Steve Richards: Labour continues to reign triumphantly, but the left is demoralised and in disarray

It agonises over its purpose, wondering what it stands for or whether it exists at all

Yet it is the victorious centre left that agonises over its purpose, wondering what it stands for or whether it exists at all. The many Conservative candidates that aspire to leadership and the self-confident right-wing commentators do not suffer from a similar identity crisis. Their party is falling apart, but they know where they stand. They are explicitly on the right and know more or less what that means.

In spite of three big election victories there are few senior figures in the Labour government who dare to speak in a similar way about being on the left of British politics. Tony Blair deploys the term "radical centre" to describe his approach, a contradiction in terms that manages to sound conveniently reassuring and exciting. Gordon Brown speaks of the need for a progressive consensus. Revealingly he does not raise the prospect of a left of centre consensus. In ministerial circles the "left" adjective is more or less banned.

This has produced a comical and confusing political situation. The right is ideologically assertive but has a hopelessly demoralised party. The left is hopelessly demoralised but has a triumphant election-winning party.

The crisis on the left of centre is epitomised partly by Mr Blair's curious position as a presidential figure. Once he was ambiguously placed as leader of a big tent. Now he risks playing an even more apolitical role, the father of the entire nation coming to terms with the new terrorist threat. The context is unique. Mr Blair has no more general elections to fight as leader of his party. Instead he seeks to leave his own indelible prime ministerial mark. For the next 12 months or so Mr Blair will be more determined than ever to impose his will. His party will be an onlooker, largely irrelevant as he embarks on his course. Yet it is his party that will be fighting more general elections when Mr Blair has departed.

British politics is less presidential than it seems. The health of the party matters as much as that of the leader. The significance of Mr Blair's election as leader in 1994 was that it showed Labour had changed. If the party had not learnt many painful lessons Mr Blair would not have become its leader. The connection between leader and party was fundamental. If leader and party become too disconnected both suffer in the end.

The early months of a new term are when a victorious leader is at his strongest. He is in a position to highlight the issues that matter most to him. Since his third win in May Mr Blair has focused on the introduction of ID cards, his "respect" agenda and the expansion of city academies, the theme of a speech delivered yesterday. ID cards are a costly diversion. The "respect" agenda is reminiscent of John Major in its populist banality. But it is in his celebration of city academies that Mr Blair pays homage to the right, the part of the political spectrum that is supposed to be in crisis.

The city academies are a new version of the self-governing schools introduced by the Conservatives in the 1980s. As Conservative ministers acknowledged privately at the time, their policy was an attempt to reintroduce grammar schools by stealth. I have no doubt that the motivations behind the city academies are less defiantly divisive. Downing Street sources stress that the academies are being opened in disadvantaged areas replacing schools that had failed to deliver. They point out that the schools have a mixed-ability intake, are rigorously audited and are part of the local community acting as a lever to lift the standards of other schools. The academies are so popular with parents that they are heavily over-subscribed. Indeed Mr Blair cites the schools' popularity as an example of parental power. Parents want them so he will respond to their wishes.

But what of the parents who do not get their kids into these schools? How do the over-subscribed academies decide which pupils to take and which to exclude? The objectives might be noble. There are no private briefings suggesting that this is a way of bringing back selection by stealth. But the consequences will be similar to those that arose when privileged self- governing schools were allowed to flourish in the 1980s. Other schools will suffer. Not surprisingly the academies are popular. They are better funded, have more freedom to select pupils and to innovate in the classroom. The maniacally motivated middle-class parents will soon sniff out the locations of the most pampered schools even if the buildings are located in less salubrious areas. Here is the problem: when parents have the power it is the most determinedly powerful that prevail.

I live in a part of north London where there are grammar schools, private schools, specialist schools, self-governing schools and the rest. It is a frightening experience watching timidly polite parents metamorphose into prize-fighters as they battle their way to the "best" schools. The more they fight the better the popular schools become. The parents that are unable or disinclined to fight are offered the schools that are left behind.

Policies have consequences. In the 1980s council house sales created a new breed of property owner, but also generations of people unable to find affordable rented accommodation. Similarly the mighty city academies will have an impact on other nearby schools leaving Mr Blair's successors to address the anarchic and iniquitous fallout, in the same way that the current Government has embarked on a thorny house-building programme to address the downside of council house sales. In the meantime local authorities are powerless. The Government is stepping back. Parents are fighting. Headteachers are selecting. No one is in control.

The candidates for the Conservative leadership should be taking a bow as they travel the country to address their decaying party. In 1997 they were ejected from power. It was one of those rare moments when British voters had tired of a right-wing government. Yet the rejected ministers have received vindication from an unlikely source, the Government that followed them.

No wonder the Conservatives are in a state of unresolved confusion. In their wilderness they hear echoes from their own ministerial past, discordant sounds that had apparently made them unelectable.

New Labour continues to dominate the political landscape. The Liberal Democrats are nowhere to be seen. The Conservatives are more depressed than ever. In the noisy clamour it is the centre left that suffers an identity crisis as its leader follows his own instincts more single-mindedly than ever before.

s.richards@independent.co.uk

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