Someone old, someone new

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The Independent Online
IF THERE is a self-correcting mechanism built into democratic politics, it is for now called Tony Blair. The first few days of his leadership have been exhilarating to watch. He has been, in the old phrase, 'making the weather'. Across the rest of politics, it has all been reaction: alarmed rumblings on the hard left, intense private conversations among ministers, and last night's 'Hullo, I'm still here' speech from John Major.

Mr Blair cannot keep this pace up, but that is hardly the point. If he has sent out one message above all, it is that he is going to be the kind of leader who expects his party to revolve around his instincts and his requirements. He isn't looking over his shoulder. The past week's most significant sight was the momentary flicker of panic on Brian Walden's face when, having asked Blair a straight question about single mothers, he got a straight answer.

Numerous hard policy questions and organisational dilemmas await the new Labour leader over the next two to three years. This week's education policy document can only be an interim affair and leaves open key questions, notably about grant-maintained schools, grammar schools and A-levels. There is a big reshuffle of Shadow Cabinet jobs coming in the autumn that will bruise egos but tell the country whom Blair most rates among his colleagues. Labour is not a notably comradely organisation and I expect that Blair's worst days in the months ahead will be the ones spent attending to the jealousies and rivalries of his team.

But the big thing is the Labour leader's sense of self-belief, a mental energy that his opponents must assume will survive the hard pounding of the next two years. This energy is precious. It has been a long time since Labour last seemed a young party, a fresh start party. From the mid-Sixties onwards, its journey has been a weary trudge through disillusion, lowered expectations and increasing wariness about the fast-changing outside world. It has learnt hard lessons in power and bitter ones out of power. It was told by Neil Kinnock to 'grow up'. It grew up. But it has not been light-hearted and its songs have been the songs of experience.

Now the experienced and wary generation has given way. The policy wonks, politicians and aides around Blair are young and enthusiastic and optimistic - no eye without its gleam; no step without its spring; no problem without its answer (even if the answer hasn't yet been found.) Although we had somehow forgotten the fact, this bright, even naive assertion that things can be done better is what Opposition politics is all about.

Opposition politics, however, is not simply Labour politics. So, in the reactive ripple to Blair, early doubt has been thrown on the ability of the other leftish parties to survive him. But both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party are outriding wings of an un-Conservative movement. They have their own heartlands and agendas and their possible impact on Labour in power should not be forgotten.

Paddy Ashdown has long thought that a more attractive Labour Party would help tactical voters come over to the Lib Dems in the so-called 'golden box' of the English south. He is inclined to find stories hailing new Labour initiatives that are remarkably similar to old Liberal Democrat ones 'teeth-grinding'. But that's politics, and the challenge for Ashdown now is to find ways of making the Lib Dems distinctive. His answer is likely to involve taking policy positions that are in advance of Labour.

He has already taken clearly different positions on foreign affairs and the environment, while Labour has moved on to Lib Dem territory on political reform. The big question is whether there can be distinctive Lib Dem economics, and I would not be surprised to see the party take the risk of costing its electoral programme. Wherever Blair threatens to sound equivocal, Ashdown will jump in and claim to be braver.

If Ashdown, doing this, helps shape the pre-electoral politics of the Opposition, so too will the Scottish Nationalists under Alex Salmond. They are waiting to jump on any equivocation on Home Rule by Labour, while John Major reminded us last night that he is waiting to rerun the 'United Kingdom in danger' theme that worked well for him in 1992. For political reformers, the question of whether Labour has been out of power for long enough - whether the iron has entered the party's soul, whether it is now genuinely committed to a new politics - is a serious one. The Liberal Democrats and the SNP are inescapably part of the answer.

But the hardest questions are, of course, for the party of government. Its leader's style is almost the opposite of what Tony Blair promises. He has survived by balancing factions, rather than confronting or bypassing them. The common caricature would make John Major a proven Tory Wilson, and Blair a leftish, would-be Thatcher. This may rather undersell Major and flatter Blair, but it contains enough truth to set Tory ministers talking. The Conservative nightmare is, in short, a rerun of that seminal 1979 confrontation: a focused and strongly led party of Opposition (in political terms, 'young') confronting a confused and tired administration (in political terms, 'old').

Last night's speech from Major was - surprise, surprise - intended to refute the impression of a prime minister without a strong policy agenda of his own. But it is impossible for a prime minister heading a 15-year-old administration to sound suddenly fresh and radical. The only messes to be cleared up are home-made ones and, as the Tory right is discovering, most of the new ideas are electorally unsaleable.

So though Blair was a ghostly, unmentioned presence throughout the Prime Minister's speech - the address itself scarcely amounted to an answering bellow. Whitehall 'pending' trays had been upended into the text to beef up familiar themes. Thus an exercise meant to demonstrate the energy in Number 10 descended to the bathos of promising a liberalisation of agricultural tenancies.

Yet there were enough confirmatory glimpses of the Tories' likely election themes in 1996-7 to make thoughtful Opposition politicians wince. Major's rhetoric on squeezing the state is a reminder that Labour has failed to develop a serious agenda of its own for better public sector management. And on tax, there was the most shameless of winks: fiscally, the Tories are never knowingly undersold.

There was, most significant of all, the brief reminder that 'the individualism of an island race' will be a huge Tory theme. This is ceasing to be the party of Europe: the Conservative left is deeply worried about Major's apparent enthusiasm for wrapping himself in the Union Jack, and Whitehall rumour says that neither the Chancellor nor the Foreign Secretary have been consulted about a historic change of tack. Instead of a united response to the Blair challenge, ministers are suspicious and confused. Some are quietly defeatist.

So, as politics packs up for the summer, it is ridiculously easy to proclaim a sea change, a generational shift that will produce its inevitable electoral adjustment in a couple of years time. But let us conclude by remembering just why we got here. On the Labour side, it was the surprise and shocking death of the former leader. On the Government side, the failure of Chris Patten to retain his Bath seat deprived the administration of its key Christian Democrat influence, and paved the way for much that has happened since. In other words, the unexpected has trumped all plans, all cleverness, all strategy. I believe we are entering a thrilling time in our political life. But the safest prediction is that what will obviously happen, won't.

(Photograph omitted)