Leading Article: Bold, but Blair must also be brave

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The Independent Online
THIS WAS probably a historic speech. Since John Smith's death last May, Tony Blair has wooed not just his party but the nation. Yesterday when he declared, 'We are the mainstream voice in politics today', it was only a mild exaggeration.

His speech was a formidable performance, combining skilful changes of tone and mood, appealing to the public and the faithful alike. On his maiden outing, Mr Blair gave a command performance. The highlight was his injunction to his party on the need for reform. Rarely has a leader spoken to a party conference with such frankness. He told them to give credit to their political opponents where credit was due, not to promise full employment overnight when that was patently impossible. 'When we make a promise, we must be sure we can keep it. That is page one, line one of a new contract between government and citizen.'

It took one short passage to announce the death warrant of Clause IV; and he was applauded for it. Nothing sums up his intentions more clearly than his phrase 'New Labour' to describe his party. It is the nearest he will probably get to changing the party's name.

Yet it was not a speech without serious flaws. Apart from the Blair evergreens, notably crime and the relationship between the individual and society, the speech was short on policy specifics. There was too much crude anti-Toryism as the explanation for Britain's problems. Even when he ventured into what was, for him, a new area, a critique of the Establishment, he managed to turn it into a superficial party political point. This is a familiar type of political laziness and it fails to address the important fact that Labour has itself been a bulwark of conservatism on many issues, not least the power of professionals.

Mr Blair needs time to catch breath, to do some more thinking, to add to what is still a rather limited repertoire. But the single most worrying aspect of the Blair pitch is its essentially conservative tone, as in: 'Today's politics is about the search for security in a changing world.' If Mr Blair really believes this then he is a man for today but not necessarily for tomorrow.

There is certainly a problem of social cohesion, of binding society. But the Labour leader's whole emphasis is on security and protection. The danger of this approach is that it ignores the inevitability of change and uncertainty as the country responds to global competition. The need for far-reaching changes in Britain's institutions and culture was not simply a preoccupation of the 1980s. It is now an inescapable feature of life.

In his first conference speech in 1963, Harold Wilson captured the imagination of the nation when he called for modernisation in the context of the white heat of the technological revolution. Mr Blair's appeal yesterday was very different, more introspective and conservative, more about conservation than change. For the moment it reflects the mood of the nation, but it is not a prospectus for the 1990s.