The People's Party is a Thatcherite idea

Like most great leaders, Mr Tony Blair is modest, even austere, in his personal tastes. Those who had the privilege of being invited to share a bottle of beer with him in the small sitting room of his Brighton hotel suite were surprised by the sparseness of the furnishings, consisting as they did simply of a throne and a prayer mat. Indeed, it is reliably reported that Mr Blair was distressed by the overwhelmingly secular tone of last week's gathering and plans to introduce a distinct religious element at next year's conference. Both Mr Alastair Campbell and Mr Peter Mandelson are hard at work on this project, with the active co-operation of the General Synod of the Church of England and the Religious Affairs Department of the BBC.

Already several decisions have been taken. "Tony, lover of my soul" will be sung to the tune "Aberystwyth" and "All hail the power of Tony's name" to "Diadem". The latter tune is, however, usually beyond the capacities of the average English congregation on account of the descant at the end of each verse. It may be that the more straightforward Anglican version will be preferred. The words "crown Him Lord of all" will naturally remain unchanged. For the benefit of the more fundamentalist, evangelical or (let us be frank about it) simple-minded delegates, there will be a rendition of the much-loved "Tony wants me for a sunbeam".

For in the New Labour Party anything is possible. When, writing in what we old lags were brought up to refer to as Another Newspaper - it was in the early 1980s - I took to calling Labour "the People's Party", and the usage caught on, I was not being wholly serious. On the contrary: at that period the party resembled a family who were, as witnesses in the courts put it, "having a bit of an argument", meaning that they were screaming their heads off to the accompaniment of crashing saucepans and breaking crockery. If any party then represented the people, it was, alas, Margaret Thatcher's Conservative Party.

When a politician as intelligent and discriminating as Mr Gordon Brown can tell us with every appearance of seriousness, as he did on Monday, that Labour is now the true People's Party, something quite strange is happening. But Mr Brown's reference was perfunctory compared to Mr Blair's invocations. "The people" put in 44 appearances, with 33 for "new", 21 for "modern" and nine for "hard choice".

The concept is largely the creation of the late 18th century. Charles James Fox toasted "Our sovereign lord, the people" and said, further, that the people were never wrong. In France Jean-Jacques Rousseau derived the concept of the General Will from that of the People. Whoever opposed the General Will was a criminal - a traitor, even - and deserved to be dealt with accordingly. These philosophical underpinnings proved useful in the French Revolution, when the revolutionaries wanted to cut off the heads first of the aristocrats and then of one another.

The General Will, the Will of the People or simply the People has since been used to justify a variety of despotisms throughout the world, in Communist and non-Communist states alike. The precise formulations vary. What they all have in common is that the People are told what their will happens to be, either by a leader or by a committee of party apparatchiks. Altogether J-J Rousseau has more to answer for than Karl Marx.

Fox, though he brought in the People from time to time, was by contrast benign in his influence. For he also invented the concept of "His Majesty's Loyal Opposition". This meant that you could oppose the government of the day without being liable to be accused of treason and having your head cut off. This simple notion has not travelled well. After two hundred years it is imperfectly understood in much of Europe, and not understood at all in most of Africa and the Far East and the whole of Arabia.

There is no evidence that Mr Blair wants to cut off his opponents' heads or even to lock them up for lengthy periods, as happens in most of the world. There is, however, a distinctly Rousseau-ish undertone to his speeches. Whoever opposes his or his government's latest wheeze is acting not against him or his government but against the sovereign will of the sovereign people. Yet Labour won a majority of 177 with 43 per cent of the United Kingdom vote; the Conservatives had 42 per cent in 1992, 42 per cent in 1987, 44 per cent in 1983 and 45 per cent in 1979. The case for an overwhelming mandate from the People is accordingly slim. Mr Blair falsely claims that he has this copper-bottomed endorsement.

To be fair to him - as I constantly try to be to everyone - he does not go on to claim that his majority, unprecedented for a radical leader, entitles him to do anything he wants to do in Parliament. Here he is, mercifully, not at all like Lady Thatcher. Indeed, he is in the process of giving some of his power away, a tiny little bit to my own native land and quite a lot of it to Scotland , where there will, I predict, be big trouble once the laddies and lassies work up a head of legislative steam. The signs are that he is not going to empower Her Majesty's judges to override Acts of Parliament when the European Convention on Human Rights is incorporated into UK law.

But he may well change the voting system which brought him his majority in the first place. The talk is that the referendum on electoral reform will present the voters with a straight choice between the existing system and a new one. This need not necessarily be the kind of proportional system favoured by the Liberal Democrats or by the Electoral Reform Society. Both Mr Mandelson and Mr Peter Hain prefer the alternative vote, where the elector marks the ballot paper 1,2,3,..., and second preferences are, if necessary, redistributed until one candidate obtains an absolute majority. The Labour government of 1929-31 was within weeks of introducing this system. My guess is that it will now be revived - combined, however, with the iniquitous topping-up of the legislature from central party lists, ostensibly in the interests of proportionality.

The evidence is that Mr Blair is sincere in wanting to bring about some new form of politics. A good deal of it, to be sure, sounds uncannily similar to Lady Thatcher's old form of politics. The call to back the police and to support schools when they discipline recalcitrant pupils might have come straight out one of her conference orations of the 1980s. The difference is that she would have won - she did win - rather longer and more enthusiastic rounds of applause for these stirring sections of her speech. I do not, however, believe she would have approved of means testing the old age pension as Mr Blair seems prepared to do. She would have taken the view that, if people had been prudent enough to invest in private schemes, they should not on that account be penalised by a cut in the state pension to which they had contributed.

Conveniently enough, a test of Mr Blair's sincerity may soon be presented to him. It appears that the High Court will shortly order a by- election in Winchester, where the Liberal Democrat candidate won by a disputed two votes. The Labour candidate polled 6,528. The inclusive Mr Blair should now give the Liberal Democrat a clear run in Winchester.