There has always been something slightly bizarre about Mr Blair as leader of the Labour Party. He is too much of an outsider. The great majority of the leaders of our political parties have been drawn from the mainstream of their respective traditions and cultures. As a result, you know roughly how, and where, they are going to lead their parties. Then, just occasionally, something interesting happens, usually as a result of desperation. A party elects a leader who comes from the edges of its tradition,who does not properly belong. Margaret Thatcher is the classic modern example, Winston Churchill an earlier instance. The relationship of such leaders with their parties is always uncomfortable, a little fraught. There is too much of the party they do not like, too many traditions, policies and habits they want to discard or transform.
This is the first time Labour has had such a leader. The row over Clause IV might appear to be just another old-fashioned Labour bust-up;. the truth is, though, that from now on we are going to witness a compelling drama at the heart of the Labour Party:a most conservative party led by a leader with the most radical of intentions.
Blair has not sought to conceal those intentions. Already, at the annual conference in October, he launched the idea of New Labour. It was never possible nor desirable to change the party's name; the next best thing, as a way of signalling a break with the past, was to add the adjective "new". Central to Blair's project - a favourite word of his - is the transformation of the party: one-member one-vote, reducing the role of the unions, building up the membership, shedding the old baggage, developing a new ideology, making Labour feel at home in the modern world, turning the party into a thinking organisation as opposed to one possessed of feet of clay.
The argument over Clause IV announces the moment when the Blair project has finally collided with the reality of the party: New Labour meets Old Labour. Until now the party has chosen to close its eyes and enjoy Blair's singular achievment, one which eluded both Neil Kinnock and John Smith: making Labour the centre of the political arguement. Now it must count the cost: the loss, the conflict, the end of hypocrisy and cant. And this is only the beginning. For, like Thatcher, Blair is a strategist, he has a project, he is a risk-taker, he will be relentless. And, as with Thatcher, those qualities are combined with an underlying toughness.
How will the party react? No one can know. The shock that Blair will administer to its system will far exceed anything it has experienced in the past. Kinnock bludgeoned it into something resembling the Eighties by a combination of bullying and persuasion. But acquiescence is no longer enough, Blair wants and needs to do something more. In this context, what is striking is not how many there are like Blair in the Labour Party, but how few. Who are the genuine kindred spirits in the Shadow Cabinet or thePLP? Precious few. And the same goes for the unions and the constitutency parties, perhaps more so. Thatcher, of course, had the same problem, but at least she enjoyed the powers of a benign despot; the Labour Party is not like that.
Blair will successfully negotiate the Clause IV argument. But this is only the first chapter. Blair's struggle to transform his party promises to be an epic and beyond a point he is unlikely to succeed. In five or 10 years the Labour Party will not be Blair-ite in the full sense of the term. But nor, by 1990, was the Tory Party truly Thatcherite. What he must hope is that he can drag his party kicking and screaming along with him without too much blood being spilt in public.
Through the period of Blair-mania, many Conservatives pointed out that Blair and the Labour Party were not one and the same thing. They were, of course, absolutely right. But what they failed to point out is that the best way to understand Labour in the Nineties is the look at the Conservatives in the Eighties.Reuse content