Gerald Kaufman: Don't dismiss the rumbling in the ranks, Mr Blair

Conferences are no longer show trials of the leadership as in the 1980s, when Scargill was around
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The Independent Online

Will Tony Blair have an uncomfortable conference at Bournemouth next week? Almost certainly. Will resolutions critical of various government policies be passed? Very likely. Activists have their complaints and concerns on such well-ventilated issues as foundation hospitals, top-up fees and, of course, the Iraq war.

So will the week end with the Government in serious trouble? I doubt it. With all this government's faults - and I am critical of several of them myself - party activists know that many Labour aspirations have been fulfilled since 1997, a number of them, though ministers are hesitant to use the S-for-Socialist word, indisputably left-wing.

Tony Blair should not be tempted, however, to dismiss rumblings in the ranks. The Labour conference, thank heavens, is not what it was in the worst days of opposition. Its proceedings are no longer show trials of the leadership as they were in the 1980s, when Arthur Scargill could be accorded a reception reminiscent of the atmosphere of a Nuremberg rally and the police could be denounced, to applause, as "the salmonella in the sandwich". Madame Defarge is no longer present, savagely knitting away.

The Labour Party conference is still the nearest we have to a representative selection of party opinions, incomparably superior to the focus groups on which too much reliance has been placed in the recent past. And, whereas 20 years ago, many at the conference hated its leadership and preferred failure to what was disparagingly dismissed as "compromise", today Labour activists, whatever their misgivings, desperately want the Government to succeed.

Whatever happens next week, Blair will not be the first post-war Labour prime minister to face difficulties at conference. Clement Attlee presided over some of Labour's most turbulent governmental years, with the Bevanite rebellions and splits, and Tribune group nominees ousting front-benchers en masse from the constituencies section of the National Executive Committee. Harold Wilson faced adverse resolutions on his policy of control of wage increases.

In a sense, up to now Tony Blair has had it easy. Attlee in government never lost a Labour seat in a by-election (though he later did as leader of the opposition) but after five years in office had his Commons majority reduced from 150-plus to just a handful, partly due to his mismanagement of that majority. Wilson repeatedly lost by-elections in safe seats and, of course, was temporarily ousted from office in 1970.

Blair, on the other hand, has won two landslide victories and, even now, on the latest opinion poll - in mid-term and six years into office - is 5 per cent ahead of the Tories, enough to give him another hefty majority at the next election.

When I worked for Harold Wilson as his political press spokesman at 10 Downing Street, government policy on pay restraint was defeated in a conference vote. I asked Harold what I should tell journalists the government would do. He replied: "Govern." I would not advise Tony Blair to be so defiant, let alone complacent.

The political climate for Labour now is more downbeat than at any time since he became leader nine years ago. What he needs to do on Tuesday is to acknowledge mistakes without indulging himself in a breast-beating mea culpa apologia. What he needs to do, in fact, is to assess not only his government's successes but also what has gone wrong and must be put right.

In my view the overriding flaw of this government is that too many ministers have grown so used to office that they tend to think administratively and bureaucratically rather than politically. Too many seem to forget that they hold their positions and ride in their limousines, with their every whim catered for by officials, solely because Labour won the 2001 election.

So when Tony Blair says he wants to listen, he must mean it - and act insofar as he can on what he hears. But if some in our government need re-educating, so may some in our party. In Michael Frayn's fascinating new play Democracy, about Germany's former chancellor Willy Brandt, one of Brandt's Social Democratic ministerial colleagues exclaims: "We won. That was our great mistake. Defeat is the only thing that this party understands. Defeat is a testimony to high ideals. Victory means you have to do something - and doing something always involves dissent and compromise and making mistakes."

When a fortunately uninfluential faction says it wants to reclaim the Labour Party, what it means is that it wants to go back to those glorious days when Labour mattered so little to the electorate that it could embrace the unrealistic high-mindedness that is the one - very small - consolation of defeat. Labour governments must indeed be idealistic and principled - and relate those ideals and principles to the hard grind of governing in a challenging world.

So both Tony Blair and the conference delegates have a job to do and adjustments to make in Bournemouth next week. The future of the Government will be affected profoundly by the extent to which those adjustments can coincide.

The writer was press secretary to Harold Wilson and is Labour MP for Manchester Gorton

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