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Leading Article: New Labour, no thrills

Tony Blair will attend this week's Labour Party conference as a prime minister-in-waiting. He should enjoy the moment; it may well prove to be the pinnacle of his career. Not because he is likely to fail at the last hurdle or even because he is likely to lose office quickly (a decade of Blair-led Labour government is quite possible) but because he may leave very little of substance behind him. Mr Blair's sad fate in British history may be to join thoseprime ministers - Lords Liverpool and Salisbury and Stanley Baldwin are past examples and it looks as if John Major will be another - who occupy Downing Street for a very long time without anybody quite being able to remember what they did.

This may seem an odd forecast. Has Mr Blair not promised us a new Britain, a new civic society, a new social order, a new age and, for all we know (nobody can read every speech, article and interview), new laws of planetary motion? Yes, but the difficulty is to understand what all this amounts to. The achievements of the Gladstone, Asquith, Attlee and Thatcher governments, for example, may be simply enumerated and, together, they have a certain coherence. Mr Blair's policies may acquire one but, as presently stated, they have the appearance of a random collection of bright ideas, the kind of things that might appear in a company "suggestions" box. Smaller classes, shorter hospital waiting lists and quicker sentencing of young offenders all sound like improvements but it is hard to see that they add up to a new age.

Certainly, we have a new Labour Party, transformed from the ragged, prolix, quarrelsome creature of 15 years ago. But historians may not give Mr Blair much credit for that. The 1992 election defeat was so traumatic for Labour that it would have done almost anything to regain power. Mr Blair's position was virtually unassailable within months of his election because, with the promised land in sight, nobody wanted to risk missing out on the milk and honey. The Labour leader has been praised for his strength and political subtlety. In truth, very little of either has been needed to control a party that, by historical standards (see Brian Brivati on the opposite page), has been extraordinarily quiescent.

If the fight between Mr Blair and old Labour were a boxing match, the referee would have stopped it long ago; it continues, one imagines, only to satisfy the audience's blood lust. The question now is whether the Labour leader can raise his game and tackle the big targets. There are few signs of it so far. On Rupert Murdoch's growing monopoly power over press and television, and on his scandalous (though legal) failure to pay corporation tax, Mr Blair is not just silent; he gives every appearance of being terrified out of his wits. On the City fund managers who, by demanding high short-term profits, can now hold industries to ransom as surely as the unions did in the 1970s, he has nothing to say. He seems happy to leave "green" issues - and, in particular, any exploration of carbon taxes - to the Liberal Democrats. The big supermarkets, anxious to despoil the countryside with more of their monstrous malls, will get an easier ride from Labour than from John Gummer. The whole question of public schools, still the engine room of British class division and inequality, has all but vanished from political debate. New Labour dare not describe the pounds 100,000-plus annual salary earners as "rich", lest it offend their delicate sensibilities, much less countenance increasing their taxes. It is all very well Mr Blair roaring defiance at the flyblown carcass of old Labour if he will not otherwise say boo to anything larger than a farmyard chicken.

The paradox about the Labour leader is that, within his own party, he presents himself as bold and modern. Yet, if he sweeps to power, it will be because he has tapped into Middle England's yearnings for the certainties of a bygone era: old-fashioned schools, traditional nuclear families (which now account for fewer than a third of all households), policemen on the beat, secure jobs, communities where people cared about each other. He speaks, as Martin Jacques has put it, to the angst of the age. But that does not constitute a political programme. The best that can be said about a Blair prime-ministership, on what we know so far, is that he will be neat and tidy and leave the country as he found it.