How Labour could hand victory to Major

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The Independent Online
One thought should dominate this Labour conference. It's that John Major may well win the next election.

A lethal self-confidence is creeping through the party, a lazy conviction that the Conservatives are so loathed that the only thing left to fight about is the nature of Labour's first legislative programme for 19 years. Are memories so short? Mr Major is not a man who is going to be beaten by default. He is a courageous and ruthless campaigner who is just beginning to benefit from the personal risk he took in confronting his right-wing critics, and whose party is now likely to look more united on Europe than for years. Nor can Labour assume that the British economy will forever canvass against the Tories, as it has been. However tight things are this year, tax cuts are coming, as macro-politics eventually overwhelms macro- economics.

Then there is the media. During Tony Blair's extraordinary first 18 months as leader he has been swept along on a bright billow of newspaper adulation. To paraphrase Hilaire Belloc, the stocks are sold, the press is squared, the middle class is - quite - prepared. Proprietors have been courted; the editors jostle for the attention of the coming regime.

But the media is fickle, impatient and well paid. Many journalists are bored of building Mr Blair up, are ready for a new story and quietly keen to give him a kicking. If left-wing rebellion and a leader's speech that failed to live up to its billing in Brighton were followed by a better- than-expected Tory conference, the Blair billow could crash into spume and confusion. I don't expect this, but we are at a moment in the political cycle when things can still slip either way. These conferences will help set national attitudes. By next year the big themes of the looming election will already have been decided. So what does Labour need to do?

The easiest answer is that it has to remain disciplined. Despite worries about Mr Blair's lack of Socialist spirit, the party has exhibited remarkable self-control. The PLP is full of bitten tongues. Poisonous resentments and jealousies in the shadow cabinet have been held in check

But a key part of recently-agreed Tory strategy is to prise open Labour differences. Senior ministers are looking for populist policies on crime, welfare and education, deliberately moving to the right, in the hope that Mr Blair will be forced to follow, so pulling at the party's divisions until they become intolerable. Self-discipline is going to be easy to call for, but it's going to be progressively harder for Labour people to live with.

More important is the next stage in the development of Labour policy which, as it stands, is underwhelming in three essential areas - economics, political reform and the public services. Most attention will be on tax and spending, but this year the clamour for pre-election detail will be ignored. Promises on the utilities' windfall tax, a back-to-work programme and spending priorities are the start of Labour's attempt to sound decisive, without frightening taxpayers. But they all sound more like good front-page stories than completed proposals. When it comes to the serious numbers, Gordon Brown's verbal veil is unlikely to be lifted for another year at least.

Political reform is the most obvious and do-able task for a Blairite government. But here, too, there is a worrying amount of work still to do on the detail of Labour's new state. On the Scottish parliament, voting reform, the Bill of Rights and Westminster reform, we have dancing but fleshless bones.

A Blair government which flunked political reform would go down in history as a failure. But a Blair government which did nothing else would quickly lose the support of its core electorate. This brings us to the public services, where Labour is grappling with nothing less than the need for a new settlement between public and private, reasserting the value of public services on their own terms and in their own language.

Here the propaganda, at least, is easy. Ministers who are appalled by the greed of privatised utility bosses, but unable to do anything about it, make easy targets. In education, the Tory battle-cry of choice merely infuriates parents who haven't any. Even the Tory right is well aware of the bloated bureaucracy of the NHS internal market. Railway privatisation, unless it is sabotaged by Opposition hostility, looks set to be the worst domestic error of Mr Major's period as Prime Minister.

After years of administrative Maoism under the Tories, Labour conservatism seems attractive; the provision of public services ought to be an unglamorous affair. But here too, some of the essential detail of Labour policy slips through one's fingers.

So there are an awesome number of questions voters will want answers to. I suspect this week won't be a smooth one for Tony Blair. Enough doubts about new Labour have surfaced to make the press stop and sniff the air. The party is uneasy. The country hasn't made up its mind.

No doubt the next few days will be as theatrical as Labour conferences can still be - intrigues, denunciations, a little rapture. But we should be watching for something more, for the evidence that this party can harden its warm words into practical policies and, by doing so, generate the angry enthusiasm for imminent change which has been missing in Britain for years, and on whose absence the quietly self-confident John Major still banks.