When will the Labour Left rise up against Mr Tony Blair? After the next election, that's when
The Omerta in the Labour Party is becoming quite oppressive. No matter what Blair says, no matter what torture he does to the soul of the party of Keir Hardie and Michael Foot, the broad left stays silent.
Blair flies to off to court Murdoch in /Am Blofeld-style island hideaway off the Barrier Reef; yes, the Murdoch who sacked 6,000 print workers, who grossly libelled Foot, and did so much to destroy Neil Kin- nock. Jack Straw announces plans to permit people to have their neighbours locked up for making too much noise, while in Little- borough and Saddleworth, Labour's by- election campaign concentrates on the Lib Democrats' lax attitude to soft drugs.
Peter Mandelson, the much-feared Machiavelli of Hartlepool, establishes a new speech-writing unit full of SDP turn- coats which seems specifically designed to exclude the more authentic left-wing voices of Robin Cook and John Prescott. Blair tells the unions they can no longer count on having much serious influence in the for- mation of Labour policy, and then discloses new plans to trim the block vote from 70 per cent to 50 per cent at this year's confer- ence. New policy on health, education and crime is rammed past the National Execu- tive Committee with barely a nod towards consultation.
Blair continues the process of changing the name of the party, by stealth, to New Labour; and now he is repeating his curious claim to be the political kinsman of Lady Thatcher. The Tories, like the rest of us, can only look on with stupefaction.
Vainly they scan the Labour benches for vocal resentment of Mr Blair's fahrerprinzip. So far, though, the self-con- trol of Labour's rank and file is almost per- fect. One might as well walk through the streets of the Sicilian town of Corleone on a hot July afternoon and ask the old codgers sitting on the steps whether they would like to criticise the Mafia.
There are some souls who are brave enough to denounce Tony Blair's wholesale junking of old Labour values. But these tend to be left-wing Tories such as Lord Gilmour, who thinks Blair has gone much too far to the right, or Baroness Williams, the Liberal Democrat. Try asking a real left-wing Labour MP what he thinks of Blair, on the record, and you will get only smiles and waggling of hands in dumb- show. As one of the most talented left- wingers puts it privately, — a man who in the old days would have been a scourge of the leadership — 'You won't get a peep out of me!' And then he added, with a cackle, the crucial saving clause, 'Before the next election!'
For the resentment, everyone accepts, is being bottled up for a purpose. In almost all parts of the parliamentary Labour Party there is respect for Blair. Though there is a certain tendency to see him as a man who would rather nip home and change nappies with Cherie than get stuck into a faction tneeting, they believe he means what he says. They admire him, perversely, for the way he gives top-down leadership, and they contrast this to the Tories, who are embarking this week on a programme to form policy by first discovering what their activists think about the Royal Family, devolution and the judiciary.
Above all, they admire Blair for his phe- nomenal opinion poll ratings. And seeing that these last have proved a little friable recently, after Mr Major's success in the Tory leadership election, they will publicly swallow almost anything to avoid jeopardis- ing Labour's chances in the next election.
That does not mean they are not prepar- ing to take Blair on if and when Labour comes to power. And it is not just the far Left who plot revenge, but centrist old- timers who voted for Callaghan. This large group has been privately appalled by his callous, Prince Hal-esque rejection of Labour's beer-soaked old mates in the unions, and, above all, they were offended by his decision to send his child to a grant- maintained school. Labour dining-clubs are being formed on the quiet to discuss the eventual fight-back.
As one MP puts it, 'A lot of the centre of the party is working on the assumption that this is all bullshit to win the election, and then we'll see some real redistribution of wealth.' And provided Mr Blair's majority after the next election is not vast — and it may well not be — the Left, at least, intends to play tough to achieve their ends. 'We'll be like the Maastricht rebels,' they say. Things will go our way or else Mr Blair won't find himself leader of the Labour Party by the end of the parliament.
The parallel with the Tory rebels is a good one. Like the Tory Euro-sceptics, the Left of the Labour Party has a hard-edged agenda. Principally, they want a vast pro- gramme of government investment of the kind advocated by the Guardian'sWill Hut- ton. This would be funded out of taxation and would be intended to generate jobs. To force Mr Blair to move in their direction, they are preparing to hold him to ransom, perhaps by refusing support for an expect- ed Labour bill for the state funding of polit- ical parties.
Then, and perhaps, alas, then only, we will see what Mr Blair really means when he tells us that he is a radical, in the same way that Mrs Thatcher was a radical. Then we will see whether he has a hard agenda of his own, to match and defend himself against the agenda of the Left. It is difficult to see much trace of the influence of Lady Thatcher in his attempt to glamorise the Internet, which everybody knows is a fun- damentally onanistic device allowing nerds to watch cyberporn.
Even if trade union leaders such as Mr Rodney Bickerstaffe, Mr Bill Morris and Mr John Edmonds were to let him, there is no convincing evidence that Blair proposes to mount an assault on the expense of the welfare state, let alone take Occam's razor to Brussels. No, if one is able to ignore the clenched chin, the blazing eyes, and the general messianic vigour, it is clear that Blairism is essentially not Thatcherism, but Majorism. And, just like Major, he is vul- nerable to a determined minority at one end of his party, and a disgruntled middle ground, all of whom are at present diplo- matically holding their tongues.
Boris Johnson is assistant editor of the Daily Telegraph.