In my view

Ten years ago I stood against Tony Blair on the night that he became Britain's Prime Minister.

Ten years ago I stood against Tony Blair on the night that he became Britain's Prime Minister. Sedgefield's voters placed me a poor third and in the failed candidate's speech I spoke of the joy that I nevertheless felt at the defeat of the Conservatives and of the constructive opposition that my party would provide.

On his way out, Tony Blair thanked me. I was flattered, but my vanity was rattled because he didn't look me in the eyes when he spoke. I noticed however that I wasn't alone. He smiled and shook many hands that night, but looked past the people who congratulated him and I found myself liking and disliking him simultaneously.

Unlike Mrs Thatcher who was easy to loathe and John Major who aroused no emotional response, Tony Blair has remained a puzzle wrapped in an enigma.

He has been at his persuasive best when exercising his greatest duplicity, most radical when appearing conservative, most fainthearted when at his most popular.

The man who now claims moral sanction for the Iraq war because it toppled Saddam, once said Saddam could stay on if he gave up his weapons of mass destruction. The man who broke up the NHS internal market has largely reintroduced it through private treatment centres and market-friendly procurement.

The man who wanted to put Britain at the heart of Europe has balked at any referendum on the subject. The man who wanted to reform welfare sacked his most radical welfare reformer after just 15 months in office.

The man who was to make Britain a "new, young country" maintains hereditary peers in the House of Lords.

The man whose Government was to be squeaky clean has seen it mired in sleaze allegations. Part of the result is the staggering cynicism of voters.

Alongside many local councillors, I have spent the last five weeks knocking on doors, asking people for their support and engaging in conversations ranging from the short, often just two words; to far fewer of the long. Amongst the most notable were an elector who argued that we should be in Iraq because the Iraqis were attacking our troops and another who was voting Labour because their beloved Liverpool wear red and as Labour are red it seemed the right thing to do.

A colleague was even offered sexual services by someone who nevertheless refused to give them their vote.

Canvassing, dear reader, can be an interesting thing to do. However, having spoken with upwards of a thousand people over the past month what strikes me more than anything else is that the majority see all of us - Labour, Lib Dem and Tory - as the same. We are one big party, the party of them.

Them have certain characteristics. Them are untrustworthy, self-seeking, politically correct, feeble, woolly minded, metropolitan thieves who will do anything for power and money except tell the truth.

Them are also ideologically indistinguishable and therefore if we give one of them our support, it is on the same basis as shopping in one place rather than another: all about price and standard of service.

It is for this reason that local results in councils that share borders were so different last week and so similar. They were similar in that the majority of people, often a very large majority, don't vote.

They were different in that whoever offered the best package won the local election, so long as they marketed themselves properly and put their competitors down at the same time. The voters, treated like shoppers, behave like shoppers and it is this breakdown of allegiance, this uncoupling of party and ideology that is Blair's political legacy. The challenge to those who continue in politics post-Blair is to create the space to make democracy real again.

What I mean by this is that voters only become shoppers when they cease to be citizens. If politics isn't to be a sub-discipline of marketing, then the imperative must be to find ways of giving power to people directly. At council level, this should include substantially increasing the power and resources of local ward committees where residents take decisions directly, conducting ballots on genuine alternatives for local schemes and working with partners to create community courts to deal with local offenders.

Local politicians must give away power before we can ever recover respect.

* Ron Beadle is the Liberal Democrat spokesman for Newcastle North and a member of Gateshead Borough Council.


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