Blair: quite a year, quite a few questions

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Tony Blair has just completed his first year as leader of the Labour Party. By any standards, it has been a remarkable performance. In twelve short months he has become the nodal figure in British politics. He has transformed the electoral prospects of his party; he is well on the way to revolutionising Labour's culture; he has shifted its policy axis through at least 45 degrees; he has transformed millions of people's perception of Labour and what it stands for; and he has made himself and his political themes the centre of gravity of the political scene. It is difficult to think of another modern British political leader who has made such an impact in so short a space of time: perhaps Harold Wilson; certainly not Margaret Thatcher.

The most dramatic change has been in the Labour Party itself. This is not surprising. It is the one area where Mr Blair has the power to change. It is also the true site of his radicalism. Mr Blair did not believe in most of the old Labour baggage: the certainties, the immobilism, the sacred cows. And he has moved with awesome speed. Perhaps his single most audacious act has been effectively to rename the party New Labour, a phrase deliberately designed to distance the party from its past and one that has become an effortless part of our vocabulary. Even Clause IV, which had defied all earlier attempts to remove it, has bitten the dust. Blair, though less of a party man than any other Labour leader in its history, now has the party in the palm of his hand: even his natural opponents, the old left and the unions, people like Ken Livingstone and John Edmonds, admire and respect him. The Blair revolution will place the Labour Party alongside social democratic parties such as those of France and Spain which have decisively broken with their class and socialist roots.

Mr Blair has also moved on the policy front with similar speed and determination. Here, though, the results are less impressive. Mr Blair's strategy has amounted to little more than closing down the policy gap between Labour and the Conservatives. This has been the guiding principle on macro-economic policy, grant-maintained schools and the health service. Mr Blair justifies his approach on the grounds that where policy is already based on sound principles then Labour should adapt accordingly. This is perfectly reasonable. The disappointing thing is that so far Labour has come up with little original of its own.

One of the most intriguing aspects of Mr Blair's recent speech to Rupert Murdoch's executives at Hayman Island was his bid to inherit the mantle of Baroness Thatcher. Lady Thatcher, for her part, has already praised Mr Blair's skills as a political leader. They certainly have things in common: an ability to redefine the political agenda, a sense of strategy, a determination to transform their parties. But there would appear to be one crucial difference. Lady Thatcher's radicalism was rooted in a critique of what was wrong with the country, with the failure of the post- war settlement. Mr Blair's radicalism, on the other hand, is still largely confined to his party and its culture. So while he has displayed remarkable courage and bravery in his efforts to reform the party, there is as yet no sharp, radical mind working in the policy domain. And even where Labour does have a distinctive position, namely on Europe and the constitution, there have been clear signs of retreat. Mr Blair has taken to describing himself as of the radical centre. The interesting question is whether he is prepared to, or capable of, developing a seriously radical agenda beyond the confines of party reform.

In this context Mr Blair shares one other important characteristic with Lady Thatcher. Both are highly mobile politicians, restless, constantly on the move, rooted in certain fundamental beliefs but also open to new ideas. One only has to recall the way Lady Thatcher stumbled across privatisation in her second term, or later embraced the environment, or early on recognised the significance of Mikhail Gorbachev. Many voters find Mr Blair attractive precisely because of his openness and flexibility, a product of the modern world rather than a narrowly party culture. Mr Blair's Hayman Island speech suggests that he, too, is promiscuous, prepared to shift his agenda, even change the emphasis within it. There is no lead in Mr Blair's boots.

Prior to that speech, Mr Blair's rhetoric had concentrated on protecting people from the consequences of rapid change, hence his concern for the family and community. Although he has endorsed many of the changes of the Eighties, Mr Blair's appeal has been suffused with conservatism and defensiveness. "The key question," he said in Australia, "is how to provide our people with security during an era of ... revolutionary change" But in this speech he began to shift the emphasis of his argument from protection to change. For the first time, globalisation and the rise of East Asia were embraced and given centre-stage. What is more, the language of meritocracy and the notion of Labour as an anti-establishment party made their first entry into a Blair speech.

We should be a little sceptical. These are well-versed themes in many of Mr Murdoch's newspapers: the argument was clearly tailored for the audience. Moreover, Mr Blair has displayed little sign previously of any great interest in an attack on vested interests and privilege. Likewise the Blair appeal has been against rather than for change - in this respect he lies bang in the centre of the Labour tradition of the past 20 years. But these statements are now on the record. The Blair agenda looks as if it is on the move.

One year on, the question is no longer whether Mr Blair will be a new kind of Labour leader, for he is that with brass knobs on. It is not even whether he is capable of winning the next election: nothing is certain, but there is no doubt that he is Labour's best electoral card since Harold Wilson. The unanswered question is what, to coin a phrase, Blairism is all about, and therefore what a Labour government might be like. On this score, the position is unchanged from one year ago: it is too early to say.

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