The louder the Tory attack, the better for Mr Blair

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The Independent Online
WHEN Mr Tony Blair sat down last Tuesday after making a speech that was being compared to Harold Wilson's at Scarborough in 1963, the principal question which the aficionados were asking was: What on earth can the Tories say next week at Bournemouth about Mr Blair? He was clearly more than a pretty face. The most promising line still seemed to be that he was all talk and no substance.

This was a criticism which, oddly enough, could be heard at Blackpool also, though more among the brothers and sisters than among those attending the grander parties. Yet there was a good deal of substance in Mr Blair's speech: for instance, that a Labour government would introduce a Bill of Rights. Previously the approach had been that Labour would - a different matter - incorporate the European Convention into UK law.

But the colleagues, as delegates are now addressed from the platform, for all the world as if they were Conservative cabinet ministers, wanted more clear promises, 'pledges' as they are correctly termed in the People's Party. By the way, I would not claim to have coined the phrase 'People's Party'. But I certainly took it over, employing it with satirical intent. Mr Blair and Mr Denis MacShane both seem to take it seriously. I shall now have to think of something else.

Mr Blair rightly declined to be specific. As he says, there is a long way to go before the election. Still, this seemed the best course for the Conservatives to take if they wanted to attack him.

That was before last Thursday's stirring events. We can all recite the rewritten Conservative script: . . . No change . . . same old party . . . Red Flag . . . deeply divided . . . out of control . . . thank goodness not running country . . . Mr Jeremy Hanley had a go along these lines, reminding me of Mr John Osborne's Archie Rice: 'I 'as a go, ladies and gentlemen, I 'as a go.' That more seasoned trouper Mr Michael Heseltine - perhaps a better model for the battered old comedian - had a go as well. But it seems that the Conservative high command remain doubtful about the extent to which they should pursue Mr Blair personally.

The surprising aspect to Thursday's vote is how few people saw it coming. The press at the ringside thought that young Tony, after three months' hard training at Islington's better restaurants, had disposed of his flagging opponent with a straight right. But the opponent got up off the floor and, a few rounds later, caused the young contender serious embarrassment with a savage left hook.

One cause of the trouble is that Mr Blair's even more youthful acolytes, who seem to have an average age of 17 and a half - less spin- doctors than spin-first year medics - spend most of their time bending the ears of the ladies and gentlemen of the BBC, who are now as numerous at these events as fleas on a cat. What goes out on the news is considered to be of greater importance than what goes on in the hall.

It was pleaded in mitigation that the traditional cajoling, bribing and bullying of trade unionists could no longer be undertaken. It was difficult, even impossible to carry out. This was so not because it accorded ill with Mr Blair's New Labour Party (though it may have done that too). It was because union delegates now voted as individuals.

This was hooey. It derived from a confusion - understandable enough in the general public, less so in a politician or journalist - about the effect of John Smith's reforms. One member, one vote could apply to the election of the leader and his deputy because levy-paying trade unionists who declared their support of the Labour Party could vote as individuals. The Labour conference, by contrast, relies on mandated delegates, whether of a union or a constituency party, casting their votes on behalf of others. All that has really happened is that the unions' share of the conference vote has been reduced to 70 per cent, with a promise of further reductions.

We may compare and contrast Mr Blair's position today with Hugh Gaitskell's in 1959. Gaitskell had been leader for four years: Mr Blair has been leader for under four months. Both were advised by clever people on their own side of the party (Anthony Crosland with Gaitskell, Mr Robin Cook with Mr Blair) not to do what they did. Both acted substantially on their own. Gaitskell, however, was being challenged for the leadership: not by Aneurin Bevan, who was to die in 1960, but by Harold Wilson, who unsuccessfully stood against him later in the same year and succeeded him after his death in 1963. Mr Blair is by contrast unchallengeable, at any rate until after the next election.

There was no conference vote on Clause IV in 1959-60. Rather, Gaitskell retreated, partly because he and his allies foresaw the fight on nuclear weapons which he lost in 1960 and won in 1961. Instead a Statement of Aims and Objects was adopted by the National Executive in March 1960, additionally to Clause IV. This is not a declaration of principle at all. It was a compromise devised in 1918 to keep the trade unions, the Independent Labour Party and the Syndicalists all on board. I quote part of the 1960 statement:

'The British Labour Party is a democratic socialist party. Its central ideal is the brotherhood of man. Its purpose is to make this ideal a reality everywhere. Accordingly . . . Regarding the pursuit of material wealth by and for itself as empty and barren, it rejects the selfish, acquisitive doctrines of capitalism, and strives to create instead a socialist community based on fellowship, co-operation and service in which all can fully share in our cultural heritage . . . Recognising that both public and private enterprise have a place in the economy, it believes that further extensions of common ownership should be decided from time to time . . . according to circumstances . . .'

Why, it might have been written by Mr Blair himself. To do the job all over again need not take a whole year. There was talk from elevated quarters last week about putting the question directly to the members in a referendum, in much the same way as Mr Blair had been elected. Whether this would be constitutionally proper

I do not know. In the New Labour Party, perhaps it does not greatly matter. After all, both Mr Blair and Mr John Prescott were elected unconstitutionally, by the alternative vote rather than the exhaustive ballot - though, as both of them received over 50 per cent of the total vote on the first ballot, the impropriety made no difference.

What is fairly clear is that, irrespective of the means adopted, Mr Blair will have been allowed his way by this time next year. Mr Hanley's and Mr Heseltine's rhetoric will then appear even more flyblown. Indeed, the louder the Tory noises, the better for Mr Blair. As Gaitskell demonstrated in 1961 when he defeated the unilateralists, and Mr Kinnock in 1985 when he took on Militant, a Labour leader is regarded seriously in this funny old country only after he has vanquished a section of his own party.