Leading Article: Hard choices will test unity

Share
Related Topics
On Friday the curtain came down at last on the most addictive show in British political theatre. After a very long run, the Labour Party conference voted last Monday to transform itself. The new show will be more dependable and less exciting. It is impossible not to be nostalgic for the greatest conference performances of the past: Ernie Bevin at Brighton in 1935 excoriating George Lansbury for "hawking your conscience round from body to body" ; Aneurin Bevan refusing in Brighton in 1957 to go "naked into the conference chamber" without the atomic bomb; Hugh Gaitskell promising in Scarborough in 1960 "to fight, fight, and fight again" for the party he loved: John Prescott's "head on the block" appeal for one member, one vote at Brighton in 1993. But sentimentality is out of place.

Delegates and journalists may have delighted in fratricide-by-the sea, but the voters did not. The behaviour of the party conference when Labour was in power helps to explain why it has been so much less successful a party than the Conservatives. Labour has never won consecutive full terms in power. One reason why is that the activist hegemony never represented the silent majority of Labour supporters in the country, let alone the wider electorate, and the most heroic speeches from past conferences were attempts by the leadership to get the conference to give the wishes of the electorate priority over ideological purity. The Labour left has a proper place in politics, but its job is to win the argument in the country as a whole, rather than to manipulate the endorsement of the unions which still command an influential conference vote, or the constituency parties where members prefer not to attend time-consuming meetings. Besides, the new conference style will not guarantee an easy passage for all the leadership's policies. If the National Policy Forum fails to reach consensus for the final version of its "rolling programme" of policy making, union and constituency opponents will still have the chance to press for changes - although it will come only once in each parliament. Once every five years, rather than once a year, does seem unnecessarily paltry.

Despite this, the Prime Minister deserves congratulation for continuing the process of reconnecting the party to the aspirations of the broad mass of Labour members and supporters. Not that this means he he can eliminate dissent. Over the next 18 months, there will be plenty of it. Mr Blair deserved to carry all before him in Brighton, but the hard choices he spoke of will almost certainly be harder than some of his ministers realise, never mind many of the 93 per cent who are satisfied with his performance. Some of the hard choices will impose strains on unity in the party and the cabinet.

Sticking to the previous government's spending totals will cause problems, and they have not begun to rebound on the Blair administration. They may not do so for many weeks, but the public will become used to the fact that not every problem can be blamed on the Tories. When consultants start campaigning for emergency funding for the NHS this winter, when patients denied hospital treatment die, it will be Frank Dobson and not Stephen Dorrell who will take the blame for saying no. The government will make itself unpopular with teachers for holding the line on public sector pay, despite its insistence that education is its highest priority. Since union leaders have done nothing to cool anticipation among the low paid, the government will be attacked for fixing a minimum wage that is well below their expectations. Welfare reform is certain to make enemies for there will be losers as well as gainers, as there were from the imposition of student tuition fees. The list will lengthen.

The Prime Minister's speech demonstrated a belief that his New Britain will accept change even if it does inflict pain - that welfare reform will happen if voters can be persuaded that there is an idealistic motive behind it. But it does mean suffering pain before realising gain. Mr Blair has a vision of the modernised, socially cohesive, universally educated country, he wants to see before the end of the parliament in 2002. Because they are so intent on a second term, the Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer are determined to avoid the errors of previous Labour governments, which listened to the siren voices of the conference and grew accustomed to postponing unpopular decisions. Last week was the end of the beginning. It has been a good beginning, but now the going gets tough.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Web Developer - Junior / Middleweight

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: One of the South East's fastest growing full s...

Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

£35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

Recruitment Genius: Commercial Engineer

£30000 - £32000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Estimating, preparation of tech...

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Technician

£14000 - £17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: You will work as part of a smal...

Day In a Page

Read Next
David Cameron has reiterated his pre-election promise to radically improve the NHS  

How can we save the NHS? Rediscover the stiff upper lip

Jeremy Laurance
 

Thanks to Harriet Harman, Labour is holding its own against the Tory legislative assault

Isabel Hardman
Fifa corruption: The 161-page dossier that exposes the organisation's dark heart

The 161-page dossier that exposes Fifa's dark heart

How did a group of corrupt officials turn football’s governing body into what was, in essence, a criminal enterprise? Chris Green and David Connett reveal all
Mediterranean migrant crisis: 'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves,' says Tripoli PM

Exclusive interview with Tripoli PM Khalifa al-Ghweil

'If Europe thinks bombing boats will stop smuggling, it will not. We will defend ourselves'
Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles: How the author foretold the Californian water crisis

Raymond Chandler's Los Angeles

How the author foretold the Californian water crisis
Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison as authorities crackdown on dissent in the arts

Art attack

Chinese artist who posted funny image of President Xi Jinping facing five years in prison
Marc Jacobs is putting Cher in the limelight as the face of his latest campaign

Cher is the new face of Marc Jacobs

Alexander Fury explains why designers are turning to august stars to front their lines
Parents of six-year-old who beat leukaemia plan to climb Ben Nevis for cancer charity

'I'm climbing Ben Nevis for my daughter'

Karen Attwood's young daughter Yasmin beat cancer. Now her family is about to take on a new challenge - scaling Ben Nevis to help other children
10 best wedding gift ideas

It's that time of year again... 10 best wedding gift ideas

Forget that fancy toaster, we've gone off-list to find memorable gifts that will last a lifetime
Paul Scholes column: With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards

Paul Scholes column

With the Premier League over for another year, here are my end of season awards
Heysel disaster 30th anniversary: Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget fateful day in Belgium

Liverpool have seen too much tragedy to forget Heysel

Thirty years ago, 39 fans waiting to watch a European Cup final died as a result of a fatal cocktail of circumstances. Ian Herbert looks at how a club dealt with this tragedy
Amir Khan vs Chris Algieri: Khan’s audition for Floyd Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation, says Frank Warren

Khan’s audition for Mayweather may turn into a no-win situation

The Bolton fighter could be damned if he dazzles and damned if he doesn’t against Algieri, the man last seen being decked six times by Pacquiao, says Frank Warren
Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor