Steve Richards: Can Labour follow Bill Clinton's advice and show the voters how much politics matters?

Now that Blair is going, his presentational skills are suddenly being hailed as pivotal
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The Independent Online

Bill Clinton knows how to make an audience swoon. Sometimes his admirers should listen carefully to the words as well. At Labour's conference yesterday, he made a pivotal point about the erratic, fragile relationship between politicians and the voters they serve.

During his speech, Clinton listed a series of the Government's achievements since 1997. He argued that from alleviating poverty in Africa to establishing a stable economy in Britain, Labour had made a significant difference. But he warned that in an anti-politics era there was a danger that voters would make no connection between government activity and improvements in their lives. Some would regard it as a coincidence that improvements to their lives had taken place under Labour. They could switch thoughtlessly to other parties, unaware that their lives would change for the worse as a result.

Clinton's speech was partly a much-needed defence of political activity. He has watched Tony Blair being bashed around by much of the media without any recognition that decisions taken in politics are nightmarishly complex. It is easier to report that someone is a liar or a crook. Clinton was bashed around too for daring to go into public life. In the US, voters probably knew more about Monica Lewinsky than the massive reduction in the country's debt under Clinton's presidency. In Britain the Blair/Brown drama gets more coverage than Coronation Street, but probably few voters realise that the warring duo is also responsible for the NHS walk-in centre down the road. They do not make the connections.

Labour's conference has included good speeches from Clinton, Brown and Blair. Less noticed, younger cabinet ministers such as David Miliband and Douglas Alexander delivered speeches that combined policy with astute strategic positioning in relation to the Conservatives. Cleverly, Miliband linked his robust approach to the environment with support for a stronger, more co-ordinated Europe, arguing that the two are unavoidably connected. The Conservative leadership that has suddenly discovered a passion for the environment is still paralysed by Euroscepticism. As well as making an important point about the international dimension in green issues, Miliband has set a political trap.

In his speech, Alexander, the Transport Secretary, argued that a left-of-centre party with a collectivist spirit is much better placed to address the nightmare of public transport. I have never understood why Labour was previously complacent about transport when any improvements would expose previous Tory neglect. Alexander appears determined to be more effective.

But will the voters make the connection? Obviously the answer depends partly on whether the media regards politics as more than a branch of showbusiness. But that is not the only factor. The choreography of politics is bound to dominate when a Shakespearean drama overwhelms a political party. Currently Labour is overwhelmed.

It has come to something when a successful speech from the party leader becomes a problem for his party. Under normal circumstances there would be no awkward ambiguities after the speech delivered by Blair on Tuesday. By now the verdicts would have been clear: Labour is back on track! Labour strides forward! Instead there is a wary nervousness in Manchester about what happens next.

This is partly because Blair has hit upon a third way in resignations. On Tuesday he made his farewell speech. There was hardly a dry eye in the house. By the end of the week he will be back at his desk in Downing Street. He plans to be there until July. The future is yours, thank you and good night. Hello again, I have still got lots to do before I leave.

Labour's opponents should have been twitching nervously as they read the reviews of Blair's speech in yesterday's newspapers. Instead they must have been tempted to echo the praise. Such eulogies make it more difficult for Blair's successor. Expect some of Blair's tormentors in the media to overwhelm him with compliments in the next few months. If they are clever, the Conservatives will do so as well.

The mischief-makers from within Labour and political opponents have also changed the criteria for judging a leader. For years, Blair was dismissed wrongly as a lightweight who is only interested in presentational skills. Now he is going, his presentational skills are suddenly hailed as being of pivotal importance. In particular Brown is attacked for having substance but fatally lacking in presentational skills. "They'll miss Blair" is the most ubiquitous cliché at the end of Labour's conference, flattering for Blair and dangerous for his party.

For Brown, this is a precarious situation. His personal ratings have slumped since the last election, when he was much the most popular figure in the Government. I do not believe Brown's ratings will improve in the current context. No saint could survive months of critical scrutiny as a Prime Minister in waiting. Blair has said farewell, although he is not going. Brown has fought his leadership campaign, yet there is no contest. Already the Chancellor has given interviews about his kids and his interests. He has outlined some of his radical policy ideas. Brown has stood for election, and there is no election.

In an important section of his speech, Blair stated with some passion that he regards a fourth election victory as his legacy. I have never believed he wanted the Conservatives to win next time, not least because his legacy would be undermined by such a collapse in Labour's support. This does not necessarily mean he is backing Brown. Indeed there are signs that Blair has concluded Brown cannot win a general election and looks for other candidates to emerge. Some of his allies privately despair of Brown's chances of winning a general election and hope this will become a theme in the next few months. Some want a contest next summer in which several cabinet ministers battle it out.

But still they lack a credible candidate. Miliband is regularly cited as a contender. His speech yesterday was good, but his platform delivery was slightly awkward. He is not ready yet. Brown risks being damaged by his long wait, but no other candidate will soar. The speculation will be frenzied. As one cabinet minister put it to me, "If Gordon doesn't get it, there would have been a civil war to have stopped him, and we will definitely lose the election."

The biggest cheers at this conference have been when Blair, Brown and, indeed, Clinton exposed the frailties of the Conservatives. They have the lines and the strategies, but for the next year their political energy will be focused on their own unresolved futures. The Conservatives will get off relatively lightly. More importantly, the voters will struggle to make the connections described so vividly in Clinton's speech. Blair is an extraordinarily agile politician, but surely a farewell tour requires a bow.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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