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Gary Younge
Will win, won't listen

"Just remember how you felt on that dreadful morning of June 10," Neil Kinnock told delegates at his first conference as leader, reminding them of the morning after Margaret Thatcher had won for the second time. "Just remember how you felt then and say to yourselves ... June 9 1983, never, ever again. We have to win ... we can win ... we will win."

If winning was the aim - and who in their right mind would argue with victory as a worthwhile goal? - then defeating the left was the means. It was their doctrinal dogma, it was decided, that had alienated the voters and obstructed attempts to capture the centre ground. And so a rationale developed that, in order for the Labour party to win, the Labour left had to lose. Whether it was abandoning unilateralism, expelling Militant, ditching clause 4 or distancing itself from the unions, a Labour leader demonstrated his worthiness for power by either coopting or conquering radicals on his own side.

Whether this was a correct strategy or not remains contested by some - the fact that a change was necessary does not, in itself, justify the pace and direction of the change that took place. But what is not contested is that it was a "strategy" - a pragmatic realignment in a politically hostile, economically turbulent and culturally volatile period, both nationally and internationally, pursued to make Labour electorally viable.

But sometime in the mid-90s Labour not only changed the script but lost the plot and, it now appears, completely gave up on any chance of constructing a coherent, popular, progressive narrative. Somewhere along the way, drifting to the right became not the stuff of ineluctable, political gravity but the political will of a determined few. Once it was what they claimed they had to do to win over public opinion. Now it is what they want to do, regardless of public opinion.

"My view is that the changes in the Labour party were not just necessary to win the election but were right in principle," insists Tony Blair. So the good news is that they believe in something. The bad news is, as time goes on, it is increasingly the wrong thing. The people who voted for them have grown contemptuous of corporate greed, sceptical of American military hegemony and distrustful of the private sector.

Labour could claim that defying these concerns was the true definition of leadership. Refusing to bend and bow to every public whim and instead standing firm on a path they believe to be right is the kind of quality we expect from those who seek public office. But leaders, by definition, need followers and Labour are sadly lacking in those at the moment. On many crucial issues the public are unimpressed.

An opinion poll last month showed 52% of British voters remain hostile to British forces being involved in an attack on Iraq. After a month of industrial action by council, rail and tube workers in July, 59% of voters believed the strikes were justified, while 29% did not, according to ICM. The same survey showed that 37% believed Blair pays too much attention to business, compared with 14% who thought he concentrated too much on trade unions. Another ICM poll last week showed that 60% of British voters think the government is not doing enough to tackle world pollution or to give aid to the developing world. Blair, it appears, regards these figures as evidence that the public is out of touch with the demands of modern government, not that he is out of touch with the demands of the electorate.

The government could be forgiven for being complacent. The huge sums pumped into public services at the comprehensive spending review show that they are not completely oblivious to the national mood. And while the public may object to their performance on single issues, the polls that matter gave them a thumping majority at the general election last year and show Labour still way ahead of the Tories. Whatever else they are risking by sticking to their principles it is not electoral defeat. On every issue, including crime, defence and taxation, they are ahead of the Conservatives.

That is comforting up to a point. But while there is no party political opposition to Labour worthy of the name, popular discontent outside parliament is growing. The alliances of churches, trade unions, environmental groups, voluntary organisations and assorted intellectuals that are coming together to articulate opposition on single issues, such as the treatment of asylum seekers or the bombing of Iraq, are similar to the civic coalitions that emerged to challenge Thatcherism.

And while Labour looks untouchable nationally, the party looks increasingly vulnerable at a local and regional level, where the leadership would rather lose on principle than win with pragmatism. Take Ken Livingstone and London. Two years ago, Labour preferred to lose the campaign for the capital's mayoralty than have Livingstone as its candidate. Why? Because he refused to endorse a funding plan for the tube that was massively unpopular with Londoners. As a result, Labour came third, behind the Tories. This year Labour has done it again, refusing to let Livingstone stand as its candidate, thus splitting the left vote and providing the Tories with the best possible chance of winning and reviving their fortunes in the capital. Similar defeats for the mayoralty in Middlesbrough and in the general election in Kidderminster suggest that Labour's support is as broad as it is shallow - prone, at any time, to a good issue or a good candidate from the right, left or centre.

These tensions and realities are belatedly being reflected within the party. But they have yet to express themselves in any meaningful way in parliament, where the Liberal Democrats are too few and the Tories are too hopeless to mount any effective challenge.

When asked which party has the best policies the sharpest increase over the past 10 years has been those who say either "None" or "Don't Know". The undecided, unconvinced or uninterested lead the way in housing, taxation, the environment, crime and defence.

The result is a political culture that is increasingly dislocated from the political class - a class that has lost the ability to debate and the tolerance for dissent. By sheer force of numbers both within its own party and within parliament, New Labour has developed a knack of winning votes and losing arguments. It is precisely the opposite dilemma to the problem they had 20 years ago - but no less worrying.

g.younge@theguardian.com

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