Labour Party Conference: Conservatism is defined as the enemy within and without

Click to follow
The Independent Online
PRONOUNCING CLASS war dead, Tony Blair nevertheless identified a new enemy yesterday: conservatism in all its pervasive forms. First, of course, this meant Conservatism, a force about which he delivered a sweeping historical denunciation, blaming it for entrenched resistance to every progressive development of the century.

Partly, this had a practical purpose, a warning against the complacency and apathy that all parties need to overcome as elections approach, and which may have cost Labour a winning performance in those for the European Parliament. Partly, however, it helped to dispel a criticism of the Blair leadership that he is a man so eager to maintain his huge coalition of support that he prefers to make no enemies.

Skilfully, he used the very name Conservative to delineate Labour's opponents as the force of the past and Labour as the force of the future. But the conservatism he attacked went much wider than that. It included, of course, the conservatives in his own party who wanted a return to the ways of the old left. And it included those in the public service who resisted his efforts at transformation.

For all that, this was a speech that could credibly be characterised as radical, in a left or centre-left sense rather than a Thatcherite one, and it was largely seen as such in the auditorium. His announcements were all on public- service provision; there was little of the lavish praise for businessmen that had characterised earlier speeches.

The speech drafters had done their homework, discovering that Attlee's third speech as prime minister to the party conference at the end of the long, hot summer of 1947 had been a sober appraisal of the rugged uplands and the long winding path ahead. In similar vein, Mr Blair began not with an invitation to self-congratulation but with a stark description of the problems to be overcome - "pensioners living in hardship, people still petrified by crime and drugs, three million people still in poverty" - some of which would not have been out of place in a speech by an opposition leader.

That he was able to do that, of course, reflects the palpable confidence of the party faithful that Labour will win the next election, and that such admissions can therefore be made with impunity. Winning, after all, is what they chose their leader for, why they buried Clause Four, and why they accepted the party's transformation to escape from 18 years in the wastelands of opposition.

The doubts that they have never wholly stilled, however, were to do with the larger purpose. Had they jettisoned that, too? Did this just slightly alien figure, the first public-school educated prime minister since Alec Douglas Home, with a Tory father and middle-class background wholly understand, let alone share, what had brought them into politics in the first place?

If nothing else, this was his most persuasive attempt yet to demonstrate that he did. Some of the description of what kept him awake at night may have been too personal, too emotional, for many tastes; but his assertion that what he relished most was "pushing though the changes to our country that will give to others by right, what I achieved by good fortune" made that connection more directly than it has been made before.

And the passion with which he reasserted his commitment to the abolition of child poverty can be read as an effort to give the lie that he heads a government of managerialists who have long abandoned the basic ideals of the party's founding father, Keir Hardie.

Several of the most difficult problems the Government faces, not least the task of finding a candidate for the London mayoralty to neutralise Ken Livingstone, were not tackled. Nor did Mr Blair give even an outline of the specific goals for a second term.

At first glance, even the reference to the euro could hardly have been more cursory. But it was encased in a pregnant exhortation to abandon the 40 years of "hesitation and half-heartedness" on Europe - the inescapable logic of which is surely that this is a Prime Minister who wants to take Britain into the single currency. He neatly overturned Hugh Gaitskell's paean of Euroscepticism by saying abandonment of Britain's European destiny would be the "real end of one thousand years of history".

With his customary skill, he delivered his obeisance to the party ancestors without compromising his belief that Labour's class base and its separation from the Liberals who had spawned it was a strategic and historic mistake, robbing the centre left of its chance to dominate the last century as it now had the chance to dominate the next.

Comments