LEADING ARTICLE:Can Labour find the promised land?

Click to follow
The Independent Online
Tony Blair knew what he had to do in Brighton yesterday. After a remarkable year in which he has turned the Labour Party inside out and convinced most of the faithful that the sweater looks better with the seams showing, he had to address the country and talk not about new Labour but about the new Britain he believes a Labour government can construct.

The requirement was for a speech that combined vision, compelling analysis of the country's problems and a credible indication of the policies that will effect the change the country needs.

Mr Blair's Christian social democratic vision was powerfully restated. Socialism, he declared, was not about the state, economics or politics, but about moral purpose. "We aren't simply people set in isolation from each other, face to face with eternity, but members of the same family, community, the same human race. This is my socialism." Even in an atheistic and agnostic age, hearts will be stirred by this. It promises a break with the bleak commercialism of recent years and an optimism about the potential for change without which politics is nothing. Mr Blair's declared journey is towards "a young country" where the eager embrace of new technology and a more effective education system drive forward economic performance and its citizens' sense of fulfilment.

But the more searching question is whether Blair's analysis and his list of mostly familiar policies represents a convincing agenda for creating this new Britain, the "young country" of his imagination. Here the speech must be judged a failure. What it needed to do was to work through a handful of major policy thoughts and to explain how Labour's distinctive and coherent approach would effect not mild reform but a transformation.

Two examples will make the point. On education, Labour still sounds painfully confused. Is Mr Blair intending to act against the "two classes of state schools" he warned against yesterday? Or does he really think that a harder drive on standards and class sizes will deliver the goods? Equally, his cheeky prime ministerial deal with BT about free connections to the superhighway for public institutions in return for allowing the company to get into the video business raises more questions than it answers. What does it tell us about Labour's view of its relationship with the private sector? Should government tax and regulate (at arm's length) these businesses to protect the consumer's interest? Or, should a Labour prime minister be directly pursuing one-off sweetheart deals with captains of industry?

This is the kind of muddle that will become more problematic as Labour sprinkles more policies across the seedbed of the Blair vision. In government it could be disastrous.

No one can doubt Mr Blair's integrity or his ambition. He said yesterday that he was playing not for a single election victory but to put Labour into power for a generation. He still has much work to do.