Tony makes them feel like dancing, but he frightens me

Blair is unashamed to be called authoritarian in pursuit of goals he knows most voters share
Click to follow
THE MUSICAL build-up in Blackpool had changed from the usual feelgood disco stomp to the soaring, sonorous harmonies of an African choir. Not a note, verbal or musical, is struck in the Winter Gardens without precise calculation of its effect on our spirits. The hallowed strains were an invitation to a mood of sober reflection: this time, the Prime Minister was saying, it is time to get serious.

Having roughed up his own party, he is now setting out on the really difficult bit: roughing up the rest of us. New Labour has been accused of being disproportionately tough on the poor and workless. Now it was the turn of others, less accustomed to the smack of firm government, to be the intended recipients of Mr Blair's pep talk. Business was politely and firmly told to stop moaning about the high pound and attend to its low productivity. Teachers were scolded for insufficient enthusiasm about the Government's standards drive. Doctors and managers, the NHS elite, are to be tested on the efficiency and cost-effectiveness of the drugs and treatments they prescribe. Here was an extraordinarily forthright attack on the complacency of the public sector middle classes, protected hereto by the carefully-tended perception that they "do a wonderful job" and that it is somehow mean-minded to ask whether this is actually true in all cases.

Here was a speech of coded warnings of toughness on just about every front - in the economy, in education, towards the criminally inclined and the trade unions. His tone towards the last two was pretty much identically menacing. If the message from the TUC conference and the Left's advances was "Be Afraid", Mr Blair was using Blackpool to tell us that he wasn't.

For a Prime Minister whose stock-in-trade until recently was ease and accessibility, he is becoming a wee bit scary. The applause before the end of sentences seemed to me a sign that the audience is slightly nervous of him. Warmth has been replaced by respect.

Still, it is all in a good cause. From zero-tolerance in high crime areas, to closing bad schools and sacking their heads, a more discriminating system of rewards for those in the public sector to reflect performance and a widening of the role of health visitors throughout the childhood years and into adolescence: the shrewd calculation of Mr Blair's list of social improvements is that it uses the power of the state for social purposes most people will find welcome.

He has perfected the knack of selling the same set of policies twice with different labels to different audiences and yesterday's speech will be presented to the centre-left as putting substance on the commitment to widen "social inclusion". At the same time, the tent was audaciously pitched on traditionally Conservative turf with an autumn Green Paper intended to shore up the fractious and fragmented British family.

The old Tory charge was that Labour was the provisional wing of the bossy state, unfailingly eager to get its size nine social-worker boot through the front door of ordinary people, disturb the peace of the hearth and run their lives for them. But who is seriously going to object to these policies? Things cannot go on as they are. Ask people who live in crime- ridden estates or whose children are condemned to schools in which teachers have been reduced to mere agents of social control - and not particularly effective ones at that.

Mr Blair has absorbed the admonishments of Conservative critics. To their horror, he is acting tough on the very things they expect Labour governments to be soft on. What will they moan about now?

But there are some risks inherent in such a centralised approach to social ills as the one Mr Blair laid out yesterday. The implementation of Zero Tolerance must not be allowed to become a shield behind which over-zealous, thuggish or downright racist policemen can shelter. The line between strict and harsh policing is difficult enough to observe under existing conditions of high pressure, often compounded by racial tension between communities and the police. It will become even more difficult when forces are being given central orders to redouble their efforts in target areas, which are, by definition, tense and troubled.

At the same time as Mr Blair is inviting Chief Constables to preside over a more energetic clampdown on crime, the Home Secretary, Jack Straw, is preparing an assault on the ingrained culture of unaccountability in some police forces and the reluctance of good members of the force to inform on colleagues who bend or break the rules.

It is not an outright contradiction. But in order to avoid accusations that Mr Blair's preferred crime reduction strategy will not mean an uncritical embrace of heavy tactics in troublespots, Mr Straw will have to ensure that his determination to hasten reform of police management keeps pace with the desire to achieve a down turn in street crime.

The return to welfare reform in a bill in the autumn is a raspberry to those who thought it was all over when Frank Field quit office. One of the odder political sideshows has been right wing welfare state reformers heaping uncritical praise on Mr Field, who has just shown robustly Old Labour credentials by demanding a 50 per cent tax for high earners.

From its early mishaps and mishandlings of welfare reform, the Government has learned to proceed more incrementally and to tackle welfare problems one-by-one, instead of launching a Jihad whose goals appear to me to be perfectly right, but which ran into trouble on so many fronts that it was in danger of derailing the entire project. So the autumn will see a review of disability benefits - the most fatally elastic part of the social security budget, but also one of the most sensitive and with a well-organised and vociferous lobby defending to status quo. Mr Blair, we see again, is not shy of a fight.

He spoke yesterday as a Prime Minister unashamed to be called authoritarian in pursuit of goals he knows that the majority of voters share and with a determination he knows that they relish. But his centralising tendencies are becoming unignorable and at odds with other New Labour commitments to spread more decision-making away from Westminster. From next year, when the elections to Scotland's parliament prepare the way for the first real alternative power centre to Westminster, that will have to change. Yesterday, we saw a man grown so confident in handling power that he will find giving it up a lot more difficult than he imagines.