The recent Labor Party conference in Brighton saw Prime Minister Tony Blair in an unprecedented position. Set against a backdrop of enormous public discontent, evident in the response to the fuel strike by the major oil companies, the Labor Party staged its centenary conference. The phony peace that had reigned since Labor’s general election victory had produced an electoral honeymoon that seemed to many as if it would last forever. The events prior to the conference had meant it was well and truly over, however. For the first time since 1994, Labor trailed in the opinion polls.
Last Tuesday, Blair faced the most difficult speech of his life. He strove to balance a newfound humility with continued leadership. The song “Let’s get together” echoed his theme — building relations — as the government looked to maintain party unity and inspire public confidence in their future as leaders of Britain. Blair’s central contribution was buttressed by other speeches, most notably by Chancellor of the Exchequer Gordon Brown, in which Labor made it clear they would listen, learn and act, and acknowledged they had made mistakes, over pensions and the Millennium Dome, Jaguars and second homes.
Did Labor succeed? Broadly speaking, it was a resounding success. First, the whole performance triggered an enormous revival in support for the Labor Party and the government. The conference concluded with a new national poll putting the party 11 points ahead of the Conservative Party. Yet this needs to be interpreted with care. The shift shows an almost unprecedented disorientation among the public as much as a restoration of Labor’s popularity.
Second, relations between the party and the unions were not totally harmonious. The trade unions, with the support of some activists, inflicted on the leadership their first conference defeat of this government over pensions policy. But this is no cause for alarm. Labor remembers only too well 18 years of frustrating opposition largely caused by party disunity. The vote on pensions was an expression of choice, not the start of a new round of internecine warfare.
Third, this public expression of discontent has in some ways played a constructive role in British politics. It has forced the media to take the Conservative Party more seriously, to examine the costs and validity of its alternative program, but it has also served to remind the government of its own mortality.
Making choices and setting priorities was in keeping with the timber of the conference. Blair’s passionate speech laid down the choices facing Britain. These are not choices to be made in isolation but by a government working side by side with the people of Britain “on the big questions, on the fundamentals.” He admitted that the government cannot deliver improved public services as well as lower taxes, and echoing an earlier speech by Brown, acknowledged that the case for taxation has to be won and the government’s spending plans will and should be judged by their results. “Realism and idealism at last in harmony,” said Blair, noting that what began as a moral crusade is now also the path to prosperity.
The second big choice will be over Britain’s future relationship with the European Union. Not just membership in the euro. The Conservatives had an enormous and surprising victory in the 1999 European elections, in which they ran a “save the pound” campaign. They read this to mean that more of the same could bring hope of a victory in the general election that many had seen as beyond hope. Increasingly, they are moving from putting on the brakes to ramming the gears into reverse. Now voices on the extremes of the Tory Party are calling for withdrawal to save British sovereignty. Yet what makes a crucial difference in elections with 30 percent turnouts cuts less ice when three-quarters of the population are participating.
The marriage of economic success and the search for social justice has been a journey of political maturity for the Labor Party. The government has started to deliver, but it has also had to make hard choices and there more will follow. The government’s commitment is clear: “All that really stands between us and our destination is confidence and trust” said Blair. Confidence “gives us strength to make the choices,” and trust is vital in believing “there is a vision.”
Blair made his personal philosophy clear: “There is no point in leading the Labor Party or leading the country without having a mission and a purpose that is more important to you than anything else.” Absolutely sure that the Labor Party had to transform itself to achieve power, Blair, the architect of that change, can take pride in a new united party that has not only returned to power, but has since delivered to Britain a strong economy, the lowest unemployment rates in over 25 years and the biggest investment in public services since World War II.
It is not in Britain’s interest to return to the socioeconomic conditions that preceded the present government, and despite protestations to the contrary made at the Conservative Party conference, the only way is forward. We need a continuing revolution, which ensures that Labor keeps in step with the people and the country and doesn’t fall behind them again. That is what Blair promised and is now what Blair has to deliver.
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