Leading Article: Labour's tired old faces

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The Independent Online
TONY BLAIR is an inspiring leader, but his appointments yesterday to Labour's front bench were dull. His party's conservatism in electing so many unimpressive figures to the Shadow Cabinet tied his hands and robbed him of candidates for a dynamic team.

The Labour leader filled the key economic posts on his front bench with those ready to leave behind the party's statist, anti-free market past. The top portfolios have gone to effective performers such as Robin Cook, Gordon Brown and Jack Straw. But the middle-ranking appointments, apart from Marjorie Mowlam's shift to Northern Ireland, are lacklustre.

Margaret Beckett is hardly likely to bring fresh thinking to Labour's policy on the National Health Service. David Blunkett is not the obvious person to liberate Labour's unimaginative education policy from the grip of teaching unions. The party desperately needs an innovative approach in this area.

Mr Blair also had to find space for has-beens whom Labour MPs should have despatched to the backbenches. Ann Taylor and David Clark, still anonymous after covering the prominent portfolios of Education and Defence, won enough votes to stay on the front bench. Joan Lestor and Jack Cunningham have played undistinguished roles but still block fresh talent.

The constraints that MPs placed upon Mr Blair seriously undermine Labour's claim to be ready for government. Likewise a malaise still grips the party at large. A fortnight ago, it gave a seat on Labour's National Executive Committee to Dennis Skinner, a dinosaur of the far left, while denying a place to Ms Mowlam.

Mr Blair is short of Blairites. Margaret Thatcher would appreciate the problem, surrounded as she initially was by the 'wets'. But that did not damage her party's electability. Mr Blair's case is different. Voters require evidence that there is not only a new type of Labour leader, but a different type of Labour party.

In Blackpool Mr Blair said he suspected that some delegates supported him because they thought he could win the general election. Such a superficial attachment will be found out by a sceptical electorate. Unless the party adopts the spirit of change that its leader advocates, its current popularity will be built on shaky foundations.