Repent ye, and come home to play-safe Smith

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The Independent Online
NO TINGLE; precious little sparkle: a silver-tongued poet of the conference platform John Smith is not. He is establishing himself as the serious prime minister-in-waiting Labour has not had for many years. But for 49 minutes yesterday - it seemed longer - he played safe. He made the clever and wounding jibes against a wounded prime minister any Labour leader would. He made the counter-arguments any traditional Labour right-winger would make. But he neither lifted the hall nor surprised it.

After the swoops and climaxes of Neil Kinnock, we had plainsong and lecture. Why not? Mr Smith is contentedly the man he is, which is both a strength and a weakness. It has not done him so badly thus far. Were there an election next month he would already be an impressive contender. Yet this speech was not the kind of performance which filled one with the belief that Mr Smith can make his way to Downing Street whatever happens to the other John.

There was an unmistakeable whiff of revivalism in Mr Smith's words, if not in the way he delivered them. Come home, he was urging the penitent, once-prodigal voters, to the warmer, safer world you left in the Eighties: 'We live in a time of great pessimism . . . the fear that we do not have the means nor the will to deal with what lies ahead. People want answers, but they feel there are none.' Come home to an active, compassionate government and its moral embrace. Repent, Labour loves you. Come home to the old times.

Without drama, there was a moral seriousness that the country's politics needs. As Shadow Chancellor he protected the aid budget in Labour calculations when it would have been politically easier to shave it down - and when he spoke yesterday about Britain's 'shamefully low' aid effort being 'morally repugnant', feeling glowed behind the rhetoric.

Old-time religion may work - this may be a shrewd pitch as well as deeply felt one. John Major and his ministers have been humiliated. Many even of their natural supporters feel they have behaved shabbily and foolishly. There is no need for Mr Smith to discredit the Government - despite his jokes, some good, others predictable, he could not possibly do a better job than is being accomplished in Whitehall.

He turned the knife relentlessly. Throughout the speech, certain key words recurred to describe the two big parties. Mr Major and friends were associated (in no particular order) with turmoil, vandalism, mismanagement, indecision, fear, humiliation and paralysis. 'Labour words' included honour, duty, compassion, decent, clean, ordinary, common sense.

In one small but revealing example of the way he is appropriating Toryspeak, Mr Smith praised Mr Kinnock thus: 'He had the courage to take on the task, and he had the determination and skill to see it through. No one else could have achieved that.' This particular formulation is used routinely by Tory conference speakers about Margaret Thatcher and John Major. Just a coincidence?

Mr Smith's underlying message was that he provides the conservative alternative to riskily ideological Toryism. Apart from his dogged refusal to praise market principles - of which more later - there was nothing in his speech that would have seemed out of place in the manifesto of most centrist, indeed centre-right, European parties. Mr Smith is offering British voters Christian Democracy, speaking in a Scottish Presbyterian voice.

The idea that the safe, conservative thing to do is to come home to Labour, not the Tories, may be a cheeky idea, but one whose time has come. It depends, however, on an extraordinary coincidence - that the only man anywhere in Britain who can make Mr Major look dodgily flash and exotic happens to be leader of the Labour Party.

If this play-safe approach were directed only at the voters, one could call this an almost wholly successful, though unrhetorical, performance. Sadly, though, Mr Smith was as keen to play safe with the party as he was to advertise play-safeism to the rest of us. He hit every button the party expected - the unions, the NHS, the coal- mines, the schools - and in entirely predictable ways. When it came to the role of the market in society, he took a hostile, big-government approach. Admittedly one of the most important things for Labour to do is to convince a sceptical electorate that governments can intervene successfully.

Even so, Mr Kinnock would have been bolder. He knew it was important to confront delegates with new realities as well as to reassure them, hence much of the theatrical tension he produced at successive conferences. The most reactionary trade union official or bullet-headed constituency old-timer could have listened to Mr Smith's speech without having a single comfortable assumption confronted, or balking at a single syllable. And that is a little worrying.

Mr Smith himself raised the idea that people had voted Conservative only reluctantly in April - but did not discuss why they did so. The reasons are as much to do with mistrust of Labour policies as with Tory turpitude. That mistrust will finally be dissipated only when Labour has completed a further period of fruitful and honest introspection. It will have to revisit debates that are painful to revisit and think about policies it has hitherto rejected as unthinkable. Playing safe will not be enough, however fearful and critical of the current government voters may be.