Mr Blair may understand how Labour can win again, but he has yet to regain the voters' trust

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The Independent Online

No one who watched the Prime Minister's address to his party conference can be in much doubt: barring unforeseen events, the next time the Labour Party meets for its annual gathering by the sea, the general election is likely to be over. We will know whether the "unique possibility" Mr Blair dangled before delegates yesterday of a third term of Labour government has come to pass.

No one who watched the Prime Minister's address to his party conference can be in much doubt: barring unforeseen events, the next time the Labour Party meets for its annual gathering by the sea, the general election is likely to be over. We will know whether the "unique possibility" Mr Blair dangled before delegates yesterday of a third term of Labour government has come to pass.

This was an election rallying call. Perhaps deliberately, though, it was not the high-flown, inspirational appeal to the party faithful that they might have expected as a pre-campaign valediction. It was rather a carefully structured, nuts-and-bolts kind of statement that told the party and the voters what Mr Blair believes he has to do to win that elusive third term.

As Mr Blair told it, his main tasks are three. The party has to put on a united face and reconnect with the voters. It has to have a set of policies that will appeal to a clear, core group of voters - defined as "hard-working families". Finally, it has to overcome its biggest handicap: the issue of trust and the Iraq war.

On items one and two, Mr Blair was largely right about the issues and more persuasive than not. He was laudably aggressive in his defence of "choice" as something that voters were entitled to and wanted, and in drawing a distinction between "choice", as reflecting people's equal status as citizens, and what he defined as "Tory words" - choice dependent upon wealth. He was also masterly in offering a synthesis between his government's record of achievements, born of what he called "steadfast conviction", and a list of 10 policy objectives, born of what he called "restless courage", designed to lessen the renewed friction between Blairites and Brownites since the return to the Cabinet of Alan Milburn.

There are grounds for quibbling. It is disingenuous, to say the least, to undertake to "remove" from the country more people than apply to stay, while at the same time promising never to "play politics with the issue of race". There was a gratuitous swipe at the Lib Dems on the grounds that "no one knows what they stand for". We know well where they stand on many of the issues that will be key to the next election. They are pro-Europe - Mr Blair offered only the barest of glancing references to the EU - generously disposed towards immigration, pro-environment - an area on which Mr Blair was disgracefully silent - and united in their opposition to the Iraq war.

The extent to which Mr Blair is still handicapped, and has handicapped his party, by supporting military action in Iraq was evident from the protests in the hall and the discomfort of many in his audience. Iraq also accounted for the section of his speech that was strongest on conviction and rhetoric, while at the same time, politically and logically, the weakest.

That Mr Blair decided to address the controversy over Iraq "head-on" was courageous, even if, after Peter Hain was forced to retract his description of the issue as "trivial", he had precious little choice. The terms in which he did it, though, were as evasive and manipulative as ever, and as irresponsibly heedless of the current reality in Iraq.

Time and again, Mr Blair falsified the terms of the debate. He said he could apologise for the information (about Iraq's weapons) that turned out to be wrong, "but I can't sincerely apologise for removing Saddam". So why was it that this country went to war? He claimed there had been an "international consensus" about the weapons, but failed to add that there had been no consensus at all on the need for military action. As for the disastrous aftermath, Mr Blair borrowed a trick from the Bush play-book in conflating the interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan as if they were equally legitimate and the lessons transferable.

Mr Blair's surprisingly muted address offered a mostly realistic appraisal of what Labour has to do to win a third term. Iraq was the conspicuous exception. It may also be the one on which the next election turns.

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