Red-eyed and full of hope, we wish him well

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The Independent Online
Huge, historic, torrential, colossal, titanic ... the thesaurus could keep us busy all night in describing the scale of Labour's victory. Not so long ago, in the early 1980s, this was a party that many people believed to be dying out. Not so long ago, the Tories seemed to be turning Britain into a one-party system of government. Now Labour has swamped Tory Britain, smashing down the electoral defences built under Margaret Thatcher and ending Britain's first century of democratic government - which has rightly been dubbed ''the Conservative century'' in a decisive and crushing way.

Yet when we say that Labour seemed half-dead, and is now alive and all- conquering, we are telling only part of the truth. For of course that party of the early Eighties, with its commitment to nationalisation and redistributive taxation, to deals with the unions and its visceral suspicion of the Common Market, is dead. It was killed off by Tory victory after Tory victory, and the single-minded acceptance of political realities by Neil Kinnock, briefly John Smith, and Tony Blair. The Conservatives' successes and the ruthless modernising of Blair and his circle - those are the parents of what happened this morning. One could argue that the Tory party has been beaten, yet Tory ideas survive. But that is not the whole truth either - a little too clever, a little too glib.

Tony Blair and the New Labour leadership are not Tories flying under Labour colours. They are a mix of different men and women, some radical, some instinctively centralist and cautious, who share a more urgent social concern than we saw in the Tory party under Thatcher or John Major. They have promised to do something for bad schools, for the young unemployed, and for the struggling health service. They will expect to be judged by those promises, more than by any other measures. We are not cynical about politicians in general, though we are derisive about some of them in particular, and we know that New Labour is comprised of people who came into politics for different reasons than the Conservatives or Liberal Democrats.

For Tony Blair, Britain's youngest leader this century, a fresh-faced and sometimes vulnerable-seeming man of the post-war generation, this is a moment to be savoured, every drop. He has lived through the bleakest years of Labour's exile and argued late into many nights to bring about what has happened. Now, very quickly, there will be new tests, coming at him like hurdles at a new showjumper - the Amsterdam summit, the Hong Kong handover, the Scottish referendums, the summer Budget, the dangerously stalled Irish peace process... and, yes, those other unpredicted but probably even tougher as-yet-unknown crises also lying ahead.

So this morning, red-eyed after the television marathon, we first of all wish Tony Blair good luck. We wish him staunch friends, robust health, fair opponents and courage in adversity. We do this not in a partisan spirit, but because he is this country's new leader and it is a desperately hard job, and every one of us needs him to do well. He is not a shallow man - we do not believe so - and he deserves our patience, respect and tolerance. Who is this ''we''? Well, it is us, as well as you, the reader. Perhaps we in the media are too quick to rush to judgement on politicians. Perhaps we all have to give them a little more space to make mistakes.

Yet we hope too that Tony Blair, in his moment of triumph, with the modern equivalent of a golden chariot carrying him among his cheering followers, has a friend behind him, whispering in his ear that he is mortal. One of the phenomena of modern politics - from the United States to Australia, France to Canada - seems to be a weakening of political tribal loyalties. This makes sense, since the old ideologies have broken down, people are more mobile, and politicians, with less power than in the days of the strong state, are more likely to disappoint. As with the weather, we are in an era when political records are constantly broken - driest summer since... and biggest victory since...

The point is that Blair's support is very wide, geographically, politically and socially; and yet quite possibly shallow. The country has become sick of the Conservatives and, while optimistic about Blair, is not a nation of convinced New Labourites. If the party fails in power then, despite its huge success this week, it will be faced by another tidal wave, probably from the right.

Because that wave would, in all likelihood, be bitterly anti-European, and pitiless towards social losers, that is something this newspaper wants - at all costs - to be prevented. How can it be? We think that the first important thing is for New Labour to keep faith with its millions of tentative new supporters, controlling spending and inflation, while producing demonstrable improvements in public services and genuine political reforms. That is a ferociously difficult job - after Gordon Brown's wholesale acceptance of Conservative expenditure plans, many professionals think it impossible. Yet it must be done.

The second thing is that Blair and his lieutenants produce a new tone, a new style of government. One of the more cerebral New Labour modernisers, Tony Wright, put it well in a Penguin book called Why Vote Labour?. In it, he said: ''Instead of a stultifying and suffocating politics which pretends that all issues can be compressed into neat party boxes, with professional politicians claiming unique custody of the political process and genuine debate subordinated to the requirements of sound bite and spin, we would do well to take up Nelson Mandela's challenge to do politics differently.''

Quite right. Open up. Open the door, Tony Blair, to other parties' ideas, and to ideas from no parties. Adopt real pluralism. Admit mistakes. Speak honestly about the difficulties. Don't you dare talk down to us. Don't hide behind a closed and narrow political court. Be the best leader you have it in you to be.

If Tony Blair does that, he can be great. After the last few hours of results, and the backing of so many millions, he has nothing to fear at all.