When Tony presses my button, he doesn't turn me on

`Maybe Labour's election theme song should have been "Things Can Only Get the Same" '
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The Independent Culture
SO TONY Blair is apparently the most popular prime minister in history. But who do you know who likes him? No one. He's the most unpopular most popular person there's ever been.

But the delegates at the Labour Party Conference would have cheered his speech whatever he said. On Sunday he pressed a button that lit up a backdrop, displaying the words "for the many, not the few", and received thunderous applause. For pressing a button! Maybe this has been happening all week. Word spreads round the conference that the leader has successfully pressed the button for the lift to the second floor, and the delegates mutter, "My God, he's done it again." Perhaps the final conference session will end with some North Korean poet reciting: "More dextrous than the finest trumpeter/ More consistent than a man playing a pub fruit machine/ You, O wise and agile leader/ Display a nimbleness in button-pressing that teaches us how to set the British people free."

In Blair's main speech, they cheered the announcement that he wants parents to be able to drop kids at school, "not into the arms of drug-dealers". What an easy gig. If he'd come out against arsonists, torturing animals, and earthquakes, the standing ovation would have gone on all night.

They applauded Blair's carefully selected quote from Kier Hardie, but ignored the comment that when Hardie set up the Labour Party, he made a mistake - which must make Blair the only leader of an organisation who regrets that his organisation exists. It would be like the Rugby World Cup opening with a speech from the Rugby Union President that went: "I'd prefer it if we'd never introduced that rule that you're allowed to handle the ball."

What's happened to these supposedly rational people? They nod their heads to statements such as "you can't solve the problem of poverty by simply giving people more money", although poverty means having no money. You might as well assert, "you can't make a piece of paper yellow simply by painting it yellow".

For that matter, what's the point of the delegates at all? The National Policy Forum eliminated all amendments that were critical of the Government, so their role is just to clap, like a TV studio audience. There's probably a floor manager, who walks in front of the conference half-way through a speech and says, "OK - stop it there. Now, this time, can we have a huge whooping cheer when Stephen Byers says `fair but frugal'?" Meanwhile a choreographer tells the extras that when the chair introduces Alistair Darling, they have to scream "massive respect going out to that secretary of state" and chant "prudence, prudence".

I suspect that a minority of Labour delegates honestly believe in the New Labour project.

The rest would prefer something more egalitarian, but don't believe that challenging the free market is possible. So they applaud dutifully. And, like a woman who refuses to leave an appalling husband, they seize on the tiniest offering as proof that things are all right really. Cheering the backdrop that says "for the many, not the few" is like the woman saying, "You see? He always says sorry after he wallops me, so he does care."

But the real world is catching up. A Gallup poll shows that 53 per cent of the population believes that since the election, things have stayed the same. When millions of people celebrated on election night, were we all cheering: "At last! For 18 years we put up with those bastards, but from now on it's going to be the same"? Maybe Labour's theme song should have been "Things can only get the same".

We're left with a contradiction. Millions would like to see taxes raised on the rich to fund welfare. Countless people are appalled by tuition fees, continuing privatisation and New Labour's attacks on asylum seekers. But they convince themselves that New Labour is the best we can hope for.

They should ask themselves when they felt most inspired. It may have been during the miners' strike, or at the time of the campaign against apartheid, or when they were a member of CND. No one says: "The day I felt most inspired was when I accepted that to keep inflation down we have to be prudent."

And they should ask why they clapped when Blair spoke in glowing terms about the Suffragettes, Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela, when anyone chaining themselves to railings, leading illegal marches or taking up arms against dictators would be kicked straight out of New Labour. (Though taking arms to dictators might not be so much of a problem.)

It's because New Labour has to claim that there's a principled crusade at its heart, although in practice it sees principles as a troublesome nuisance.

So they insult the heroes of the past by professing a link with them. But those who clapped know, deep down, that no one will ever say: "the person who inspires me above all others - is Jack Straw."