objectives.

Election winning machine

In return, Mr Blair would argue, New Labour won its greatest ever election victory in 1997 and looks certain to win the next one.

Because of the party's failure to modernise and adapt to the changes in the structure of British society it was kept out of power for most of the last 100 years.

But now it has been transformed into a modern, forward looking and - most importantly - election winning machine.

And he wants the 21st century to be dominated by New Labour in the same way the 20th century was dominated by the Conservatives.

These two opposing arguments continue to rumble through the Labour party as it enters its second century in existence.

Minor comeback

And, if Tony Blair thinks he has laid them to rest, then recent events surrounding the race to become Labour's candidate for London mayor have dispelled the illusion.

Ken Livingstone has come to symbolise everything Tony Blair wants New Labour NOT to be. He is an unreconstructed socialist who is not afraid to challenge the new order.

The first year of the new century has been dominated by the rows over his bid to become London mayor.

And that has brought all the old arguments over the party's direction boiling back to the surface.

The old guard are staging a minor comeback with dire warnings that the party continues to ignore its core voters at its peril.

But, thanks to Mr Blair's historic 1997 victory, those arguing for a return to anything like the old-style socialism are shouting in the wilderness.

Thumbs down

Few would now argue that New Labour is a socialist party in the sense most people understand that word - or even a democratic socialist party as Mr Blair would sometimes have it.

David Owen: led SDP breakaway
Instead it has been transformed into the sort of social democratic party that the Gang of Four Labour MPs - Roy Jenkins, David Owen, Bill Rodgers and Shirley Williams - sought to create in 1981 when they walked out of the party in disgust at what they saw as its extremist policies.

And the left-wing of the party has become marginalised and ignored and has so far failed to offer anything to capture the imagination of ordinary voters.

So the question now is exactly where New Labour goes in the future.

It appears Mr Blair's "project" to forge a centre-left alliance with the Liberal Democrats and others to keep the Tories out of power for decades has pretty much been put on the back burner.

Distant relations

Grass roots members in both parties have given it the thumbs down and, with the next election just around the corner, there is no chance of the two forging a closer alliance.

Relations with the trades unions look like becoming more distant. Some members are even suggesting that, now Labour is no longer "their" party, the unions should reconsider their financial support for Labour.

And it is clear that there will be no return to Old Labour "tax and spend" economic policies.

Instead New Labour looks determined to remain firmly in the centre of British politics - even though the centre moved decidedly to the right during the Thatcher years.

Critics claim it is now virtually impossible to detect any real ideology at the heart of New Labour.

Focus groups

Tony Blair certainly does not come from any ideologically-motivated tradition and often looks ill at ease when dealing with "the party", which is steeped in such traditions.

And there is a widespread belief he is driven by focus groups and opinion polls and is ready to adopt and abandon policies based on their popularity rather than whether he believes them to be fundamentally right or not.

To many, his redrafting of Clause IV of the party's constitution to ditch "common ownership of the means of production" in favour of putting power, wealth and opportunity "in the hands of the many not the few" epitomises this trait.

It is seen as wishy-washy and meaningless - the sort of thing anybody from any party could sign up to, like being against poverty.

The lack of an obvious ideological base makes it particularly difficult to guess where Labour's future lies.

Tony Benn: standing down at next election
Another problem is created by the fact that the current parliamentary party is a reflection of its leader, and likely successors - including Gordon Brown, Jack Straw and Alan Milburn - would follow the same path.

It is currently inconceivable that there will be a left-wing challenge in the foreseeable future. There is no Tony Benn waiting in the wings to rally the remaining forces of true socialism.

And it is hard to see where a new generation of leaders might come from, except the same school.

That all begs the inevitable question of where Labour will go when the Tories finally make their comeback - as they inevitably will.

Currently, that seems a long way off, but one of the great certainties about politics is that, sooner or later, the worm will turn.

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