Sharp teeth behind the Blair grin

Click to follow
The Independent Online
BLACKPOOL looms and it has been a good few weeks for Labour: the Tories are doing just a little better in the polls. The launch of Labour's high- minded economic programme was received with satire and contempt by the Tory tabloids. The Left made menacing noises. A Fabian pamphlet warned that the party was only 'on probation' among southern swing voters. Above all, the hard evidence of economic recovery accumulated, making it near-certain that today's bulging orderbooks will turn into tomorrow's pay increases and tax cuts.

In short, normality returned, slamming the door as it came. This is life as Tony Blair is going to have to live it during most of his two-year battle to topple John Major's administration. This is good for Labour and good for Blair because the longer the unreality continues, the easier complacency becomes and the harder the eventual bump of reality feels. Already there are plenty of fools in the Labour Party who have smoothly adjusted their assumptions to the inevitability of victory - if not 'we are the masters now', at least 'we will be the masters quite soon'.

It will not be so easy. Any sane Labourite should willingly surrender all the 30-point poll leads in the mid-term for a single-figure lead at election time and a single- figure parliamentary majority thereafter. John Major showed in 1992 that he was a better campaigner than anyone had suspected: he has always demanded to be judged on his full five years and Labour should assume that the record will seem a lot better by 1996 than it does now.

Which brings us back to Tony Blair. The country will have plenty of time to take his measure. He will not get away with a public persona manufactured by his friends and admirers. You can pose photographs, do deals with journalists, smile, wave, turn again and smile, but a key lesson of contemporary politics is that shallow leaders are seen through, and intellectual weaknesses are ruthlessly exposed.

We are a knowing nation of viewers, a deeply sceptical bunch. If, as the Conservatives say, Blair doesn't stand for anything, if he is an Islingtonian confection, all style and no substance, then he will start to come apart and, frankly, his party is most unlikely to win.

But an interesting pattern is emerging which suggests that the Blair who will be familiar by 1996 is not the Blair who is familiar now. On a range of issues - those on which the next election will be decided - he is taking positions which are not those of the leftish southern elite. By elite, I mean those who have started to treat the Labour leader as virtually their property, who see him as the fresh- faced Caesar of Chattering London, a man who can be fawned on and patronised in the same breath, advised on his dress sense, educated about PR, and smilingly ticked off by the sophisticates of political correctness. They have him wrong.

He's a bit of a hard bastard, deep down. He is blunt, direct and impatient, as the Shadow Cabinet can now testify. He seems quietly contemptuous about some of the more gushing commentaries and there is an interesting restlessness about him, a near obsession with establishing clarity, with the need for straight talking. He will talk to friends about the lack of time, the urgency of moving the party on, the danger of being seduced by the admiration of media London.

Which means? On family policy, Blair is urged by the think-tank Demos to be cool and hip, but he remains resolutely traditionalist. When Michael Howard introduces 'walking with purpose', the lobby groups sneer - but it turns out that something similar goes on in Blair's constituency, with his support.

On voting reform, he is urged to come off the fence and announce his conversion to proportional representation like all other right- thinking Charter 88 types. But he shows little sign of doing so: he has long feared that PR would be used as an alibi by left-wingers who long for a world of smaller, coalition parties, in which Labour can return to leftist purism and avoid pre-electoral compromises with reality.

Does it rule out the deals that Chattering London dreams of? Not necessarily - the Labour leader insists that he is a pluralist. But there is an overwhelming feeling in the party leadership that it is already committed to a radical series of political reforms, including a Scottish Parliament and Welsh Assembly, reform of the Lords, incorporation of the European Bill of Rights, and a proper Freedom of Information Bill, which have not been explained to the country at large, or fought for, just assumed to be popular.

In that respect, discussing political reform in relation to the views of Charter 88 or the Liberal Democrat hierarchy could prove an electoral mistake. Mr Major's assault on Scottish Home Rule at the last election was an impressive act of political aggression. There will be more of that Tory music in 1995-6 and Labour radicalism will need to be in better voice than it has been to respond. Again, when it comes to political reform, the Blair emphasis is populist. It would not be surprising to hear him have a go in Blackpool at the absurdity of the Commons theatre. That plays well in the country.

The same non-metropolitan instinct seems to be seeping through Labour's thinking on the party's other big policy problem, European union. I can find no one, among those who matter, who believes that Labour should moderate its new-found enthusiasm for Europe. What I do find is a determination to develop a populist Europeanism that hammers Brussels over issues such as corruption, lack of democracy and openness and the waste involved in the Common Agricultural Policy. Jack Cunningham, the Shadow Foreign Secretary, proposed to Blair earlier this month that a leader's committee should be formed to develop a more coherent and popular Europeanism before the election - something he is likely to say more about at a meeting in Blackpool tomorrow.

And note, again, these are not issues which have set the gite-renting, Dordogne-holidaying middle classes afire. My conclusion is not that Blair is a cynical populist or that he stands for nothing - anyone who thinks that is merely unobservant. It is that Blair is not owned by anyone.

He is not owned by any faction in the Labour Party - even people who thought they were very close to him have noticed, with mixed feelings, that he now carries himself slightly differently as leader. He is not owned by the unions - far from it. And, above all, he is not owned by the chattering classes, even if he mixes with them.

This is a tough, unsentimental politician who is hungry for power. Anyone who fails to notice that about the grinning, boyish figure getting the soft-focus treatment at next week's conference is making a serious mistake.