It's no use Mr Blair being ready to listen if he is not going to change his mind

A supreme communicator, his weakness is a tendency to regard communication as a process of explaining why he is correct
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The Independent Online

On day one we had a barnstorming, rousing speech from Gordon Brown, which was among the best he has ever made to conference. It got the mood of delegates for the simple reason that it articulated the values that had brought them into politics.

Some in the press have written up the speech as if Gordon had been submitting his application for the leadership. However those same elements are so determined that there should be a leadership bid that they would probably have written the same story had Gordon stood up and read the Bournemouth telephone directory.

On day two the ecstatic reception on the conference floor for Tony Blair comprehensively demolished the notion that the grass roots of the party were yet looking for a vacancy at the top. The truth is that many in the party are content with the joint leadership of both Blair and Brown and do not want to lose either half of that duality. The Labour Party looks set to continue with its unique experiment in cohabitation as a model of party leadership.

Tony Blair's speech showed the complementary character of the two top figures. While Gordon had made a powerful appeal to the heart of the party, Tony pitched his speech to its head. He constantly reminded delegates that the valuable improvements Labour has made to the lives of ordinary people have only been possible because we are in power and we are only in power because of discipline. It was impressive in its hard-headed calculation, and it impressed the conference floor.

The media predictions of a battle for the cliffs of Bournemouth always smacked of wish fulfilment. Today's generation of delegates know what the press are hoping for and are determined to disappoint them. Indeed drifting through the press receptions it was difficult to avoid the conclusion that the most disgruntled voices in Bournemouth were not the delegates, but the journalists who just could not find the stories of splits and betrayal which their editors expected them to produce.

There are though two profound problems that remain unresolved and will continue to rumble in private dialogue within the party out of earshot of any microphone. The first of these is intensified by a fault line that kept reappearing throughout Tony Blair's speech.

On the one hand he sought to offer a new listening mode. This is a wise response to the plethora of polls which report that the public now regard him as out of touch with their opinion and too convinced of his own opinion. Hence the announcement of a national discussion offering people real choices.

On the other hand Tony Blair came with a firm message that he has no reverse gear. It was difficult not to detect the more convincing inflection, the more assertive rhetoric when he declaimed that there will be no surrender, than when he promised "the biggest ever policy consultation". It is easy to demonstrate the obvious tension between these two positions. Take top-up fees. We already know without national consultation that four-fifths of the population think they are a rotten idea. There is not much point in inviting the public to tell us what they think if the Government has already resolved that it is right and the public is wrong.

Tony Blair is the most formidable communicator of the modern media age. His weakness is a tendency to regard communication as a process of him explaining why he is correct. Listening to the views of others is not his strength. Yet what the public wants most at the present time is a sense that their views are valued and that they have ownership of the democratic process. They will only believe that if the new consultation holds out a real prospect of producing changes in policy rather than more opportunities for Government to assert there is no alternative.

The second problem is the continuing fall out from Iraq which will dominate today's debates and already dominates the discussions in the foyers, bars and fringe meetings outside the conference hall.

On Monday The Independent debate attracted such a large capacity crowd that my fellow columnist Donald Macintyre was turned away for want of standing room. The topic of the meeting was not Iraq, and the speeches from the platform were not about Iraq, but nearly every question from the floor reflected the concerns of delegates over Iraq.

We should not misunderstand the mood of delegates on Iraq. They do not want a running inquest on Iraq for the rest of this Parliament. However they do not believe it will be possible to achieve closure on the controversy unless there is some sign that their government has accepted that there were mistakes made in the run up to the most disastrous episode for a decade in Britain's international relations.

Tony's speech failed to give them any such sign. There was no admission that there had been a single mistake in the crafting of the Dossier, in the defiance of the Security Council, or in the failure to prepare a competent administration for Iraq. Defiantly he told Britain he would take the same decision again, whatever they might think about whether it was right.

The danger is that if the Government admits to no mistakes then it cannot learn any lessons. I believe Tony Blair was correct when he said that the public were ready to forgive a government that makes a mistake - although committing British troops to war on the basis of faulty intelligence is the mother of all mistakes. But what the public will never forgive is a government that makes the same mistake twice. To prevent that Blair needs to demonstrate that the debacle of Iraq has produced changes.

In future he must be much more circumspect of a case for war built on the shaky argument of pre-emption. We need to restore the fundamental principle that attack as a form of self-defence can only be legitimate where there is compelling evidence of an immediate threat, not a fanciful fear. And the international community needs to restore that principle quickly before some other nation around the world chooses to invade their neighbour on the pretext we have fashioned for them of pre-emption.

Then Tony Blair needs to convince us that the new listening mode will apply to the style in which he conducts his own cabinet, not just to how he carries out village consultations. We have lost a political culture in which cabinet ministers share in responsibility for collective decisions. Iraq has demonstrated that if all the big decisions are taken by one person, the consequences can be desperate when he gets it wrong.

But most of all Tony Blair needs to ponder deeply on whether he really would take the same decision again. I would not exclude the possibility of the neo Conservatives around Bush finding another candidate country to be conquered in a futile effort to beat terrorism with tanks. If British politics are to move on from Iraq, Tony Blair must first give the nation a much clearer signal that he understands that the next time the Bush administration comes knocking on his door in the same circumstances they must get the answer "No" to any request for British participation.

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