Leader of Britain's 'New' Labour Party Under Fire From Old
LONDON — TONY BLAIR, see Bill Clinton run. See him win in 1992. And see his left-of-center party base slip away as he tries to court conservative voters.
Like the American president, the youthful Mr. Blair - leader of Britain's Labour Party and current front-runner to be the next prime minister - is wobbling down a thin line between the supporters he wants and the supporters Labour traditionally has. A large swath of his party and Britain's trade union movement is firing criticism at him for what they say is his preference for watered-down socialism and his bossy leadership style.
The controversy threatens to keep dogging him. Blair's recent attempts to ignore the attacks only appear to have encouraged further criticism.
Problems surfaced for Blair earlier this month when Richard Burden, a Labour member of Parliament, accused him of adopting a Kremlin leadership style'' in a ruthless quest for power.''
Labour under Blair, wrote Mr. Burden in the leftist New Statesman and Society magazine, was in danger of losing its status as a radical party with a definable ideological base.''
After Blair said he intended to ignore the criticism, John Prescott, Labour's deputy leader, said rank-and-file party members were ''uneasy'' with Blair's style and approach to Labour policy.
Since being elected party leader, Blair has pushed forward flexible, pragmatic policies and jettisoned long-established beliefs in the sanctity of the welfare state.
Labour insiders say his aim is to make Labour electable by crafting policies more like those of Germany's Social Democrats and Spain's Socialists. In both countries, parties of the left have tried to cultivate middle-class voters, and Blair is attempting to do the same.
One party official said: We have been out of office continuously since 1979, and we won't get back into power unless we carry a large chunk of the middle classes with us.''
Since he took over as leader, Blair has insisted that his party be called ''New Labour.'' He is aware that the party has lost the last four general elections because many voters perceived it as radically socialist.
But a groundswell of Labour stalwarts appears to be singing the same song - that, as leader, he is too high-handed, and too ready to downplay traditional socialist values.
Roy Hattersley, until last year Labour's deputy leader and a widely respected moderate, has joined in the criticism, alleging that Blair's approach failed to take account of Labour's commitment to social equality.''
There is deep concern about the direction Labour Party policy is moving,'' Mr. Hattersley said.
Hattersley took particular issue with Blair's support for private schools and his decision to send his own children to such schools. Labour leaders in the past have been careful to educate their children in the state-financed sector and to use socialized medical treatment.
Labour insiders sympathetic to Blair portray his leadership approach as an attempt to get rid of outmoded doctrines. He has won support for policies embracing measures such as the privatization of industry. He has stressed the need to curb crime (traditionally a Conservative Party preoccupation) and has refused to promise that, if elected, Labour would reverse the Conservative government's reforms of the national health service.
Earlier this year he outraged many Labour members of Parliament by stating publicly that he admired'' Margaret Thatcher - to most leftists an icon of everything wrong with British politics in the last 16 years.
As attacks on his leadership multiplied, Blair was forced to interrupt his holiday and order Labour's head office to issue a blunt statement: The leader retains his unshakable belief that the Labour Party must reform itself if it is to win the general election and carry out its program in government. There will be no let-up in his crusade to modernize and change the Labour Party so that it is best equipped to make the changes the country needs.''
Sources close to Blair added that he would press ahead with plans to cut the share of the trade union vote at party conferences from 70 percent to 50 percent.
On Aug. 14 the range of criticism directed at Blair widened. Labour figures in local government publicly aired their views. Derek Bateman, a senior Labour figure in the English counties, complained that Blair's private office was staffed with ''youths'' who ''try to boss us around.''
Since becoming leader, Blair has built up his private office to a total of 16 people. He has given a lot of authority to Alastair Campbell, his press secretary, who has acquired a reputation for abrasiveness. A small group of senior officials meet every day to plot strategy, leaving little scope for members of Parliament to influence policy.