And still, Labour remains baffled by its unpopularity

New Labour has no vocabulary to describe the unfamiliar territory it finds itself in
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The Independent Online

Gordon Brown remains, of course, a supreme politician. Not only because, as he showed to acclaim yesterday, he is one of the most accomplished platform orators of his generation, but because he is capable of making the finest judgement about how much or how little he can afford to bow to the needs of a specific occasion without compromising his own stance as Labour's Iron Chancellor.

Gordon Brown remains, of course, a supreme politician. Not only because, as he showed to acclaim yesterday, he is one of the most accomplished platform orators of his generation, but because he is capable of making the finest judgement about how much or how little he can afford to bow to the needs of a specific occasion without compromising his own stance as Labour's Iron Chancellor.

The most immediate of these needs yesterday, because of the danger that a conference defeat tomorrow could be piled on top of the Government's already manifold woes, was pensions. And Gordon Brown used language that strongly suggests he will do more in his next budget to ease the plight of nearly poor pensioners, whose deep sense of grievance has been growing as an electoral liability. He did it while being able to say fairly that he had not surrendered to unions threatening to inflict the conference defeat that the Labour leadership needs like a hole in the head.

Even that may not have come easily for the Chancellor. It is possible that after intense behind-the-scenes discussions, Downing Street might have liked him to do even more. He stood firm in refusing to alter the text of the statement the conference will consider tomorrow. But he did use notably emollient language on pensions, promising that "we have to do more not just for the poorest but for millions more, all those pensioners who have yet to share enough in the rising prosperity of the country." And policy proposals will now be worked up before what promises to be the seminal moment, which as yet has no date fixed for it, of his pre-Budget statement in a few weeks' time. A substantial rise in the basic state pension is now a prospect. At the same time, a great deal - and not only for pensioners - hangs on that pre-Budget statement.

New Labour has no vocabulary to describe its own sudden unpopularity. Partly this is because it is such an unfamiliar experience; partly because it does not yet know how deep or lasting it is. Ministers arrived in Brighton baffled by the polls. Even as they proclaim that they reflect a delayed case of mid-term blues - that with the economic fundamentals correctly aligned, there is no question of a Hague victory - deep down, they wonder. They wonder if the truth is more frightening, if they are suddenly threatened by a volatility among modern Western electorates that they have often talked about, but in reality never quite believed in.

A new vogue book, particularly among British Conservatives, is the American Malcolm Gladwell's The Tipping Point, which describes the frightening speed with which an idea or fashion, after long gestation, can suddenly sweep like an epidemic through popular thought. Was the fuel crisis such a moment? Did all the diverse and unfocused discontents, from fuel to the Dome, suddenly assume a critical mass that now weighs ominously against what less than a month ago seemed like the certain prospect of a second term?

Against this background there came to a head this week the issue of pensions. A defeat tomorrow would be a destructive use by the trade unions of the block vote in the run-up to the election - an unforgivable and lethal burst of supposedly friendly fire. It would be in the wrong cause because it is unlikely that realigning pensions with earnings rather than prices would be much help to the pensioners who deserve as well as need it most. But it would matter because, unlike the party-conference defeats of the distant past, it would have resonated with the wider public, who care less about the means of improving pensions for the nearly poor than the imperative of doing so.

On fuel duty, Brown, while sounding more conciliatory in tone, and while making it clear that there would definitely be targeted direct tax cuts in the pre-budget statement, did not give his hand away. The question of how this can be resolved without being seen to give way to undemocratic forces - and Brown was eloquent yesterday about the dangers in that - is still in play between now and the pre-budget statement. But resolved it will have to be.

One rationale for trying to square this circle is the analogy of the poll tax. It's far from perfect since the duty is much more defensible than the poll tax was. (But then the clamour is not to abandon it but to reduce it.) As fuel duty provoked blockades, so the poll tax provoked riots. But the poll tax was abandoned not because of the riots but because of an extension of the British democratic process. In that case it helped to claim the head of a prime minister, though it might not have done had she herself been prepared to abandon the tax. The abandonment, in other words, occurred because the government had listened - not least to its own MPs - but without actually surrendering to the mob.

Thus, so the argument goes, it should be possible at once to stand firm against the protests while conceding that their cause is not baseless. And it's equally necessary to avoid an admittedly much more modest version of the charges of arrogance which helped to bring Margaret Thatcher down. At the very least the Government has bought time to allow for a fervently hoped for oil price cut. And it may be able to help hauliers, farmers and private motorists without actually reducing the fuel duty itself.

Behind the gallows humour about the Government's troubles all being part of a brilliantly planned anti-complacency strategy, there is at least one truth. Tory policy will now come under closer scrutiny precisely because they look a slightly less implausible alternative government. The Conservatives will assemble in Bournemouth next week in better cheer than they could have imagined a few weeks ago, but still struggling to free themselves from the heavy burden of a tax and spending policy in which the figures look far from benign.

Just as Labour in the Eighties couldn't spend at the rate it wanted without unacceptable taxation, so the Tories seem unable to cut taxes at the rate they want - including the latest arbitrarily populist pledge to reduce fuel tax by 3p - without risking unacceptably deep cuts in spending. Nevertheless the Government is no more than feeling its way through the treacherous currents and shallows in front of it. In his speech today Tony Blair has the hard act of showing that he is both in charge and listening. It is a truism to say it is probably the most important speech of his life. But it may be that being in charge is even more important for now. Blair needs to take up the argument that taxes - even fuel duty - are for a purpose and that the motorist is a parent and a consumer of the health service too.

The Chancellor - as his body language showed yesterday - is a hugely powerful figure. Anyone who could not be sacked or resign without calamitous consequences is bound to be. There have been real tensions between Downing Street and the Treasury this week. But in a fighting speech littered with references to "hard-working families", he conceded the needs of those whose hard-working lives are over. It now falls, in difficult but not yet by any means impossible circumstances, to the Prime Minister to reassert his authority over the Government and the country.

d.macintyre@independent.co.uk

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