Leading Article: Blair in search of Blairites

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The Independent Online
THERE are few signs of trouble ahead at this week's Labour Party Conference. Tony Blair can expect a passage smoother than that afforded to Paddy Ashdown, leader of the Liberal Democrats, in Brighton a fortnight ago. The Labour Party, like the nation, is enjoying the novelty of a leader who is unpredictable, who is making all the political waves and who is reinventing himself by the week. Goodwill oozes from the pores of the party. Few will want to spoil this particular party in Blackpool.

Ever since John Smith's death, the Labour Party has behaved with remarkable discipline. Out of a mixture of fear and ambition, it has set aside the bad old habits of recent decades. We are witnessing its remaking - a process that began with the election of Neil Kinnock as leader in 1983.

Before then, left and right were labels that commanded enormous loyalty and passion within the party. Now they mean little. There is still a left and a right, but few care. As the old socialist project hit the historical rocks, so too did the labels, ideologies, conflicts and institutions that accompanied it. To accuse Mr Blair of being on the right, as Ken Livingstone did during the leadership campaign, is to live in the world of yesterday's categories. Life is now far more interesting, and a great deal more complicated.

At some point, of course, Mr Blair will encounter serious opposition within his party, but probably not before the next general election. In the meantime, he is confronted with a rather different kind of problem. The new-style Labour Party that he inherited is very different from the turbulent old beast of the Seventies and early Eighties. It has acquiesced in the need for modernisation, both in style and substance. But the transformation has been strangely passive; the resulting product sanitised rather than spirited. Labour was not, and is still not, a seething mass of argument, debate, ideas and creativity. It possesses all the intellectual excitement of a car showroom.

It is a tribute to the Labour Party that it could produce as leader someone as charismatic as Mr Blair. And yet, just like Margaret Thatcher and the Conservative Party, somehow he does not quite fit. Mr Blair is a live wire, an intellectual dynamo, open-minded, creative, constantly on the move. His party most certainly is not.

This presents him with two serious problems. First, Mr Blair needs like-minded people; he needs generals and outriders, prophets and iconclasts. But where are they? Apart from Gordon Brown, his shadow Chancellor, and one or two others, they are certainly not conspicuous in the Shadow Cabinet. It is striking how much better, and more interesting, Mr Blair is than his colleagues. He may need only a few Blairites: after all, Mrs Thatcher got by with precious few Thatcherites. But the dearth of like-minded spirits certainly will not make things any easier and might even scupper the enterprise.

Second, the gap between Mr Blair and his party might become - in less favourable times, when the honeymoon has given way to the normal vicissitudes of married life - the cause of a great deal of friction and conflict. It is not difficult to see the problem: a leader who wants to reinvent the party - who does not, even in his most sentimental moments, have the slightest affection for Labourism - and a party that has trodden the path of reform with all the passion of a patient entering the dentist's surgery.