Leading Article: Hard choices will test unity

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

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

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss