Keep the ideas rolling, Mr Blair

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The Independent Online
When Tony Blair became leader of the Labour Party five months ago, the event promised a new era. But sceptics were wary. They recognised that his ideas were ahead of a party that still clung to failed and outdated policies. There were suspicions t hat MrBlair's modern face disguised an unreformed organisation that would reveal itself fully only when it was back in power. At the party conference, Mr Blair himself acknowledged that many had supported him not for his policies but because they believ ed hecould win the general election.

Since then fears that Labour is inseparable from its old ways have, to some extent, been allayed. Whereas frontbenchers once spent their energies parroting the predictable, they have in recent months started to think afresh and share those thoughts with the rest of us. For the first time since the Sixties, Labour is beginning to look and sound like a party with ideas.

Today, for example, we report Labour's plans for regulation of the railways. In the past the party has responded to privatisations with empty pledges to reverse the changes, only to acquiesce in the inevitable a year or so later. Under Mr Blair, Labour has become creative and flexible rather than rigid and reactive.

In education policy, David Blunkett has indicated that at last the party will no longer be merely a vehicle for disgruntled vested interests. His emphasis on raising standards may well produce clashes with the teaching unions. Labour is now prepared to think uncomfortable thoughts: a hypothecated graduate tax is under consideration to pay for an expansion in higher education.

Such shifts in Labour ideas have been dismissed as cynical electioneering, an attempt by the party to paint itself a lighter shade of Tory blue. It is true that Conservative policies have been shamelessly plundered: Michael Heseltine's idea that mayors should be directly elected is only the latest example of healthy inter-party promiscuity. Yet by raising issues such as slimming down the Royal Family, and constitutional reform, Labour has demonstrated that it is setting a fresh agenda rather than simplystealing from and catching up with the Conservatives.

Against this dynamism, John Major's call yesterday for Tory unity and his hints of future tax cuts sounded tired. In the Eighties the Conservatives were the party of ideas: now Mr Blair shows signs of wanting to steal that mantle. But there is a long wayto go. There is still a danger that Mr Blair will allow the old left to stifle change where no immediate electoral damage will result. The appointment of Margaret Beckett as health spokeswoman was a bad omen: she has already made it clear that she intends to scrap the internal market. Mr Blair needs to keep his revolution rolling on all fronts.