Just a touch of Camelot

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The Independent Online
WHEN Tony Blair was shown the press reaction to his big speech, he was warned to enjoy the sweet moment. Let's hope he did. Within hours the rituals of Labour conference week had reasserted themselves - Shadow Cabinet members were manoeuvring and bitching about their rivals, union delegations were rebuffing the leader over Trident and socialism, and Blair was making the now traditional leader's journey down the staircase at the Imperial Hotel to explain to those polite young people from the BBC why the behaviour of the conference didn't matter.

But it did matter, because it made things just a little easier for the Conservatives next week and reminded the country that the British system is not yet a presidential one, and that the Labour Party lags sulkily behind its leader. Blair's office is clever and setting a cracking pace, but it has lacked a little savvy this week. Speeches and photocalls aren't enough by themselves. He needs a heavy, cynical, ageing trade union hack or two, some fellows with body odour who know whom to square and which meeting to fix.

In the end, however, I think it will be the presidential note that will linger, the echo of an old and special political story. For although Blackpool makes an unconvincing Camelot there is something of the Kennedy myth about Blair's patriotic appeal. True, it is Kennedy mediated through tubby, unappetising Bill Clinton, and even then it is Clintonism transported and downsized to our more humdrum, cloudy nation. But that is all right. If Blair gets a headache he turns (I trust) to aspirin, not women. If he becomes worried about his press coverage he will not (I further trust) invade any small islands.

It is the daring nature of his proposal - here is a fresh start, here is newness, here is honesty - that matters, that provides the flash of that famous Sixties smile. Even the oldest cynic is alert to the possibility of a leader who might mean what he says. We all want to believe that here, this time, there is one who won't screw it up. It may be the triumph of hope over experience, Kipling's burnt fool's bandaged finger going wabbling back to the fire. But the tickle of optimism is almost irresistible.

As Blair's speech accelerated off, who was that laughing and clapping at the back of the hall? It looked rather like Sir David English, confidant of Baroness Thatcher and spiritual guardian of the Daily Mail. A few minutes more and we might have had the boys from the Daily Telegraph speaking in tongues. But having electrified the laptop-battering classes, and perhaps the nation too, Tony Blair has to expand and nourish this optimism in the years before the election comes. He has to carry on speaking in English. He has to replicate the boldness he showed over the internal issue of Labour's constitution, but this time with external things - one is tempted to say, real things.

This takes us again to pluralism, which is not a code for proportional representation but a description of a quality of mind, an openness to ideas and people outside the closed order of political obsessives. It will test Blair's daring not once but day after day. The reshaping of the Shadow Cabinet and the final touches to his own office will prepare Labour for the next stage of its political campaign. But the full scope of Blair's radicalism and the flavour of that campaign are as yet unknown.

In the messy and compromising world away from the conference podium, choices will now start being made which really matter. It won't be easy. Take a few examples.

The Criminal Justice Bill was brandished by Michael Howard at the last Tory conference as a legislative harpoon to skewer Blair - 'tough' and barbed measures which Blair would be forced to oppose, thus allowing the Government to ridicule the Labour man's claim to be a crime-basher. In the event, Howard has almost succeeded in lacerating himself with the Bill, which was too blatant a piece of political opportunism to be the weapon he hoped.

But Blair, in refusing to allow himself to be skewered, has paid a real price. The Shadow Cabinet decided not to vote against the Bill, though it did oppose the more objectionable clauses. That aroused the ire of hundreds of thousands of young voters, including rave partygoers, environmental campaigners and squatters. The scepticism and abstentionism of younger voters is a serious problem for Labour and the party has lost a chance to rally them against a measure which has caused more anger than any since the poll tax.

In that case, Blair chose caution and national image rather than radicalism. It may, for him, have been the right decision. But it lost him a tranche of possible supporters. Unhappy choices like that are a part of life at the top. Each choice accumulates to build an image of the party in the country. They narrow the choices to come. And the biggest choice of all, one which cannot be put off for long, is the extent to which Labour goes out and sells its vision of political reform, and how radical Blair wants this to be.

The programme taking shape is controversial inside the party and will cause offence outside. The achievement of Scottish Home Rule, never mind the Bill of Rights and the abolition of hereditary peers voting in the Lords, would send shock waves through the political system, shaking the Commons too. All those City types who are apparently even now oiling up to Labour frontbenchers looking for jobs when Labour wins power will start to ask themselves whether this lot are going to represent business as usual after all.

But Labour is not, it appears, stopping there. As was made clear yesterday, there are plenty who have been converted to voting reform. Gordon Brown plans to rewrite the Budget system and is looking at full Bank of England independence. There is to be a dramatic cull of quangos. The party spokesman on constitutional matters, Graham Allen, said this week that he personally wanted local government to have entrenched powers, with most of income tax diverted direct to a Local Government Commission, bypassing the Treasury entirely. The environment spokesman, Chris Smith, favours giving local government general powers of competence, to raise money up to a certain amount and spend it as they will.

This amounts to a huge programme. It threatens strong vested interests and the web of patronage that has grown up across Britain in the past decade. It could clog up the Commons for years if the party was working with a small majority. It will reopen the question of whether MPs from Labour's Scottish and Welsh heartlands should vote on English affairs at Westminster. It may mean giving entrenched rights to right-wing Tory local authorities. It will all be most difficult and, at times, disagreeable.

Whether Blair embraces the challenge enthusiastically will be among the most important decisions of his leadership. He can afford to do so. Indeed, it would be more dangerous not to, for these are strange times. After all, if you look at what is likely to happen in Northern Ireland if the peace process holds, you see a place where pluralism, proportional representation, power-sharing, devolution and a bill of rights are all being actively worked for - by Conservative ministers.

Blair needs to imagine change this big for the mainland if he is to keep alive the sense of excitement and possibility which the last few days have provided. Think of him arriving at next year's conference to announce that, though he had nothing against ferris wheels on the South Bank of the Thames, his idea for heralding the millennium was to create a new country, or at least a new political nation; that after what has been called the 'Conservative century' he wanted to start the next one differently. That would be something. It says a lot for what has occurred here at Blackpool that one can imagine it happening.

(Photograph omitted)