They may not love their leader, but they love power

Labour has now acquired the characteristics of 'a natural party of government'
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There is a paradox at the heart of what happened at the Labour Party conference this week. No Labour leader has been so frequently depicted as being divorced from his own party. Yet no leader has been able, in the middle of a period as rough as this, to go through a party conference with so little real embarrassment.

No one is suggesting that Tony Blair doesn't have serious problems with the Parliamentary Labour Party, ones which surfaced over Iraq and could do so even more threateningly later in the autumn over top-up fees. Yet the activists who attended the conference gave him the kind of reception, by and large, that some of his predecessors would have killed for. And this can no longer be explained away by mere reference to skilful party management.

It was, after all, the big four union leaders, operating in an indefensibly undemocratic cartel, who ganged up to inflict, by use of the block vote, the one big defeat suffered by the leadership, on the NHS. And while the historic role of the union barons was once to protect Labour governments against the oppositionist tendencies of the constituency parties, it's now the constituency activists who defend the Government against the unions.

This is an inversion of historic significance. Critics of the leadership maintain it is partly because local parties now have to rotate their delegates, who are therefore much likelier to be impressionable newcomers easily schmoozed by the party notables they meet when they arrive at the conference. This patronising explanation ignores the fact that the general committees of local parties choose the delegates and are perfectly capable of heavily mandating them to oppose the Government if they so decide.

Stunning as Blair's performance on Tuesday was, it's certainly a mistake to assume that this means that the party is - or has ever been - in love with him. That's why he was in danger of over-sharing in the highly personal "battered without, stronger within" passage of his speech. Rather, delegates seemed determined to show the media that predictions of disunity and mayhem were wide of the mark.

But that itself betokens a seriousness of purpose for which the leader deserves much of the credit. They have largely bought into his analysis of the euphoria-betrayal-defeat cycle that the party routinely went through when it was in power. For Labour has now acquired the characteristics of what Harold Wilson so prematurely called a "natural party of government". You can see it in the fringe, where the deep ideological divisions of the 1980s have been replaced by intense - and usually unrancorous - debate of policy specifics which wouldn't disgrace a civil servants' awayday. And you can see it in the curious episode of Gordon Brown's speech and its aftermath.

Brown's speech actually went down very well indeed. They loved being reminded they are a Labour Party and not just a New Labour one. It was only the following day, when they began to see it was being read - not unreasonably - by the press as (in part) a deliberate attempt to draw dividing lines between himself and Blair, that they began to fear the kind of divisions which they now believe, with Blair, threaten the party in office. And responded, whatever their private doubts, to Blair accordingly.

And this in turn tended to reinforce what is for now a growing separation of Brown not from the whole of the Cabinet, but from a majority of its biggest figures. For at the pivotal spending departments which have clashed most with Brown, Blair has in John Reid and Charles Clarke men whose strength as his allies --helped by their robust performances in Bournemouth - is all the greater because they are not Blair clones. They are political carnivores who were locked in the struggle waged by Neil Kinnock to modernise the party when Brown and Blair were mere neophytes.

Which isn't to underestimate the importance of the Brown speech. Certainly, he engaged in product differentiation. The post-hoc explanation that he had been driven to it by irritation at the once again visible presence of his old adversary Peter Mandelson in the Blair inner loop doesn't wash. If it did, the Brown and Blair relationship would have been a lot smoother in the past two years. He was certainly setting out his personal vision. Maybe he was also, as many Blairites claim, simply trying to destabilise the leadership. But maybe - a more sophisticated and equally plausible reading - he was putting down a marker for the moment when the ultra-reformist Blair strategy for public services had failed and he could point to his 2003 speech to show he hadn't been part of it.

And if the second, he was dead right about one crucial point. Blair faces many tests in the coming months: Hutton and post-war Iraq among them. But it will probably be the outcome of Blair's approach to public-service reform that will most determine whether he enters the next election having restored some of the public trust dissipated over recent months.

That so many activists were this week prepared to overcome their real doubts and differences to will him the chance to do just that is significant. For this is a party which, perhaps for the first time in its history, is becoming addicted to power - rather as the Conservative Party so palpably used to be. And that's what would worry me most if I were a Tory preparing to go to Blackpool next week.