Time to start making enemies

Blair's policy challenge
Click to follow
The Independent Online
This week there is no Labour Party conference. Nothing, at least, like the ones we used to know. Yes, there are a few guys with placards, but the chanting leftists outside the hall seem so out of time they might have been plonked there by English Heritage. Inside, there is instead a Tony Blair Rally. There have been hard words about the latest anti-activist reform of the party rules, but most of those in Brighton have come to bask, dazed but happy, in the glow of born-again Labour government.

I suspect that, for old-stagers, the events of the week will be more reminiscent of a Conservative conference in the heyday of Margaret Thatcher than anything organised by the centre-left in British history. Brighton will be for affirmation, celebration and swank.

True, there will not be the downright nasty hangers-on one could find at Tory gatherings in the mid-Eighties. There will be no bitter xenophobes, or "hang Mandela" student nutters. New Labour people, even in their days of ecstatic triumph, will not worship Blair with the same unbalanced passion that some Thatcherites exhibited back then. This is still not quite a party for groupies ... though it is starting to go that way.

Ordinary Labour people, though, will walk taller, swinging their shoulders, just as the Thatcherites did, because of the completeness of their party's power. They will inch the rest of us off the pavement as they pass. Never could they have dreamed of success like this.

Indeed, if there is one serious difficulty that Tony Blair must have had, when working through the drafts of his conference speech, it is in deciding what to do about the enemy. For there barely is one. This is meant to be a gentler country: almost any attack by "Tony" on the humiliated, directionless Conservative remnants will come across as pointless cruelty.

Strange days. Indeed, these are probably the best days in the lifetime of Tony Blair's government. Things are bound to get worse, as the song didn't go, simply because they cannot get any better. The huge majority and the stratospheric poll ratings amount to the nearest thing British politics offers to total domestic victory. On the credit side, there is an impressive-looking list of paper accomplishments, from the referendum victories and the first batch of legislation, to the numerous ministerial decisions, inquiries and pilot schemes that have been chugging out of Blairite Whitehall.

The consequences, though, have not yet been felt. The Scottish Parliament remains a great hope. One day it will be a taxing and controversial institution. The "hard choices" facing government have been much talked about. And we are all in favour, in theory, of brave men and women making hard choices. But they haven't actually been taken, these decisions; and many of us will squeal when they are. A rare example of this actually happening is tomorrow's row over student fees.

But here are three even tougher examples. By squaring the Murdoch press and sending different messages by different messengers, Blair sent the single currency question to sleep during the election campaign in the most extraordinary way. Never has so much murmuring calmed so many about so much. But decision-time looms. If he decides to announce his readiness to take Britain in, say, early next year, then the anti-European campaign will return. It will be weaker by far without the Conservatives in government; but many people, from Sun readers to big City players, will be angered and will fight back hard. This is a battle that Blair can win; but not without fracturing the "whole nation with us" atmosphere in which the first period of his administration has been soaked.

Another obvious example is welfare reform. It is beginning to look like Blair must choose between the radical route, championed by Frank Field and the post-Thatcher right-wingers; and a more cautious, semi-statist approach, coming from Gordon Brown at the Treasury and Harriet Harman at Social Security, who is probably closer to Brown than any other senior minister. When you look at the projected welfare figures and the country's continuing antipathy to higher taxes, then the radical route seems, in the medium-term, inevitable. I believe that Blair is also convinced that it is morally right.

But at the point when "tough choices" become tougher lives for people who are already barely coping, then this government will begin to experience at least some of the populist anger against the first and second Thatcher administrations. Further, that anger will find political expression. I don't know how, or where, or who will lead it. But in every advanced society there is a leftist, oppositionist opinion which finds a way to be heard. Britain will not be the only polity where that doesn't happen.

The third example is more important still. The tough choices that governments everywhere must take to respond to climate change, and more local environmental degradation, are going to be unpopular. They will start by alienating many of the big car-using middle classes who voted Labour for the first time earlier this year. But new car taxes and higher petrol bills will be followed by higher energy costs, longer journey times and, possibly, higher taxes to create new public transport systems.

People may think they want all these things. They may think they are green. But when the time comes, the measures will hurt just as much as old-fashioned taxes and restrictions did. A shrewd government would start now by softening the ground with constant references to the possible catastrophes coming if we don't change our behaviour - and the news from Indonesia is a help. That, I take it, is what Blair will be doing today in his speech. But he cannot afford years of rhetoric; and history may well conclude that this issue is the single most important test he faces.

So, in these three big areas, and in numerous lesser ones, the Prime Minister can hardly help starting to spend his political capital from now on. The rating showing that 93 per cent believe him to be doing a good job tells us many things - about the Tories' post-electoral performance, and the success of media control by Number 10, for instance. But one of its messages is that Blair has hardly begun to reshape Britain, to make the changes to our lives and behaviour that he needs to make if he is to make a difference.

So, although this week will be a great Tony-festival, the important thing to remember is that majorities are for using and ratings are not to be hoarded.

What we need from the Prime Minister is more strategic thinking still - on Europe, on welfare, and on the environment. I would also like a more coherent, confident tone on the constitution. We will not get a lot of that in Brighton.

Instead, there will be the usual torrent of ministerial announcements, hand-crafted to catch the eye of the TV news bulletin editors. We will celebrate a new politics, which are inclusive, and whose enemies don't have names or handbags but are a faceless crew who can't answer back - not the Tories, but Greed, and Pollution, and ignorance. The Prime Minister and his party should enjoy every minute of this week. They deserve to. But none of it means a damn until they start making real changes on the ground. And that, of course, means having the courage to make enemies as well as friends.