By Lucy Clement
The writer Somerset Maugham once described in rather disparaging terms how the Americans managed to converse without thinking. It was no doubt unfair at the time, and remains unfair to most Americans, at least those outside the current administration. But Maugham's description of a conversation consisting of "pithy and hackneyed phrases" which leave the mind "free to consider the more important matters of big business and fornication" gives a rather good summary of Tony Blair's all-new scaled-up focus group initiative: The Big Conversation.
So, if you can drag yourself away from the fornication-inducing Gaydar and the less-fornication-inducing photo of Blair loyalist Chris Bryant MP in his Y-fronts, log on for a moment to www.bigconversation.org.uk. Here you can text New Labour your thoughts (on 84402, for 25p on top of your normal charge).
You can submit questions to Ministers, who will respond to a selected few. You can send in your stories and pictures (preferably not, though, of Mr Bryant, of whom we've all seen quite enough thank you).
The Big Conversation is certainly hackneyed. Take Tony Blair's "Conversation Starter". It's hard to pick the worst bit, but try: "The challenge for law and order is how to recast the system for a 21st century in which organised crime and anti-social behaviour requires a different criminal justice system to 50 years ago." In other words: let's get rid of those old-fashioned notions of presumption of innocence and trials by jury.
Then there are contributions from members of the public. Such as Caroline Jones from Huntingdon, who says: "too often people talk down what have been some massive achievements in the last six years". Unfortunately the Labour Party can't guarantee that everyone who submits a comment will have it posted on the site. But I'm glad they found space for Caroline's insight.
Evidence that the Big Conversation is meaningless was to be found within a week of its launch at Tony Blair's monthly press conference. Asked whether he would change his mind on university top-up fees, he said there would be "no retreat". Tinkering around the edges, maybe, but on the central issue his mind's made up.
In fact, this isn't a conversation at all. It's just Blair trying to pretend he's listening while he gets on with the "important matter" of keeping big business happy. The focus-group gurus have convinced themselves that the Government's problem isn't policy, it's presentation. If only they could get the voters to understand their thinking, then they'd accept what was happening. Don't understand why your pension's disappeared? Let us explain the global economic situation. That'll make it better.
But if the Big Conversation is patronising and lecturing, it's also evidence that New Labour is worried. A whole section of Tony Blair's introduction is devoted to evoking the ghost of the Thatcher years, to attacking (if not in name) Michael Howard and his same old Tories.
And in one sense it's a very timid initiative indeed. If Tony Blair were really confident of his policies, he wouldn't need to have a conversation about them. He could have a debate, take on his critics, and come out on top. He used to, even if only because he'd persuaded his long-defeated party that he had that election-winning touch.
But Blair's winning streak in the Labour Party is running out. He's been defeated at his own conference for the last two years. He's had to delay the vote on tuition fees because over 140 of his own MPs oppose the policy, and he - the Labour landslide leader - faces defeat in Parliament. On that issue, he's a long way from winning the Big Debate. And no amount of conversation is going to change that.