Labour Party Conference: The Sketch - Who's for double-decaff, sugar-free, low-tar redistribution?

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OUTSIDE THE conference hall the pantomime cows were having trouble getting their placards in order - there was no doubting the sincerity of their message, but exactly what it was was more difficult to say: "Tonu cld wllg! adrgy" it read, though I confess that my view was blocked by several boiler-suited chickens and a confused pig. A cow of unusually authoritative mien seized a bullhorn and tried to correct the spelling: "Is there a U? Where are you U?!" she shouted. "Could you all sit down please, so we can see the cards!" Then, as the whole papier mache farmyard started to lower itself uncertainly towards the pavement, she hastily clarified her statement: "Not the people holding the cards!" she wailed fuzzily.

Tonu himself was inside the conference hall, striding briskly up a red wedge towards the Mastermind leather chairs that had been set out for his question and answer session - the first big draw of the conference. Behind him Mo Mowlam, who was to chair the session, had to break into a jog-trot so that she avoided falling behind - a living tableaux of a party scrambling to keep up with its energetic leader. The set, too, was a masterpiece of careful insinuation. Red was back big-time, as if to placate the querulous murmurings of delegates nostalgic for the old days of powerless purity.

Indeed there was even a yellow starburst, peeking over the curved horizon like the first promise of a new red dawn. More startlingly still, Mr Blair concluded his opening remarks ("Slowly slowly, catchee monkee", or words to that effect) by quoting a phrase from Clause Four - the conference slogan "For the many, not the few".

But if this was a socialist banner it was one that had been heavily made over by Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen. The steps ascending to the podium were bright purple and a tasteful dapple of the same colour mitigated the resolute scarlet elsewhere. The rostrum desks were made out of glass - adding a little cursive note of aquamarine to the style picture and underlining the transparency of New Labour.

And that slogan had briefly disappeared from the backdrop in order that Mr Blair himself could autograph it back in with the aid of computer technology. He scribbled, he pressed the button, and he waited. "Let's hope it works," he said quietly, and it wasn't entirely clear whether he meant the technology or the strategy itself - a decaffeinated version of redistribution served up to soothe the comrades without keeping the capitalists awake at night. The "many" used to mean people without shoes, but now that Clause Four has vanished, leaving only its fragrance on the air, you couldn't help feeling that it referred to middle England instead, that skittish body of voters that Mr Blair fears might bolt at the first sign of old Labour habits.

If so, then the "few" know exactly who they are - those sceptical delegates who asked hard questions about the deficiencies of the minimum wage and the need for more public spending. Politely, but unequivocally, Mr Blair reminded them what counted now. Too often in the past, he answered one delegate who had asked about public sector pay, the party had been "more interested in making gestures to please ourselves than getting the job done for the people who need it". For the few, not the many, in other words. He made a similar point later, after another delegate had asked about the minimum wage; "You know," said Mr Blair, "I sometimes think in the past we were little more than a glorified pressure group." His tone made it clear that he wants to be lobbied for the next 10 years, not to do the lobbying. If that means penny-pinching caution now, delegates will have to get used to the idea.

"At the risk of sounding like a gramophone record we have to be able to afford it," he'd said earlier, apologising for the repetitions in his answers. This was disingenuous - Mr Blair set the disc on repeat play and he'll let it run until nobody can get the tune out of their heads.