Comment: There's a nasty surprise for Mr Blair when he comes home

He is less moved than some of his colleagues would like him to be about the party's `core vote'
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The Independent Culture
SOMETHING IS missing. Ever since Tony Blair completed his first year as Labour leader in 1995, August has been a wicked month. Remember how excited we were when Clare Short precipitated a mini-crisis in the party leadership with her pointed attack on the "men who live in the dark"? Or 1997, when Robin Cook's hugely publicised marital problems were swiftly followed by almost equally publicised tension between Peter Mandelson and John Prescott? Or last year, when Blair's return from holiday was widely billed as reasserting a "grip" on government.

It is, of course, too early to rule out a reprise. But so far, not a whisper of it. One of the reasons that the prime ministerial holiday has attracted so much attention is precisely that everything is running so smoothly back home. For the first time since Blair became leader, the holiday is more interesting than the vacuum it leaves behind. Even the more rebellious backbenchers appear uncharacteristically quiet. William Hague's accident proneness continues to make headlines. The City drools that Gordon Brown is presiding over a "Goldilocks economy". Blair's own poll rating remains obstinately above 50 per cent.

It therefore seems perverse to suggest that not everything is quite right. But as first the TUC, and then the party conference - both of which will be addressed by the Prime Minister - approach, a certain disengagement among what used to be called the Labour movement is almost tangible. It's as important first to say what this isn't. There will not be much to frighten the leadership at the party conference beyond a few miscellaneous skirmishes on welfare reform, fox-hunting and working time. Nor will it do to say, though the ultra left will, that this is only because the conference is now so stage-managed that defeats for the platform are impossible. It is boring but true that the constitution of the - to outsiders - arcane National Policy Forum, which now approves the series of policy statements at the party conference, provides for minority reports which have to be debated by delegates if they command the support of 25 per cent of the Forum members. Despite the efforts of the Grassroots Alliance at the final session of the Forum in Durham, the dissidents were unable to command a quarter of the votes on a single subject.

But that doesn't alter the fact that Blair has a job on his hands. The party's dismal showing in the Euro-elections was a shock to the party's nervous system. Yes, the over-controlled system of closed regional lists alienated members, activists and, in some cases, the candidates themselves; which is one reason why Blair promised the National Executive last month that he would examine the case for changing it. And yes, William Hague had a clear message for the campaign on the Euro which, with Blair preoccupied by Kosovo, Labour failed to match. But the low turnout and poor results, not least in Labour strongholds, testified to a somewhat wider malaise. In several parts of the country, the activists on which all parties depend to turn out the vote didn't exactly stir themselves.

There are limits, to put it mildly, to how far Blair will go to stroke his party's rank and file. He is less moved than some of his colleagues would like him to be by hand-wringing about the party's "core vote" - reminding them that Margaret Thatcher won three elections in a row by focussing on "the vote" rather than the core vote. Moreover he could, if he chooses, still annoy traditionalists in the party by the way he answers two of the sharpest unresolved questions when he returns,: will he, for example, prevent Ken Livingstone from standing for the London mayoralty? Will he prefer the exiled Peter Mandelson over Dr John Reid for the job of Secretary of State for Defence?

It would not, however, be surprising if a subtle shift of body language was not evident as the conferences approach. In one respect it has already happened. When the impeccably modernising Stephen Byers speaks of "rip- off Britain" in promising to be tougher on price-fixing than industry expected, when he increases the OFT's budget by 30 per cent to enforce competition in the interests of the consumer, when his junior minister Helen Liddle denounces the prices charged for soft drinks, as she did yesterday, the Government is demonstrating that the vested interests it is prepared to assault include those of capital as well as those of labour.

Of course, the policy, which borrows something from trust-busting in the US, is part of a wider industrial strategy, heavily promoted in Whitehall by Gordon Brown, which takes account of the fact that companies which are forced to reduce their prices will show higher productivity and become more competitive, as well as helping to reduce inflation. Of course it is populist. Of course the Tories have quite unnecessarily played into Labour's hands by allowing the shadow prices minister Angela Browning to line up with the complaining parts of the business sector. (And it may be some time before Labour actually boasts about what is true - that by turning down Rupert Murdoch's bid to buy Manchester United, Mr Byers was one of the few ministers in a developed Western country to curb Mr Murdoch's ambitions.) Nevertheless, Mr Byers' overall approach chimes quite well with what I suspect is a realisation by Mr Blair that there are dangers in the belief that New Labour is too close to big business. Rather, as the Chancellor's assault on "fat cats" did before the election, the assault on prices gives New Labour a "story" - to use one of its beloved words - about its determination to stick by a slogan which will be used increasingly in the coming month - serving "the many rather than the few".

This does not itself make the crusade which Harold Wilson said Labour was nothing without. But language matters, because it helps to define the party in its own mind. Expect the increasing use of the newly promoted Ian McCartney to remind the party what the Government has done, from the New Deal to the minimum wage, which the Tories wouldn't have. Expect to see Blair appearing on platforms together with John Prescott to promote the twin themes for the conference season of "the future" and "fairness". Blair believes that Thatcher helped to see off Labour in the Eighties by standing for the future while Labour stood for the past, and that the positions have now been reversed.

But the fairness matters too. Almost Blair's first act on return will be to join Gordon Brown in launching the new pounds 5bn Working Family Tax Credit, which the Chancellor regards as crucial to the attack on poverty. All this may not be socialism as it was once understood, but it is part of persuading the party that there is still a clear dividing line between New Labour and its enemies. That, at least, should help to cheer the troops.

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