Tony Blair is not a natural orator. Indeed, I suspect that he is properly suspicious of oratory in all its forms. But the Prime Minister has developed a compelling platform technique that mixes charm and menace. His speech will, therefore, end in an avalanche of admiration for his ability and residual gratitude for his part in the long-awaited victory. But there will be little warmth in the applause. No Labour leader has inspired less affection. Tony Blair is the only Labour leader to dislike the party he leads.
That is not to suggest that he is rude to demanding trade unionists, impatient with geriatric local councillors or dismissive of angry young socialists who think that they could change the world tomorrow - the sort of people with whom emotionally engaged leaders have regularly lost their tempers. But these often bitter battles were family feuds - compared by Jack Jones to the reaction of the octogenarian who, when asked if he had ever considered divorcing his wife of 50 years, replied: "Divorce never. Murder often!" Tony Blair has never felt part of the Labour family. And he does not give the impression that he would welcome their living next door.
More than 20 years ago, Judith Hart - then a great force on the left of the party - asked me to tell Jim Callaghan to stop treating the National Executive like a wife who had betrayed him. I think that the emotion that she attempted to portray was anger rather than grief. But - as I did not have the courage to pass on her message - I cannot be sure. One thing is, however, certain. The behaviour of which she complained was built on emotion. Although Jim occasionally wagged a heavy father's finger, he did not want the errant children to leave home. Tony Blair seems hell- bent on turning them out into the cold night.
To be fair to the Prime Minister, it must be admitted that it is not only the party itself that he dislikes. He has an undisguised and undisguisable distaste for the whole Labour movement - particularly the trade unions, those immovable objects that stand in the way of the fully flexible labour market of which he dreams. The aphorism of John Monk, the general secretary of the TUC, about feeling like an unwanted relative at a teenager's party was not his most revealing image of the relationship between Downing Street and the TUC. He described himself as Ernie Wise to the Prime Minister's Eric Morecambe: "Every time he wants a laugh, he slaps me in the face." We must assume that the Prime Minister had slapstick comedy in mind when he read his embarrassing "poem" in his address to this year's Trades Union Congress. Its message was essentially unfraternal.
Tony Blair's antagonism towards the TUC is clearly the result of its annoying inclination to do things of which he disapproves. Councillors have recently begun to fall into the same bad habit. But he has always believed the worst about rank-and-file activists. Perhaps it is the result of his late entry into the party during the years of extremist infiltration, and the consequent belief that every branch was vulnerable to revolutionary socialists. Whatever the reason, expulsions and investigations have become a feature of Labour Party life.
It all began when two branches were closed down in Sparkbrook, my old constituency in Birmingham, because of press allegations that councillors were using housing grants as bribes to secure votes in the selection conference where my successor was chosen. Four enquiries - police, council, party and auditors' - exonerated all the accused, but the branches were not reinstated for three years. Cynics said it was a crude attempt to make sure that a radical Asian was not selected. I never believed that interpretation of events.
Tony Blair is easily convinced that councillors have their hands in the till. A few do. But local government can take much of the credit for the social change that has transformed this county. And thousands of Labour councillors have gone unsung to municipal crematoria after creating better schools, more affordable houses and new health centres. Paradoxically, in these days of centre-left alignment, their tendency to tax and spend makes them the natural heirs of Joseph Chamberlain's town-hall liberalism and, at the same time, unacceptable to Tony Blair. So - dubious about their honesty and opposed to their philosophy - he is planning to introduce a voting system that reduces the chances of his own party's winning control of local councils. Nothing more bizarre happened in Lilliput.
There is a respectable argument for councils being elected by some system of proportional representation. But the Downing Street briefing, given after Tony Blair's meeting with Charles Kennedy a couple of weeks ago, was absolutely explicit about the Prime Minister's reasons for wanting to make the change. He was determined to end Labour's "stranglehold" on town and county halls.
If the Labour Party was so wretched when Tony Blair became leader - corrupt councillors, Luddite trade unionists, outdated philosophy and irresponsible members - why did he want to lead it? He often boasts that "I was not born into the Labour Party, I chose it". That is not a virtue in itself. I chose my car for no better reason than it seemed the best vehicle to take me where I wanted to go.
Wherever the Prime Minister hopes to travel, he clearly does not want to take the Labour Party with him. Every change in the party's organisation confirms his dislike of its company. The policy forums - what Robin Cook, who is in charge, would no doubt call "out of Neil Kinnock by John Smith" - remain an honest attempt to create an informed policy debate within the party. But the suggestion that they justify the abolition of constituency "general" or "management" committees is simply sleight of hand. Athenian democracy - EMEV, or Every Member, Every Vote - did not even enfranchise all of Athens. It would be entirely ineffective in Labour's ward parties.
And the suggestion that "cliques" are now in charge is either a calculated insult, or the product of wilful ignorance. Attendance at meetings has certainly fallen off. But the decline in activity is the product of a reduction in enthusiasm - brought about as much by the emasculation of local parties' power as by the rejection of the beliefs that once encouraged canvassers to go out in the rain. It is the classic formula for the extinction of democracy. Discourage people from voting, and then say that voting must be abolished because the electoral roll is unrepresentative.
Ten years ago, I had one of my most violent arguments with Tony Benn following his allegation that Neil Kinnock was attempting to aggregate to the leader all the power that rightly belonged to the party. I declared that no such policy was being pursued and that, were it ever attempted, it would certainly fail. I now realise that only my first assertion was right. Such a policy could happen - but only under a leader who feels no sympathy for the party that he inherited.Reuse content