Fretfulness over the pain of change

Unrepentant as Tony Blair is, he is aware of the rumblings after a year of continuous revolution
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So here we go again. Just another ordinary day in the life of the Labour Party national executive under Tony Blair. First it withholds - for the first time in eight years, and for the first time in memory outside the unusual circumstances of a general election - endorsement of a locally agreed parliamentary candidate. There are complaints about her selection, but she also happens to be on the far left of the party.

Then a 20-minute discussion, a quick 22-3 vote, and the unions, which gave birth to the party and until two years ago commanded 90 per cent of its conference votes, henceforth are to have just half.

And all this the day after the party leader has almost casually remarked that the imposition of all-women shortlists is a one-off, "not ideal at all" in practice, and will not be repeated after the general election.

The brief life of all-women shortlists should perhaps not come as such a surprise. After all, they were not part of the modernisers' essential agenda. Mr Blair inherited them from John Smith - not an instinctively PC politician - who was persuaded to insist on the requirement that 50 per cent of marginal or Labour-held seats should pick a woman. And that meant that some constituencies would be forced to do so even if they wanted a man. By contrast Neil Kinnock, though he never said so publicly, was bitterly against the strategy on the grounds that it interfered with the right of a local party to choose its own candidate on merit.

The continued pegging back of union power is much more Blair's own project. His determination to end union sponsorship of individual Labour MPs has irritated a minority of them as much the Nolan report has angered some Tories. But they will get short shrift: Blair yesterday reported to the executive that there was broad agreement from the union general secretaries in favour of reform and the NEC's organisation committee would be considering detailed proposals in September.

So, not surprisingly, after a year of continuous revolution there have been small but unmistakable stirrings of discontent at the pace and relentlessness of change, most recently exemplified by last week's Tribune editorial which called plaintively for the "brakes" to be put on Blair and spoke of a "crisis of confidence" in the party.

It's hard to remember when Tribune didn't think there was a crisis of confidence - or had any itself. But there has also been a little hand- wringing by some of the Labour-supporting intelligentsia, even among some who as impeccable modernisers had backed Blair long before it was clear that he would win the leadership, and who now worry aloud about whether he will ever be half as radical a leader of the country as he is of his party.

And more menacingly - though less publicly - one or two MPs loyal to Blair, particularly from constituencies in the Northern heartlands, report difficult meetings of the their general committees, activists fed up with the visit to Murdoch, the comparisons with Margaret Thatcher, the pace of internal reform. The Tories themselves are waiting in hope that, as they see it, the ever-lengthening umbilical cord which connects Blair to his party will snap in time for the general election.

And unrepentant as the Labour leader is (not least about Murdoch, being utterly convinced that it would have been insane not to address the world's largest media group), he is aware of the rumblings. He has even remarked in a couple of speeches recently that he once asked his constituency chairman John Burton (a man whose influence should not be underestimated) whether the party would "forgive the pain of change". The only thing the party would not forgive, Burton replied, would be losing.

But that fatalistic belief in losing, which Labour never fully shook off even before the last election, has almost disappeared, thanks almost entirely to Blair. In its place the party is beginning to confront a fresh anxiety: what will a Labour government deliver? It is no longer true that Labour has no new policies. But those it does have so far, notably on health and education, go more than half-way to meeting the changes already enacted by the Tories. A third is a deft dumping of its previous commitment to regional government.

Some of this fretfulness will be allayed if Labour pulls off what, by any standards, would be a remarkable victory in the Littleborough and Saddleworth by-election today. There are two cases - neither, of course, made by the old left - against Labour's campaign in Littleborough. One is that it has been mean-spirited for putting the Liberal Democrat candidate on the defensive over his past statements in favour of legalising cannabis; the other is that Labour, if it was properly pluralist, should have allowed the Liberal Democrats to win.

It is easier to make the first charge stick if you believe in the second. And the second is made superficially more plausible because the campaign followed hard on the heels of a brave decision by Paddy Ashdown, for which he has been given not enough credit, to confront the sentimental isolationists in his own party by breaking with the myth of "equidistance" between the two major parties and say he would never prop up a Tory government.

But Blair's case is simple: co-operation between the two parties is desirable. Provided that first, it is based in ideas (which is why he last week met Lord Dahrendorf, chairman of the Ashdown-appointed economic commission); and second, it is based on strength and not on electoral desperation (which is why he personally sanctioned an all out-campaign to win the Saddleworth seat).

For Blair isn't going to be deflected, whatever happens in the Pennines today. It just isn't his mood. He isn't going to dump the campaign skills of Peter Mandelson, who is used as a surrogate target by those who fear to criticise Blair directly, any more than he is going to stop confiding in John Prescott, Robin Cook, or Clare Short for that matter. The polls - for all his incessantly voiced contempt for them - have put him on a plane of support which Labour hasn't known since 1979 and which even the doubters recognise. And he believes he has beaten what he once referred to as the "head and body" problem. His own leadership, and the Clause IV campaign in particular, have helped to connect him solidly to the rank and file, beyond the activists, or his own narrow base.

It may just be, too, that a defence is a beginning to take shape against the larger charge, that Blair, unlike Thatcher in 1979, has no real dragons to slay in government, no platform of equivalent importance to the lasting union reforms and the shrinking of the state which sustained her in power. By identifying welfare state reform as a priority in recent weeks, by arguing that only Labour can modernise the welfare state because only Labour really believes in it, and that the size of its budget is a sign of economic failure and not socialist success, Blair is taking some real risks.

A welfare system which helps people back into the economy rather than paying them to stay out of it, that targets benefits to those who need them without means testing, that begins to make the state the instrument of what Dahrendorf this week called the "inclusive" society, may have more in it to excite the left than the left yet realises.