In the end, Tony Blair had nothing to fear but fear itself. As the Labour Party assembled for its annual conference here on Britain’s Yiddish Riviera, the news looked grim. The final days of the Hutton Inquiry revealed that Blair had not only taken the country to war on the basis of “sexed-up” intelligence about the Iraqi threat, he had done so despite intelligence warnings that a war with Iraq might actually increase the danger of terrorist attacks. Leaks from the Iraq Survey Group made it clear that none of the weapons Blair cited in his speech to Parliament last year had been found. And in the Brent East by-election, where a safe Labour majority of 13,000 votes in the last election simply evaporated this September in the face of a Liberal Democrat challenger who emphasized her party’s opposition to the war, the handwriting on the wall couldn’t have been much plainer.
Yet the Tony Blair who spoke here barely even paid lip service to the damage done to his own–and his party’s–credibility by the war. “I know many people are disappointed, hurt, angry,” he told the delegates, but though Blair felt their pain, “I would take the same action again.” Aside from a passing reference to “the whole murky trade in WMD,” the closest Blair came to explaining why was an admission that “it’s not so much American unilateralism I fear. It’s isolation. It’s walking away when we need to get America there engaged.” Given the Prime Minister’s perfunctory nods at climate change and his commitment to “staying with” American policy on the Middle East, Blair doesn’t seem to expect his policy of constructive engagement with the Bush Administration to bear fruit anytime soon.
What Blair does expect, with a certainty that would be unpardonably arrogant were there any realistic prospect of disappointment, is “a full third term” in power. As he reminded the delegates, Blair is the first Labour Prime Minister ever to reach six and a half continuous years in office. Describing past Labour government as “a spasmodic interval punctuating otherwise unbroken Conservative rule,” Blair warned that he is in no mood for self-criticism: “I can only go one way. I’ve not got a reverse gear.” The terms of Blair’s bargain couldn’t be plainer: Stick with me, and you will remain in power through the end of the decade, or take your chances without me. Only a day earlier Gordon Brown, Chancellor of the Exchequer and the only plausible rival for party leadership, delivered a rousing call for a return to old-time “Labour values,” which prompted a two-minute standing ovation. Blair’s insistence on his own values, his defiant claim that “New Labour for me was never a departure from belief,” kept them clapping for seven minutes.
Some of Blair’s confidence comes precisely from having made the party over in his own image. Gone are the days when left-wing unions dominated the conference proceedings and when awkward motions by left-wing constituencies embarrassed the party leadership. In those days the Labour Party conference really was the center of the action–and in those days the party was out of power most of the time. Unions are still the biggest source of Labour funding, and on domestic issues like foundation hospitals–a government proposal to allow the private sector into parts of the National Health Service–or a conference motion to allow universities to charge different rates of tuition, the unions showed enough muscle to defeat the government. But those largely symbolic victories came at the price of colluding with government efforts to stifle debate on the war.
“I don’t think a debate on Iraq would have been relevant,” said Manjinder Shergill, a Transport and General Workers’ Union delegate from Glasgow.
On the night the conference began, Channel 4 broadcast The Deal, a docudrama about the relationship between Brown and Blair. Besides turning political rivalry into gripping television, director Stephen Frears (My Beautiful Laundrette and Dirty, Pretty Things) performed an important public service, as the program’s audience share also functions as a census of the British classe politique. Of the five shows on, The Deal finished dead last, with 1.4 million viewers–about half as many as the movie American Pie. To put this in context, a couple of weeks later, a live broadcast of a man playing Russian roulette, also on Channel 4, drew 3 million viewers.
Does this matter? Blair’s great success has been to turn the Labour Party from a mass movement into a niche market. Of course in this, as in so many other things, he is merely following America’s lead. At this rate the next Labour Party conference will have all the empty pageantry of a Democratic or Republican convention–right down to the cascading balloons. And at this rate, dissenters in Britain, whether on the war on Iraq or the dismantling of the welfare state, will have nowhere to go but into the streets.